By Stephanie Marton and Siri Uotila
"If I am supporting her because she is a woman, that's equally as bad as not supporting her because of her gender." Media coverage this presidential primary season has touted such sentiments to question millennial women's commitment to feminist activism. Much of the discourse has centered on older women lamenting our generation's reluctance to action. As late 20-somethings ourselves, we understand the generational divide from a different vantage point. Bottom line: it's not apathy or ambivalence. Millennials bring a very different lived experience to the feminist cause, but their fervor and willingness to act - through their own chosen means - are no less than their forbears'. In their enthusiasm for enacting change in their own way, however, millennials limit their ultimate impact. We need to build on the strategies of our feminist predecessors, not neglect them.
We are MBA students currently taking a Harvard Business School course dedicated to women's leadership, "How Star Women Succeed". Our class offers 85 ambitious and opinionated women a forum to discuss the path to women's professional advancement. Every class, guest speakers (most often "boomers" over 50) share their personal path to success in male-dominated corporate settings. The dialogue between speaker and students offers a live version of the digital discourse ringing through the blogosphere.
Our cross-generational discussion has made clear the significant divergences in boomer and millennial experiences. Throughout high school and college, the millennial generation was largely shielded from the most egregious gender inequalities due to reforms targeting education (e.g., Title IX). Then, as largely childless recent graduates, we have - for the most part - been able to sail through the first few years of our professional lives without hitting major gender barriers (although, as Cynthia Reed writes on millennials: "It will not be until they are faced with the difficulties of raising children... that the obvious differences between the sexes will become overbearing."). It's not that we are blind to discrimination; indeed, our classmates are hyper-conscious of the daily slights of implicit bias against women. However, by and large, millennials have yet to discover the identity-transforming barriers to success that our boomer counterparts battled.
That being said, we've seen our classmates transcend this deficit in personal experience, and the ambivalence it might suggest, by deferring to hard data. The statistical inequalities for women, even at the middle management level that millennials will soon dominate, are striking. While we may not yet have personally experienced these inequities the way boomer-era activists have, our generation must, and largely does, acknowledge the evidence that outrageous inequalities exist. More than half of millennial women believe that their gender disadvantages them in gaining promotions, raises, and access to high-visibility assignments. And we recognize that if we pursue advocacy only after meeting barriers personally, it will already be too late.
Indeed, millennials are taking action to address gender inequalities, regardless of personal experience. As opposed to decades past, however, millennials pursue change through transparency and social-media enabled accountability. Millennial activism works to expose implicit interpersonal biases and to solve problems unique to women directly. This strategy reflects an underlying belief that formal institutions are less relevant than in decades past: optimistic millennials would argue that the vast majority of institutions are already ostensibly inclusive, while the cynics among them would argue that institutions are inept or, worse, corrupt. We seek first to fix problems ourselves, through means available at our finger tips. We millennials don't picket, but we log on at change.org. We don't volunteer at women's shelters, but we crowdfund an app that gets women home safely.
Millennials' preferred means of activism is capable of sweeping change (a Twitter campaign against sexist language reformed the Oxford Dictionary), and should be viewed as equally legitimate. However, it is simply not enough. Boomer feminists' activism centered on fighting structural injustices by taking visible, personal action aimed at reforming institutions: the law, schools, the workplace. Millennials fail to recognize that public institutions remain extremely powerful, and our bias against incumbents and toward "disruption" is a serious, self-imposed handicap. Neglecting the necessity of institutional reform, such as formal representation at top levels of government, business and academia, to advance the battles of feminism would be a grave mistake.
For example, the lobbying industry, one of the most repulsive legacy groups to millennials, may be the single most influential force enacting legislation and influencing its enforcement. It's striking to think how quickly capture of this group could enact Sweden-like childcare reforms. If millennial feminists refuse to engage with and participate in these institutions, out of pride or distrust, we silence our generation's voice at what continue to be the tables of power.
We hope that as millennial experience grows, we will increasingly leverage the old-fashioned vehicles of change to see a convergence in cross-generational strategies. We envision ardent feminists who develop the next app and get out the vote, and who lead lobbies for women's issues while tweeting about the next Ellen Pao. Millennial women's strategy will continue to evolve, and we are optimistic that our generation can bring new energy and a valuable new toolkit to the feminist cause. But whether or not we vote for Hillary, we must be sure not to drop the torch the boomers carried.