Do Millennials Have A Bro Problem?

Do significant obstacles still make it harder for women to get ahead than men?

The title of this post is already going to get me in trouble—anyone who tries to speak of “millennials” as a homogenous population is already engaging in a ridiculous level of reductionism. So let’s posit at the outset that the phenomena I am about to describe apply to some not-very-clearly defined sub-set of this not-very-clearly-defined generational cohort.

Now let’s talk about two polls that came out in the past few weeks. The first one got a flurry of attention. This was the Pew Research poll that asked respondents to choose between one of two propositions: “Significant obstacles still make it harder for women to get ahead than men” or “Obstacles that made it harder for women to get ahead are largely gone”. This was a poll carried out by a highly reputable agency with a large and scientifically selected sample (N>2300). The results were startling, and not for the reasons one might expect.  56% of men and 34% of women overall chose the “largely gone” answer. Among self-described Republicans these numbers were 75% of men and 50% of women, among self-described Democrats the numbers were 39% and 23% respectively. Nothing too startling there.

But then the researchers reported a further breakdown by age cohort. Here’s where things get weird. Among Democratic-leaning men ages 35-49, 34% chose the “largely gone” answer. Among Democratic-leaning men ages 18-34 – in other words, Millenials – 52% chose the “largely gone” response.

That result is semi-astonishing. The researchers hypothesized that the results reflect lack of life experience: thus as men and women get older and spend more time in the workplace, they observe more examples of obstacles to women’s advancement. It’s a perfectly plausible partial explanation and it is consistent with the rest of the results that showed for both men and women and across party affiliations older respondents were more likely than the youngest group to select the “significant obstacles” answer. So there’s that. It is also possible that there is a certain defensiveness involved  (“If I got that promotion it’s because I deserved it more than she did”) which declines when one is less actively competing for advancement.

The problem with either of those explanations is that they imply that the only source of perceptions about sexism or presumably a broad range of other social phenomena is personal experience. Peer interactions, social media, news stories, movies and TV programs, education… none of these have any influence at all on perceptions of societal sexism? Or is it that these are the elements preventing that recognition, that are only overcome by long exposure to the harsh realities of life on the ground?

Then there’s another poll that deserves discussion. This one was privately commissioned by Pershing LLC and carried out by Harris. Again, this was a poll with a large sample (N>2000) conducted by a highly reputable polling agency. The purpose of the poll was to study attitudes toward leadership in business. The results were interesting: across the board, respondents indicated a preference for styles of leadership that in earlier eras might have been coded “feminine.” Leaders should be good listeners, take advice, work collaboratively, be sensitive to the feelings and needs of those around them, etc. And 77% of respondents identified these as characteristics associated with women.

Then the survey asked another set of questions. Respondents were asked whether they were “comfortable” with the idea of women in various positions of authority. Among 18-34-year-old men, for example, 79% said they comfortable with women as teachers. But only 43% of men ages 18-34 were comfortable with women as U.S. Senators (43%). And even smaller numbers of Millennial men were comfortable with the idea of women as Fortune 500 executives (39%), President of the United States (35%), or engineers (34%).

The President response has obvious political implications. Senators is strange given that there are no fewer than 20 women in the Senate right now (there have been 46 throughout our history). But… engineers?  Two thirds of Millennial men responding to this survey were not willing to say they were comfortable with the idea of women as engineers?? Keep in mind that these are the same people who previously stated a preference for leadership attributes that they, themselves, associate with women.

Once again, let me acknowledge that it is wrong to speak of Millennial men as an homogenous category. (I showed these two studies to one Millennial man I know; his response was “I hate my species.” Which I thought was a little strong, but certainly made his feelings clear.) And analyzing the sources and consequences of these attitudes goes way beyond this blog post. But I think there exists at least a segment of the Millennial generation who can be described as having a bro problem.