Gen Y Women Need to Take the Stage

It was a beautiful fall day at Harvard and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study was hosting a day-long symposium titled "The New Majority? Past, Present and Future of Women in the Workplace." The four panelists, all white women and all baby boomers, sat on the stage in business attire and Harvard's very own baby boomer white woman president, Drew Faust, introduced the event. All the panelists were born and raised during the second wave of the feminist movement, had forged careers focused on women in the workplace and had insightful thoughts on the history of women's movements during the symposium.

But as a second-year Harvard Kennedy School student looking around the room, I couldn't help but notice how few young women and women of color were on the stage and in the audience. Most attendees were middle-aged, white women leaders interested in the topic. This got me thinking: Wasn't this forum partly about the future of women in the workplace? Where was the future in the room? Why wasn't a young woman part of the panel on the stage?

After all, we were at Harvard, where women make up over 40 percent of the student population.
I asked Harvard Professor Nancy Cott, the planner of the event, about this. She said she had reached out to a mix of experienced women speakers, including women of color, and ended up with a panel of white women such as well-known leaders Heidi Hartmann and Lois Schiffer. She said she had not thought about bringing a younger woman to speak. When we discussed why younger women weren't in the audience, she said she relied on the Radcliffe community to do email marketing and said, "it's rare that college students come to a speaker, unless it's a celebrity. For graduate students, it depends on the subject." Most Harvard women students I spoke to were unaware of the event and others chose not to attend given school priorities. Perhaps the lack of a younger presence in the room resulted from a combination of the lack of young women speakers by the event planners, the event not being advertised to young women by Radcliffe and young women just not showing up by choice.

In order to build a broader women's movement, Generation Y women -- born between the mid 1970s to 1990s -- need to be on the stage, attending and planning these events along with baby boomers and Gen Xers. We need to be co-creating this movement, whether by participating in a conversation, serving on a panel, attending a speech or communicating online or in the media.

I completely understand that women in their 20s and early 30s are busy defining their careers, families and personal lives, and so attending women's events can be difficult, expensive and a low priority. However, if we don't seize the opportunities we have at a young age to 'take the stage' how are we preparing ourselves for the future? And what are we doing about setting the stage for the generation after us? What can we do?

This year, I'm organizing a Generation Y women presence at TEDxWomen, a self-organized event supported by TED. TEDxWomen, hosted by Pat Mitchell on December 1, 2011, is bringing together vibrant intergenerational communities to hear leading-edge innovators and powerful ideas from women and girls.

I'm calling young women to join the TEDxWomen online forum, blog about the event and create intergenerational circles to watch the event and host their own local speakers on women's issues on their campus and in their community. Last year's TEDxWomen addressed the next generation of women leaders after an important talk by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who said that young women need to "sit at the table" and "lean into their careers."

Generation Y women play a unique role in the future of the workplace. We came of age just as women's entry into the paid labor force began to challenge the pattern of home-centered motherhood. As Kathleen Gerson writes in "The Unfinished Revolution," only 34 percent of mothers with children under the age of three held a paid job in 1975, but this number rose to 61 percent by 2000. Generation Y women in the workplace are shaped more than ever by changes such as 'fluid marriages, less stable work careers, and profound shifts in mothers ties to the workplace" states Gerson. Generation Y views the world differently, we have more choices and opportunities than ever and there is much to learn across generations.

Women's forums, conferences and events -- both in the real world and online -- need to address and speak about the new issues that women of the next generation face, and help more young women to attend. These topics vary from online women's organizing to engaging men in the work-life issues to virtual teams and hyper-specialization. Unlike past generations, Gen Y women have a choice to either revert back to older family patterns or explore novel pathways of building families and integrate family and work. Gen Y in these settings, is essentially an invisible generation. That has to change, and the responsibility for that changing lies as much on GenY shoulders as on baby boomer and Gen X shoulders.

Erica Dhawan is a writer and consultant on Gen Y, women, and leadership. She is a MPA/MBA candidate at Harvard Kennedy School and MIT Sloan School of Management. Follow Erica Dhawan on Twitter.