A few days ago I had the privilege of convening a large group of women from the organization SWEA, one of Sweden’s largest global networks focusing on the transmission of Swedish culture and language abroad. The topic of the evening was the plight of the “modern woman”, and the discussion centered on how we can empower women to be leaders in business while enabling them to balance career and family.
In front of a room of encouraging faces and nodding heads, I gave a 20-minute speech on why I believe that for a variety of generational, economic and societal factors this very moment is the moment that will be catalytic for women’s professional empowerment. In my opinion, the young generation of women has the hunger, education and timely set of talents that has enabled them to weather the recession better than men, retain higher employment rates and occupy fields that are growing rather than shrinking.
Women in their 20s are out-earning men in their 20s, are attaining more college and masters’ degrees, and exhibiting the leadership qualities of collaborative team-building, listening skills, empathy and organized multi-tasking that are critical to today’s information-rich technology.
Today 53% of corporate entry-level blue chip jobs are held by women, according to research compiled by McKinsey. Unfortunately, this percentage that drops to 37 percent for mid-management roles and 26% for VP and senior managers and at each stage men are twice as likely to advance than women. So what accounts for these paradoxical statistics?
I think part of the problem is that women are still struggling to balance family and career, to meld the personal with the professional in a way that sustains productivity and yes, happiness. We need to make it socially acceptable to make taking care of oneself and one’s family just as important and economically valuable as time spent at one’s desk.
This point rang true with the group of women I spoke to, and many approached me saying they worried about their daughters and granddaughters who were very successful and had extremely demanding jobs and virtually no time for themselves. How would they balance their lives without being given the tools and flexibility to do so by their corporations? Many also told me the challenges I was delineating for women today— lack of networks, lack of mentors and lack of confidence to ask for promotions, raises or time off— are the same things they bemoaned 20 and 30 years ago. So how far have we really come?
Despite this, I remain optimistic that women are breaking the glass ceiling and that the opportunities for the young generation are greater than ever before. There are great lessons to be shared between the United States and Sweden on differing, yet equally effective ways to empower women. But one thing is clear: as we encourage young women we need to speak candidly about the challenges they may face as well. Yes, they will break the glass ceiling but it will be frustrating and hard sometimes too, and they may cut themselves on the shards along the way.