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6 keys to attracting and retaining Gen Z women

Jennifer Openshaw
Jennifer Openshaw
Jennifer Openshaw is CEO of Girls With Impact, the nation’s leading nonprofit business and leadership program for young women 14-24 that has helped prepare more than 15,000 women entering the workplace. She is a nationally recognized author, speaker and commentator who has appeared on Oprah, CNBC and more.

Let’s face it: Gen Z is fickle. Still, Gen Z (those just entering the workforce) comprise about one-third of the world’s population—surpassing millennials—so, they’re not a generation to ignore. They’re also more diverse. Just 51% of Gen Z are Caucasian (compared to 75% of the U.S. population as a whole), and nearly half are low-income.

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Gen Z women, in particular, are a force to reckon with—and to nurture. Why? Gen Z women are ambitious and exceptionally purpose-driven: Over 60% want to personally drive innovation, 93% of those under 30 want to be promoted, and the majority rank diversity and inclusion as top priorities in finding a future employer.

But they also enter the workforce less confident about their promotional opportunities and equity in the workplace. They leave jobs at 1.5 times the rate of men—not because of pay disparity but because of inequitable treatment, lower confidence and a lack of solutions or flexibility for childcare.

Organizations that want to tap into and harness the potential of next-generation women should take note of some valuable insight uncovered at Girls With Impact’s recent leadership forum with top executives from the New York Times, Bridgewater Associates and Kenvue (formerly J&J Consumer).

1. Reach earlier

To attract the best diverse talent, more companies are forming partnerships with community-based organizations that provide business and leadership development for young women through education, mentoring and networking with the goal of leveling the playing field for them in business.

One large financial institution, for example, engages girls at the high school level and follows them through graduation, building an awareness of the organization with an eye toward capturing them as they enter college or the workplace. Such partnerships help bring not only diverse female talent but also more prepared talent.

2. Leverage lateral

There is often a mismatch between the expectations of GenZers and employers. GenZers want quicker promotions than organizations (and even GenZers) are ready for. The answer may be as simple as informing young women about the power of lateral moves as a way to move up—something HR leaders at Girls With Impact’s leadership forum agreed was critical—and then delivering on powerful lateral learning experiences.

“You want someone who can hit, throw and play great defense,” said Bridgewater Associates CHRO Sarah Fass, using a sports analogy. “Similarly, in the workplace, lateral moves build broad capabilities and drive great personal and professional growth.”

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For young women, it is worth the benefits, from building critical relationships across the organization to not having to “prove” themselves to new bosses. Those relationships and prior experiences speak volumes.

3. Drill down with data

Leaders need to proactively address systemic and inequitable behaviors and processes that can impede women’s progress. This includes proactively proposing work/life balance programs, allowing women to work from home so they can be productive and care for their kids at the same time, and prohibiting sexist remarks and actions that prevent women’s points of view from being heard.

Ensuring pay and promotional decisions are data-driven is key as well. Providing data to promotion committees, implementing bias training for decision-makers and including “bias interrupters” in compensation meetings to provide a safe space for candid conversations are effective. Leaders should avoid drawing conclusions, such as “she isn’t ready to lead.” More frequent check-ins and informal feedback will help ensure an employee is learning and preparing for that next role.

4. Pull her up

HR leaders and CEOs should know they risk losing women unless they are proactive in “bringing women up.” All too often, male voices dominate meetings, resulting in women being reluctant to speak up. New York Times CHRO Jacqueline Welch recalled a male executive interrupting a discussion, saying, “Let her speak.”

While that action acknowledging the importance of ensuring the woman’s voice was heard was a great attempt at behavior adjustment, Welch advised that adjusting the language to “I’d like to hear what she has to say” would have been even better.

In addition, it is important to help women overcome the myth that they need to “check all the boxes” before applying for a job or new role. Leaders should actively encourage women to take on leadership roles. “Focus on the promise of that person,” advised Bridgewater’s Fass.

Similarly, institute formal programs to create a “village” of support, advised Kenvue’s Head of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Bertrand Kimper. Formal mentoring and sponsorship programs can be crucial—along with on-the-job professional skills development programs. GWI’s research shows that women rank public speaking and innovation as the two most sought-after learning and development topics to help them with their confidence.

5. Destigmatize industries

Industries from energy and manufacturing to commercial real estate and financial services continue to lack women’s representation throughout the talent pipeline.

One approach to destigmatize certain industries is for leaders to put a new face on their company. Gen Z women need to see leaders who look like them and learn about the opportunities in these changing sectors.

Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund, works to “destigmatize” its industry by showcasing women in leadership roles to young potential hires. Through videos, on-site visits, social media posts, and public speaking engagements, they provide role model examples for Gen Z women to see potential future pathways.

6. Modernize workplace language and behavior

The latest Women in the Workplace report from McKinsey finds 37% of women leaders have had a co-worker get credit for their idea, compared to 27% of male leaders. Women leaders are two times as likely as men leaders to be mistaken for someone more junior.

According to the New York Times’ Welch, women may “lead with false confidence” because of expectations of how confidence should manifest itself, like being aggressively outspoken and demonstrably extroverted. Terminology and behaviors can hold women back in meetings and other settings, as well.

Welch points out that “empowerment” suggests someone else holds the power, and recommends using the term “enablement” instead, maintaining, “The power is already with women—we just need to make sure that they realize it.”

Women are a precious talent resource, proving time and time again that they can drive a company’s performance through innovation, customer service and risk profile. Archaic systems should not hold back a company’s culture or growth. The time to double down and capture the full value of women in the workplace is now.