Election Shows This Generation of Women That Sexism Is Still Alive

Tough Lesson for Millennials: Your Qualifications May Be Beside the Point

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Bonnie Fuller
Bonnie Fuller
For millennial women the election may prove a watershed moment -- the moment when they discovered prejudice against their gender.

Analyzed in broad strokes, the 39 million American women aged 12 to 31 were doted on by their moms and dads, raised to view the world as their oyster, and didn't even consider that there was a cultural or economic impediment to their ambitions. They weren't told that they were "as good as" the boys -- they were told to "go out and whip his butt," said Marian Salzman, chief marketing officer of Porter Novelli, who has focused a lot of her work on researching the millennial generation.

But the 2008 presidential campaign has frequently focused attention on the fact that there are still obstacles to women's success in the media, political and business worlds. From Photoshopped pictures of a rifle-toting Sarah Palin in an American-flag bikini doing the rounds on the internet to hearing pundits criticize everything about Hillary Clinton -- from her tears in New Hampshire to her haircuts or the color of her pantsuits -- it's been glaringly obvious that women are treated differently than men. Daughters have discovered some of the prejudices their moms have been combating for years.

"Millennial women didn't think they had to prove themselves to anyone -- they were equal. But things aren't playing out the way they thought," said Rosemarie Ryan, president of JWT, New York. "Even I thought we'd moved past the sexism, before this election," agreed Fox News political analyst and New York Post columnist Kirsten Powers, 40. "They must be scratching their heads."

Indeed they are: "It's been great to have women so involved in the campaign, but I'm blown away by seeing Sarah Palin on the cover of Us Weekly and seeing that people are making such a big deal about her family life," said Stephanie Rochelle, 24, a New Jersey sales executive.
Bonnie Fuller is CEO of Bonnie Fuller Media. She will share more views on millennial women and their habits on 3 Minute Ad Age next week. You can contact her at bonniefullermedia.com.
"We don't discuss breast pumps on the campaign trail when we discuss a male candidate," pointed out "disheartened," Dallas-born Elizabeth Fitch, 28, who is planning to go back to school for a law degree. "Sarah Palin didn't ask for her mothering qualifications to be questioned, although she did somewhat invite the discussion by calling herself a hockey mom."

For career-focused millennials who hadn't yet contemplated the working-mother juggling act themselves, the public debate over whether having a new baby and big new job can be done is a wake-up call. "I've grown up believing that I can be anything I want, but now I've seen that when women like Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin step out, they get knocked down a peg," said Elizabeth Newberry, 26, assistant director of a nonprofit in Virginia. "Now I realize that I may face more barriers in my own career than I ever expected."

Barriers aren't something this generation is used to. They've entered college and some professional schools in greater numbers than their male counterparts. Up until this election campaign, they were supposed to be the generation that didn't give the glass ceiling a second thought. "They didn't even know there was a glass ceiling," said Robin Bronck, a mother of three girls and executive director of the Creative Coalition, a nonprofit entertainment-industry social- and political-advocacy organization.

Kerry Healey, former lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, summed it up: "If the millennials weren't aware of lingering glass ceilings in business and politics, they couldn't have had a more dramatic exposure to it than with this election."

The question, of course, is what all of this means for the relationship between women and business. Will recent events leave them embittered and discouraged or spur them on? The answer is the latter, at least according to executives who work closely with millennial women and some of those women themselves.

"I've been upset that political commentators have tried to lump all female voters together by saying that Sarah Palin was chosen to get out the women's vote -- as if all female candidates are interchangeable," said Gabrielle Stein, 25. "But I'm still inspired to see that women are making progress."

Jeff Geisler, senior VP-general manager of TAG, the young-adult-marketing unit of McCann Erickson, said Ms. Stein's view is typical. "I think it has absolutely energized them," he said. "Millennial women were already ambitious and driven. The election will only energize them more."

Many millennial women, as the children of baby boomers, had mothers who were first-generation feminists. While they may not be militant themselves -- and may not even consider themselves feminists -- they could actually be better equipped to break any glass ceilings they encounter because they have such a strong sense of entitlement.

"They've been raised by their involved parents and been given very high self-esteem," said Lisa Bernstein, global head of human resources for Apollo Management. "They've been constantly told they were special. They are also not easily intimidated. Their parents have always taken their sides when they've run into opposition. Because they're not intimidated, they are very powerful about speaking up." And that goes for asking for promotions, raises and fairness in the work force.

So employers had better get used to a different kind of female employee, one who has no fear of hierarchy. Angela Gardner, VP-talent acquisition at Fox Networks Group, gave an example of a junior-level woman who, having been asked to organize an event, thought nothing of calling the top executives in her organization. "Earlier generations would never structure such a communication like that. They would go through proper channels," she said.

If they don't get promoted quickly, these are women who'll start their own businesses, creating a whole new challenge for bigger companies looking to hang on to their female talent -- and a whole new generation of successful entrepreneurs.

"When they do run into issues at work, they'll be vocal. They do less bitching to friends. They'll go directly to their employers and say, 'Here's what I need.' If they don't get it, they'll move on," said JWT's Ms. Ryan. "They've seen Hillary and Sarah wouldn't take misogyny lying down."

These women won't let motherhood be any sort of obstacle to their success either. And they'll demand that companies accommodate them when they want to have children. "In the past, what has often held women back from advancing in their careers is the time that they've taken out of their careers for childbearing and -raising," said Dan Walker, a human-resources officer turned entrepreneur who has worked for Gap and Apple. "Fifteen years ago accommodations for working mothers were unheard-of, but there will be a big shift over the next 30 years."

And the female candidacies this political season will help drive that change. "If Sarah Palin succeeds in running an effective campaign, she will have taken on not just gender stereotypes, but stereotypes about motherhood," Ms. Healey said.

Despite losing the Democratic presidential nomination, Ms. Clinton's persistence in battling hard and with dignity left millennial women talking about her as a winner. Her and Sarah Palin's achievements can surely only help in underscoring the value of recruiting women into more senior positions and boards of directors in the future.

"Hillary demonstrated to top male executives that a woman could display toughness in a tough business world. She showed that a woman could land a plane on the deck of a carrier," said Marie Wilson, president of the White House Project, a nonpartisan group dedicated to getting women into leadership roles in the business and political worlds.

As another millennial, Ms. Newberry, put it: "Hillary and Sarah have proved you can have a career and family, and I won't back down."

Dos and don'ts

Marketing to millennial women

  • Do remember that they know the power of their pocketbooks. If they don't feel that a brand understands them or feel it is sexist in any way, "they will fight back economically with their ATM and Amex cards," said Marian Salzman of Porter Novelli. "They will go where they are appreciated."

  • Do remember that a poor-quality product will be quickly found out. "Quality matters to them," said Apollo Management's Lisa Bernstein. "They'll network with friends online to find out how a product worked for other people. Their attitude is: Why should I buy your product? Why should you be so lucky to be used by me?"

  • Don't talk to them like they're victims, whether it's regarding body odor or weight or anything else. "Brands have to be less parental in the way they communicate with them and be more of a friend to sell to them," said JWT's Rosemarie Ryan.

  • Do keep your message down-to-earth. "They don't like 'slick' marketing," said Ann Sarnoff, president of Dow Jones Ventures. "You can't preach to them and you can't talk down to them."

  • Don't feel you have to be edgy or cool, said Jeff Geisler of TAG. "You can be warm, emotional and inwardly." Emotion connects millennial women to celebrities, and it's key to connecting them to brands.

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