Youth Is Not Wasted On Young Women In The Modern Workplace

Young Women in Leadership: Takeaways on Creating a Conducive Work Environment

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More young women in the 20s and 30s are breaking glass ceilings.

I work in education management and by virtue of that, one key concept we have been building on is that of lifelong learning. I began to think of this concept, initially linked to only the learners, from an organisational perspective – how we learn, grow, and build, and how this has transformed career growth and paths.

For instance, skills are now more transferable across sectors. Today, we believe that we can train and advance skills within an organisation and therefore value people, primarily, for their attributes. These attributes are nurtured by lifelong learning and are a determiner of both individual and organisational success. They include our ability to communicate and articulate, being trustworthy, our attitude to change, our inner drive to succeed and our personal motivation to see projects through to their end.

Organisations that are keeping with the times no longer rely on the 9 to 5 model as a measure of productivity and micromanaging is not something a manager wants to spend any or most of their time doing. In this case, attributes, aided by an enabling environment, drive role-holders suitability.

Lifelong learning, in my understanding, can be defined as the process of acquiring skills and knowledge coming from intrinsic motivation linked to areas of interest and ability. It is voluntary and it is ongoing throughout one’s life. It is not confined to a place and time, such as a physical structure: office or school. Your personal development is the centre of this learning, but this development directly adds value to the success of the organization as well.

Organisations are presently keen on people who can lead digital transformation and these transformations are both paramount and inevitable for survival. Yet, digital transformation is itself a lifelong process in our era. Each time an arrival point is achieved, new technology is redefining what the organization’s next business model will look like and how to serve their customers better.

According to research conducted by Microsoft UK and Workforce, 41 per cent of business leaders say their models will cease to exist in the next five years. And even with organisations having spent a trillion dollars for these transformations, over 70 per cent of these projects will not achieve their intended results.

The question is, therefore, how do organisations create digital transformation as a culture? And this is where leadership comes in. Naturally, younger professionals have been immersed in lifelong learning without even knowing it – they were born with the internet or not long before the World Wide Web went live.

Those with strong attributes build on their skills through both formal and informal learning and they do so continuously, using technology and the digital space, unrestricted by location. Young professionals are also more attuned to critical thinking because they are accustomed to an environment where scenarios change very quickly; they always have to stay a step ahead, ready to reinvent, adapt, or change.

This has led to an increase in younger professionals breaking ceilings into mid and senior leadership positions in their 20s-30s, and many of these professionals are now women (still not at parity but approximately up to 30 and as low as 6 per cent depending on the sector and country).

If there is one thing women in the professional world know, it is that they also have to work twice as hard to earn on average 32 per cent less (as per the statistics for Kenya by Equileap), when compared to their male counterparts. Unlike men, women do not gain recognition for having attributes such as being caring either – because guess what? Women should be caring.

As Caroline Criado Perez states in her research-based book, Invisible Women, the traits that are simply expected in women are only noticed if they are absent. On the flip side, due to how embedded these biases are, women are judged more severely – by both fellow women and men in the workplace – for embodying the attributes that men link their success to being assertive (translated as aggression for women), being straightforward (translated as rude for women) and being vocal (translated as being fussy for women) – are just but a few examples.

Due to the various challenges that remain unique to women, women in leadership experience higher rates of work-related stress. It is with that context that I share a few takeaways from both my direct and indirect experiences.

Believe in yourself and demonstrate that you do

This seems basic, but the reality is we often get there questioning if we deserve it. After a couple of harsh learning curves and being challenged by colleagues who may feel your youth means you have little to offer or who feel that they cannot be guided by a younger person, you altogether may end up concluding that you are not suited for the job; the imposter syndrome kicks in.

But remember, you got there because of your valuable attributes and skills. Leadership is a journey for everyone, no matter how old you are; one gets better with time if they practice lifelong learning. You may demonstrate yourself by being assertive and ensuring you have done your homework when sharing insights. Reframe the challenge by asking yourself, what is this here to teach me?

Interrupt being interrupted

It is easy to feel that it is okay to be interrupted by colleagues, and especially those who are older than you. Women are socialised to take turns in conversations and are also socialised to be modest and downplay their own status (Perez, Invisible Women pg223). In the professional world, it is about the organizational objectives and not age or accumulated status. Let your colleagues know that you have not finished what you were saying and would kindly like to do so before they respond. With time, you will contribute to an overall healthier form of interaction among everyone in the team and get others to question the unconscious gender biases we host.

Avoid burnout to prove yourself

Whilst we all should go the extra mile and aim to exceed expectations, be careful not to end up carrying everyone’s monkeys at the expense of your wellbeing and your core responsibilities when you are triggered by a need to prove yourself. Should you burnout, you will lose both productivity and the foresight required of you as a leader. Gently direct others to where they can get the right person to support them in a task, as well any useful resources you can share to help them get through a task vs making their task your task.

Leave room for learning from mistakes

You want to nurture an environment where your team members are open to trying new solutions to existing challenges. As a young female leader, failure is something you may try harder to avoid, for after all, you may be feeling the need to prove yourself and would be judged more critically; a man taking a risk that failed is considered brave while a woman, on the contrary, as careless. While risks should be smart and calculated for their likelihood of success, let your team feel that it is okay for all of you to learn from mistakes that arose from innovation and personal initiatives, for as long as everyone had put their best foot forward.

Take time to understand communication styles

As a young leader you may be ‘fired up and ready to go’. Action points, as well as instructions, may seem obvious and easy for you to grasp. When managing and working with people who may have possibly worked in more traditional settings, understanding the varied ways in which your colleagues both give and receive communication is important. How do they best understand the message you are relaying and how do you best understand what they are sharing? Getting to a comfort stage in this is not a one-day task.

It usually takes several sessions where you as a leader also play the coach on the importance of how you communicate as a team and why you are keen on understanding and being understood. Remember, that as a woman, you are already expected to be caring. You do not get a bonus for this! But in addition to that, whether you like it or not, you are a role model for other women aiming for leadership.

Last but not least, have a mentor

One or more mentors, of both genders, who have experience in various aspects of leadership goes a long way. First, you get to understand that what you may be experiencing is not unique. Find out how they handled similar challenges and opportunities or what they have observed to be effective in their interactions with others in leadership and with teams during their time of service.

You do not have to adopt a mentor’s perspective, but rather use it to broaden your own perspective and enrich your abilities to manage and work more effectively with teammates. Ultimately, diversity within your organisation should be a plus if well navigated.

Well, good luck young lady!

Katya Nyangi, Communications & Marketing Director, Makini Schools

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