Millennial women opt for different ‘Working Girl’ path

At 5:30 a.m., on the other side of the world and dressed in traditional Indian garb, Rumeet Billan worked on her wedding day. In one camp of the work-life balance debate, this type of behaviour would definitely be classified as a no-no. For Billan, it's what worked for her.

Personally, I probably wouldn't have worked on my wedding day, but I can see why she may have been tempted. And I'm not going to judge.

Technology is blasting apart traditional constructs of the workplace. A work-related issue can be resolved in mere minutes. More dual income households are also vastly changing our expectations about gender roles at home and at work. If you have kids, that adds even another complex dimension and usually means your work hours can be all over the map. What matters is how you define work-life balance, whether you're OK with your choices and level of success.

But figuring out that balance can be a moving target. Like other so-called Millennial women, Billan is charting a different path than women before her. According to a new survey by Zeno Group, this route is starkly different from the one-way-up corporate climbing depicted in the 1988 comedy Working Girl, which starred Melanie Griffith as springy Tess McGill.

(Remember Tess, who had that awesome feathered hairdo and bragged, "I have a head for business and a bod for sin"?)

"When we look at balance, it's defining it in your own terms. On my wedding day, the balance for me on that day, was to ensure that I fulfilled my commitment not only to my husband, but also to all the other commitments that I had," says 30-year-old Billan, a Toronto resident and president of Jobs in Education.

"I was able to do that. I did not hurt anyone in the process."

Millennial women carving own path

More Millennials, loosely defined as a group born in the early 1980s to 2000s of which I, admittedly, don't belong, are redefining what it means to be ambitious and successful. Does it mean being a chief executive? Not anymore it appears. Only a mere 6 per cent of the university-educated females surveyed said they wanted to be a top leader in a large or prominent organization.

That number is low partly because Millennials say too much personal and family sacrifice is at stake in the traditional ways that success has been defined. As a result, they're doing things differently.

Nearly 40 per cent care mostly about doing great, rewarding or interesting work, but don’t necessarily think it's important to manage or lead others, while 20 per cent want to be among the top leaders at a large or prominent organization. Twelve per cent want to be entrepreneurs, and another nine per cent simply want to be creative and work on a small team of like-minded people.

Cynthia Zamaria, managing director at Zeno Canada, says the results are a wake-up call for policymakers and employers, and they'll need to figure out new ways to pluck from the diverse and unique talent pool.

"There are a number of women who are looking at different paths. If our goal is to increase senior ranks of women being represented in companies, in organizations and board of directors then we need to look at what are the things from preventing them from wanting to do this and exploring why they're looking at different options," says Zamaria.

Flexible work arrangements seems like a good way to start. Work places that encourage a creative atmosphere, rather than a stifling one would seem to me to be pretty desirable as well.

There are a range of alternate work deals that can be secured including flexible hours, telecommuting, job sharing and variable workweek options. We've all seen it happen and learn that those are models that can work.

Earlier this year, the Great Places to Work Institute issued a new list of the best places to work in Canada, with high tech companies topping the list of most desirable workplaces. Research and consulting groups also scored high.

Fostering a positive workplace was the key reason why companies made the top including group activities, paid volunteer time and perks that encourage wellness. Places that treat their employees with respect also, and obviously, tended to win accolades.

Getting with the times

The fact is women in various times of their career take leaves, whether for maternity or for something else, and sometimes don't return. In order to retain them, companies need to get with the times, says Jennifer Reynolds, president of Women in Capital Markets, a non-profit group that promotes the advancement of women in the industry.

What's clear as we look ahead is that younger generations want more flexibility. "I don't think it's a lack of ambition. I think it really is that people are asking for a different environment. They can be just as productive. It's not going to mean inferior results," says Reynolds.

Actually, if you think of it, if you have the right people, who are happy and motivated, you may have greater results. In the end, the corporate environment has to change and move with the times or risk missing out on a talented pool of people that are looking elsewhere.

Strangers might want to wag their fingers at Billan for choosing to work on her wedding day. But she says she doesn't regret it, so I'm not going to tell her otherwise. Neither should anyone else.

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