Two generations and one big gap?

Mentoring requires everyone being on the same page

Professionalism on Point

Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn is the diversity and education director at the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism. She has expanded the commission’s national presence through blogs, social networking sites and online discussion groups on legal education, diversity and young lawyers. She also works with law schools, law students and other legal groups to develop interactive education courses and workshops. In addition, Silverthorn leads the professionalism education goals of the commission, reviewing courses, attending conferences and developing professionalism programs.

As a millennial, I often hear the same complaint from my fellow young female lawyers: “Why is it so hard to find a female mentor?” Digging deeper, there are often two complaints. The first: There aren’t any female partners at my firm. The second: OK, yes, there are some female partners at my firm, but they often made career and family choices that I don’t want to make.

Let’s look at both of these. Last year, consulting group Bain & Co. released the results of a five-year study on men and women in corporate America. The study asked about both genders’ interest in pursuing a top management position in a large company.

The results may surprise you. In the first two years of their career, 43 percent of women aspired to be in top management. Conversely, only 34 percent of men aspired to be the same. Equally important, both genders were equally confident about their abilities to reach those top positions.

Two years later, the numbers changed, fairly dramatically. The number of men with two or more years of experience and who still wanted to be in top-level management remained the same. The percentage of women, however, plummeted.

Only 16 percent of women with two or more years of experience still aspired to be top-level management. Moreover, the number of women who were confident about reaching those management positions fell by 50 percent. The confidence level for men remained the same.

Bain found that the dip in confidence was independent of marriage and motherhood. Rather, women felt that they failed to meet the stereotype of the ideal worker — long hours, constant smartphone use, sacrificing free time. They also felt that their supervisors were unwilling to support them and their career paths. Finally, they felt there were few role models at the top — no women in senior management meant no model to look up to.

The law firm landscape shares many similarities with corporate America. According to the ABA’s Commission on Women, women make up 47.3 percent of law school graduates. They make up 44.8 percent of law firm associates. However, they only make up 20.2 percent of partners and 17 percent of equity partners. And only 4 percent of the 200 largest law firms are managed by women. So a female millennial attorney may have the same thoughts as a young female member of corporate America — where are the women leaders, and how can I become one if I don’t see any?

“But just wait,” the 20.2 percent female partners may exclaim. “We are here! And we do try to mentor these young women. But many of them are simply not interested in making the same career and life choices that we made.”

There is some truth to that. As with most things generational, this is often framed as a workplace conflict between baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, and those old enough to be their children: millennials, born between 1980 and 2000. And as a generational trend, millennials are opting out from the classic career ladder their parents may have climbed.

In a recent survey, 94 percent of college-educated millennials agreed that their generation does not support the current model of economic and career success, while 77 percent agreed that their personal lives would take priority over their professional goals. Not work/life balance; life priority.

The problem when it comes to mentoring relationships is that this may not be a paradigm with which many boomer women agree. Many boomer women fought hard for inclusion of family considerations in the workplace, but they understood that the reality of the workplace meant that success often meant less family and personal time. However, one of the oft-cited reasons that millennials reject the corporate ladder is that they are the children of these very boomer parents. Millennials are well-aware of the time, dedication and sacrifice it takes to move up the ladder; as a generation, many have chosen to not take that path.

What happens then? Older female mentors may then find themselves frustrated by younger mentees looking to prioritize (not balance) personal lives and/or family lives. Conversely, younger mentees may find themselves frustrated by older mentors who offer personal life options that younger mentees may not find palatable or even possible. Conflict becomes inevitable.

But the reality is that being the largest group in the workforce, millennials will take over leadership positions in the next few decades. Unfortunately, the Bain report concluded that “[d]espite women comprising more than half of all college graduates and about 40 percent of MBAs, they number only a slim 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and 17 percent of board members — numbers that have barely moved in decades.”

We need to keep young women in the workplace and help them realize that there is room for women at the top. The modern American workplace has changed significantly over the past century, thanks in large part to boomer women entering, staying in and leading the workplace.

What more change can millennial women bring if they stay in the workplace to lead? I know I want to find out. So let’s encourage mentoring relationships that highlight multiple-career paths, personal guidance, shared experiences and mutual respect.

Above all, let’s recognize that older female lawyers have a hard-earned legacy they want to leave behind just as younger female lawyers have a legacy they’re only beginning to understand and create.