Millennial Males’ ‘Lean In’ Ambivalence- by Peggy Drexler
Every study indicates Millennial males are an evolved model of masculinity: kinder, more accepting, not intimidated by dirty diapers, comfortable sharing power with a new generation of high-achieving females.
But how well do we really know them—particularly in the workplace? The new generation of women at work has been peeled, prodded, and parsed from every angle—their education, their numbers, their issues, their needs, their frustrations. But you would be hard-pressed to find one illuminating equivalent study on the male side of the gender divide.
The lexicon of women and work is crowded with terms like “queen bee,” “glass ceiling,” “burnout,” “have it all,” “mommy track,” “on ramps,” and—now—“lean in.” Name one for young men.
There are some indications that the adjustment isn’t as smooth as the assumptions of an evolved male might indicate. Pew research finds that young women are, for the first time, surpassing young men in career ambition: 67 percent of women put career success high on their list of life’s goals, versus 60 percent for males. It’s a statistically significant difference, and an even more significant shift from decades past—when the majority of women were just happy to be in the game.
All such surveys run into the same question: is the rebalancing—in this case, of career expectations—a matter of males trending down, or females catching up? Are the genders working their way toward equilibrium, or are we seeing the start of long-term trends?
Either way, for men born after 1980, theirs is a generation of adjustment. They have seen a rebuilding of architectures of support in everything from girl’s sports to female-only scholarships to the broad encouragement for females to break down barriers. All of that, of course, reflects the maturation of a better, fairer society—where ability has blown large holes in the former battlements of privilege.
In a Shriver Report article “Has a Man’s World become a Woman’s Nation?” sociologist Michael Kimmel, a leading researcher and author on men and masculinity, sees distinct male reactions to the new power-sharing.
Some see the rise in female power as an “invasion.” They are in a fighting mood, determined to recapture lost territory. Others, he argues, are largely indifferent to economic and other measures of female progress. For these “masculinists,” it’s about retrieving an “inner sense of their own masculinity.” Many, he says, find it in men’s empowerment groups or in the reaches of cyberspace.
It’s likely that most male Millennials in the workforce fall into Kimmel’s third category. They fall somewhere between “eager embrace and resigned acceptance.” They think it’s right. They think it’s fair. But they are largely along for a “rather apolitical ride.” Their support is rooted in the reality of change.
Adapting to what’s right and inevitable means getting past what many see as a continuation of the unequal support this generation has experienced since childhood. Roughly 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies have organized and funded women’s-affinity groups. The number of men’s-affinity groups are a handful and largely informal. Companies talk openly about their commitment to hire more women and put them on special development tracks. Men in many organizations see flextime, job sharing, and extended maternity leave largely as gains for females.
It’s a fair point that, by numbers and culture, entire organizations can be called a male-affinity group. But for male Millennials, that is a situation not of their making. It would be understandable that they look at these special support programs and see an unfair advantage to those competing for the same promotions.
Since there is so little about male Millennial opinion, I asked a number of young male managers their thoughts on the fairness of the new corporate rule book. These conversations—though well short of a representative sampling—found both support and questions.
Said one: “When you think about it, we all grew up at a time when women were getting extra support. It’s just been part of our lives. But I think most men will tell you that it makes no sense that 90 percent of a school’s athletic budget goes to boy’s sports. Or that a woman qualified for a job gets moved aside because she’s a woman.
“On the other hand,” he quickly added, “let me tell you what I just experienced. A number of us applied for an open position. It went to a woman who was in the Women’s Leadership Group. The supervisor for that position is the sponsor of the group. “You look at that, and you wonder. Is she the best candidate? Quite possibly. Did being a woman and a member of the leadership group give her just enough of an edge to get the job? How can you rule that out?”
Another had a different view. “It’s not like they suddenly imported a whole new category of people to compete for a finite number of jobs. The talented competition has always been there. It’s just that, now, a lot of that competition is female. I see some extra support. But I don’t see outright bias. I don’t believe things like women’s groups and mentoring are discrimination—certainly not the kind that used to block the way for women.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that just over half of “management, professional, and related occupation” positions are now held by women. Smart employers who want to find and develop the best talent regardless of gender should make sure they equally tuned in to the hopes and needs of the other half. Listen carefully. They tend to be quiet.