Recently I went on a six-week vacation and took this opportunity to finally make true on all the promise​d catch up visits with old friends and former colleagues that have moved abroad. As often happens when meeting with friends, you begin to reproduce the past, which soon became a reflection of my career over the past 11 years and the issues facing women in the workplace. But a new topic also popped up – the common negative perceptions of my generation, commonly referred to as Millennials, as being demanding, disloyal and transitory in the workplace.

Millennials are within an in-between space of remembering the analogue days, while embracing the new digital disruption. We remember the emergence of the first computer in the house, fighting with our sibling to get off the phone to use dial-up; and we were also the early adopters of smart phones and social media. Being of this in-between space, Millennials come into the workforce with different values and attitudes towards work efficiency and balance, which doesn’t necessarily align with what came before. 

We are Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In generation. We are far from demanding and disloyal. Instead we bring a new perspective to old paradigms. 

We are pragmatic. We enter the workforce willing to work from within to drive change and we have a strong determination for social purpose, more so than previous generations. 

We are integrated. We have strong beliefs in work-life balance and equality. We have a passion for connecting with peers, developing social justice and building our careers all at the same time. 

​We are empowered. We are design thinkers that work within agility systems. We are not afraid to challenge and ask questions with confidence, understanding our value and worth. We know who we are and what we are capable of and can list off our accomplishments without hesitation.

These three pillars are the foundation upon which many Millennials are entering the workforce. Millennials champion innovation and change, wanting to introduce new technology and practices, new flexible approaches and they seek to be captivated and inspired by their work. 

In the 2015 Deloitte Millennial survey, six in 10 Millennials state a ‘sense of purpose’ as an important factor when choosing an employer. What we are instead confronted with is legacy cultures that hold tight to values of conservatism and lack a healthy risk appetite for innovation. In addition to searching for employers that do business with a sense of purpose, we also encourage our leaders to bring to the forefront leadership attributes that focus on employee well-being and employee growth and development. 

There is a common perception that Millennials are disloyal as we are more likely to job-hop than previous generations. In the Deloitte survey, two-thirds of Millennials indicated a desire to work for a different organisation in five years or sooner. One reason for this is the ‘perception gap’ between Millennials’ expectations versus the reality of a legacy environment that drives Millennials away sooner rather than later.

A shift occurred where rather than selling the self to a company, Millennials began to sell themselves as an asset. Maintaining the value of this asset became essential for career survival. This meant that if the present company could not invest in the development and progression of its employees, then loyalty was non-existent and the temptation to leave was even greater. According to the Deloitte survey, 12% of respondents held board positions or were department heads, and of that group, 57% planned to switch jobs by the end of 2020. Even at the highest executive-level, loyalty lies with the self as an asset and continually placing that self in environments that demand new skill development and progression. 

But when looking at the Lean In generation’s progression a ‘leadership ambition gap’ between genders emerges. Men are more likely than women to seek senior positions (64% vs 57%, Deloitte Survey) with the gap growing by 12 points when seeking the most senior position of the organisation. Instinctively, I want to argue that our times have moved past such gender-specific attributes. But as we have read from Sandberg’s book, demands are not met equally for the sexes in the workplace, and this issue has not resolved itself for the Millennials. 

The Deloitte Survey suggests that this gap is a reflection of Millennials self-perception. Upon university graduation, women rate themselves on par with men in financial, economic, and business knowledge. However, when surveyed on leaderships skills a gap emerges. Twenty-seven percent of men and only 21% of women believe they have the skills to lead in the modern workplace. There is a disconnect between the Lean In generation’s sense of pragmatism, integration and empowerment versus the perception that both genders are equally skilled for leadership. A broader conversation needs to take place and organisations need to be a part of it. There needs to be structures in place to combat these perceptions and opportunities for men and women, side-by-side, to develop the skills necessary for leadership in the 21st century. The Lean In generation must help in making these changes. We are the future—regardless of sex—and we can transform legacy structures to support the movement forward. 

​Lean In is an alumni authored column that focuses on themes about work/life balance, women in leadership roles, workplace (in)equality, ambition and opportunities. Lean In provides alumni with a space to candidly discuss workplace issues that many think about but rarely discuss publicly.