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Dr. Peggy Drexler Headshot

The Working Woman in 2020

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There is a scene in television's Mad Men.

Roger Sterling: "My mother always said, 'be careful what you wish for, because you'll get it. And then people get jealous and try to take it away from you.'"

Don Draper: "I don't think that's how it goes."

That byplay -- from a show of moments that capture the "before" in the "before and after" in the transformation of the world of working women -- is a useful summation. There is now a clear line of sight to the financial and emotional rewards of true equality that a previous generation of women wished for. But for all the gains, the departure of the old days still litters the path forward with a surprising amount of debris that take away the comfortable fit that progress assumed.

If you believe the surveys -- and parse all the commentary they create -- successful working women must find balance, as they lean forward, peering up at the glass ceiling, looking over their shoulders at coming competitors in an environment that is not nearly as sisterly as we assumed.

As emotional ergonomics go, it's tough to work in that position.

Then again: maybe that's not how it goes. Maybe the assorted obstacles and aggravations that seem to define female work life are a misdirecting point in time. Maybe it's a symptom of the fact that when organizations and agencies -- especially media -- exist to address problems, it's problems that dominate the conversation: "when you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

If we want to really see the world of women and work, we should expand our view from right now to what's next. What will that world be like for working women in 2020?

Any peek into the future has to start with the Millennials -- an army of expectation 80 million strong in the U.S. and 2.5 billion worldwide. By 2025, Millennials will be running things, accounting for 75 percent of the available workforce.

The women in that group are both ambitious and optimistic. A recent Pew study showed that just as many young women as young men put success in a high-paying career on the list of things important in their lives. And for the first time, more young women than young men put career success at the top of their values. Other studies show that desire for greater job responsibility also show young women talking the lead.

In the course of my research into women and work, I talked to Carla, a 28-year-old analyst for a Chicago-based commodities firm. I asked her -- from personal experience -- about female satisfaction lagging female opportunity.

"I see everything that the articles say is wrong with the workplace for women," she said. "I see men who prefer to work with men. I see women who guard their territory. I see policies that could be a lot more helpful in balancing work and life. But the thing is -- I don't see it all the time in every situation. For the most part, things are pretty great for women right now. The guys have their little groups, and they go off to smoke cigars or whatever. But women do too. We all get along pretty well. And when you're working on a team to get something done, the total focus is on getting it done. The last thing that would get in the way is men-women issues. I really think that we've reach the point that what counts is what you bring to the team. It may not be that for everybody in all situations. But show me any part of any workplace that's perfect."

And yet, look at McKinsey research. Women are getting 53 percent of entry-level management jobs. At the mid-management level, they're getting 37 percent. At the vice president and senior management level, it drops to 28 percent. Where are they going? Why are they getting stuck in the talent pipeline?

At this stage in the evolution of the workforce, the problem is surely not policy. Class-actions suits have a way of showing companies the wisdom of equality. The issue is the much-discussed cultural mindsets. The McKinsey study -- in response to open-ended questions -- confirmed a host of co-conspirators: preference for men who have long been groomed for stardom; lack of common interests with a potential male boss; the unrelenting tension of being seen as too aggressive versus too passive; stereotypes about fit for the job; and fears that if a women fails in a tough assignment, it will set back all women. (Swap men for women in that statement, and the absurdly outdated irony is obvious.)

"It's a great way to start an argument," a male HR executive told me. "But you can't discount the effect of self-selection. Speaking very generally, and recognizing it's not always a choice for women, I see men being more likely to uproot families to take jobs that add to their experience -- maybe in a place their family doesn't especially want to live. Maybe it's overseas. Maybe it's a job that gives them little satisfaction and meaning.

"We don't say you have to do any of that. Nobody is going to say you're not a team player.

"But a job opening comes up. One person has accepted the moves, made the sacrifices, and built the portfolio of experience. Another chose balance and meaning. Who gets the promotion?"

There's a saying: "There are those who, unhappy with the rain, will legislate sunshine." Organizations can legislate fairness. They can build support structure. But the emotional equilibrium for women and work will likely happen woman by woman.

Back to McKinsey. While the numbers spotlight the numbers of women who don't take the next step up, they also reflect women who do. With women at the intake end of the leadership pipeline numbering more than 50 percent, more will be coming behind those who have made the step up, and plan to stay there.

Combine upward pressure of those numbers with the growing percentage of women who put career success at the top of their life's goals, Add in the urgent need to find talent to replace the departing baby boomers. Multiply that by the fact that in a little more than ten years, a new generation raised with men and women working together will be fully in charge, and those stubborn cultural mindsets will be replaced by new ones.

All in, real change in the seamless fit of women and work is not only desirable -- it's inevitable.

This first appeared on Forbes.com