We’re teaching the wrong things about leadership to young women: ‘Being a leader everywhere is not sustainable,’ says an expert on millennials

Kristen Soltis Anderson speaks at Fortune's MPW Next Gen conference on Tuesday in San Diego.
Kristen Soltis Anderson speaks at Fortune's MPW Next Gen conference on Tuesday in San Diego.
Stuart Isett for Fortune

We’re putting too much pressure on aspiring Gen Z and millennial leaders.

That’s according to Kristen Soltis Anderson, founding partner of research institute Echelon Insights and author of The Selfie Vote: Where Millennials Are Leading America. Anderson spoke on a panel hosted by the Walton Family Foundation at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women: Next Gen conference in San Diego on Tuesday.

Alongside panelists Shannon-Janean Currie, vice president of Benenson Strategy Group, and Layla Zaidane, President and CEO of the Millennial Action Project, Anderson unpacked and redefined the common narrative women across industries face to do it all.

“The message we send to young women is that it’s great to be a leader, but leadership is hard,” Anderson said. “It’s a burden, and it requires a lot of work and support.” 

While some might suggest that there’s never been a better time to be a woman leader breaking glass ceilings, “we know women are facing incredible challenges,” Anderson added. 

According to research from Benenson Strategy Group and Echelon Insights, which Anderson and Currie presented, 81% of women feel that childcare and domestic responsibilities fall primarily to them. Naturally, that dampens their abilities to climb the corporate ladder. But they’re not too worried. Only one in six female respondents in the study said they think women are at a “great disadvantage” to men and will never rise to leadership roles. 

In any case, women across generations agreed that the biggest thing holding them back from career success is gender bias and discrimination

“The next generation of women in leadership need a stronger support system,” Currie said. “Gen Zers, much more so than millennials, Gen Xers, and boomers feel they don’t have community in their companies.” The research found that nearly a third of Gen Z women feel unsupported by their peers. These are bad signs; as Currie pointed out, the higher you rise in your career, the more female peers you lose—you’ll generally find fewer women at the top.  

Women can’t rely on the current systemic hierarchy to think in that inclusive and equal way, she said, so it’s up to women to proactively make women’s empowerment part of their mission. As women leaders, “we need to be conscious of trying to create that space,” she added. “It’s important, when you don’t have those peers at the table, that you create the seats for them and thus you’ll have peers.”

It’s especially important considering the line between work life and personal life is exceedingly blurry among younger women, said Anderson, the Echelon Partners founder.

“In order to be a company that really allows for flexibility and work-life balance, you need to understand that women are not necessarily able to just leave their whole home life at home,” she said. “Younger women are not segmenting things as much, so you need to give them the flexibility to be who they are.”

This is particularly true of working moms, Anderson, who has a ten-month-old baby. It’s why she always tries to model good work-life balance at Echelon, even in small ways, like by firmly leaving at 5 p.m. each day. “As a small business owner, I was the first person at my company to have a baby while working, so I had to establish a maternity leave policy that I’d be the first beneficiary of,” she recounted. 

She has also proudly shifted her mindset on perfectionism to set an example.

“I’ve accepted that I’m not going to be an A-plus at everything, all the time,” she said. “I’ve had to realize that maybe I’m type A-minus, and that’s okay. It’s okay to not get an A-plus in everything all the time.

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