Woman vs. woman at work

Is a generation gap having a nasty effect on young women's careers?

Sarah Elizabeth Richards
May 8, 2006 5:45PM (UTC)

I'm just in my mid-30s, but apparently I'm already experiencing a generation gap in the office with my younger female colleagues. They bare their midriff at work; I know how to cover up. They skip off to happy hour at 5 p.m.; I stay late. They desperately need a mentor; I keep to myself and hoard my pearls of wisdom. At least that's the disconcerting message of Jeff Zaslows column last week in The Wall Street Journal. Zaslow writes that a new generation gap has emerged among women at work -- one that supposedly pits slacker twenty-somethings against their catty workaholic elders, who, in an effort to safeguard their job security, resist shepherding their younger sisters.

"Male managers, as they have for centuries, tend to interact with younger male subordinates in familiar patterns -- some paternal, others more jocular. It's a far newer and less certain game for female leaders trying to navigate generational relationships," Zaslow writes. Today, four generations of women have to deal with each other in the workplace, and even women from so-called Generation X (ages 26 to 41) arent bonding with their youngest counterparts. They supposedly dont relate to their casual dress, penchant for sloppy work or desire to be "coddled on the job," according to comments Zaslow heard at the recent Women Presidents' Organization conference in Chicago, which brought together some 500 high-grossing businesswomen.


One attendee bemoaned her younger employees refusal to put in long hours. But disconnect was mutual; younger women didnt feel their older female counterparts offered much help. In fact, according to a recent survey by Randstad USA, an employment-services firm, just over half of women said they "learn from older co-workers," and only about a quarter of women under 34 said older colleagues "energize me and bring new ideas to the table." Thats because older women dont want to be mentors, Zaslow writes. He quotes one gender studies expert, whose research found that women enjoyed better treatment from male bosses and that older women preferred to help the youngest employees because they were nervous women closer to their age might be angling for their jobs.

How much longer will we have to listen to this aging stereotype that women are the biggest barriers to other women's advancement in the workplace? I imagine that if younger workers got off IM and asked for some advice, they'd be drowning in it. In my experience in a half-dozen offices during my working life, the majority of my female superiors werent bitchy or stingy with camaraderie. They were just busy! We may not have had pep talks over mojitos, but when approached, they gladly doled out interview tips or story feedback. And like all the generations before me, I eventually learned how to clean up my act and advocate for myself at work. I imagine my younger sisters will, too.

Sarah Elizabeth Richards

Sarah Elizabeth Richards is a journalist based in New York. She can be reached at sarah@saraherichards.com.

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