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Gen Z student Meena Waseem says that the wider acceptance of remote work during the pandemic has given her greater confidence to ask for flexibility in the workplace.Johnny C.Y. Lam/The Globe and Mail

For young women in the workplace, change is coming fast.

Generation Z – referring to people born between 1997 and 2011 – is a generation just beginning to hit the job market. Some Gen Zers are preparing to enter the workplace for the first time, while many started full-time work during the chaos and uncertainty of the pandemic. It’s a daunting prospect at a time when change has been the only constant.

“I think the pandemic has done a lot [to] show people that they need to advocate for themselves if they’re going to get what they want from their workplace,” says Aly Laube, a Vancouver-based Gen Z musician and staff writer at Daily Hive.

“You have to walk this fine line and dance a particular dance as a woman in the workplace, and that gets more complicated with each intersection [of identity],” she says.

Meena Waseem is a student with non-profit and corporate work experience who is preparing to enter the workplace full-time. She says that conventions and expectations in some traditional workplaces “around how to communicate [and] what assertive communication looks like… can often harm women, and women of colour specifically.”

But she notes that the communal experience of the pandemic – and the wide acceptance of remote work – has made certain kinds of communication easier.

“As a person with chronic illness, I have much greater confidence to ask for flexibility now that I’ve seen [that] it’s possible on a large scale,” says Ms. Waseem. “Now that able-bodied folks have begun to see the necessity of accommodation and accessibility, it’s made it easier for me and others to ask for what we rightfully deserve.”

Ms. Waseem also thinks that the next generation of women will be able to redefine traditional workplace conventions.

“For instance, a mom managing a whole household? That’s project management experience,” she says. “It’s necessary that workplaces recognize non-traditional forms of leadership, and in order to do that, they need to have a better equity lens.”

Dispelling harmful stereotypes about Gen Z

On social media, some voices are quick to pass judgement about Gen Z. The idea that “no one wants to work anymore” has become a popular scapegoat for the labour market’s problems with talent shortages and is often aimed at young people. But Ms. Laube says this judgement misses the point.

“It’s not that we don’t want to work, it’s that we want to live full lives,” she says. “And work makes it difficult to do that, especially when facing compounding barriers. It’s exhausting.”

She adds, “I think life is about being happy and about doing what fulfills you.”

Victoria Sicilia, a senior associate at Environics Research, says data shows that Ms. Laube isn’t the only one who thinks this way. The firm conducted a series of in-depth interviews with Gen Z individuals around the start of the pandemic.

“It’s going to be important for companies to understand that for Gen Z, success and happiness are kind of synonymous,” Ms. Sicilia says. “[Success] is not instinctually tied to things like wealth or status.”

She notes that Gen Z individuals have a more “holistic” vision of life that incorporates stability, but also purpose.

“Gen Z very much see their careers as extensions of themselves, in a sense. They want their career to be reflective of their values,” she says.

However, the data also shows a “fascinating shift” in Gen Z values over the pandemic, Ms. Sicilia says.

“They’re saying, ‘I want to have a family. I want to have a house.’ I think it’s very indicative of what the pandemic has done to all of us in terms of [us] reaching for what we know,” she says. “What we’ve seen from a values perspective is a retrenchment to seeking anchors of support and areas of comfort.”

Ms. Waseem echoes that sentiment, adding that institutional security – such as a prestigious title or well-regarded position – can be especially essential as a woman of colour.

“As a visibly Muslim woman, and for many others in my community, institutional validation is often necessary to be taken seriously when advocating for ourselves,” she says. “Unless we’re holding a title, our lived experiences are often ignored or minimized.”

Higher wages and more engagement

Ms. Sicilia says that based on what she sees in the data they have collected from Gen Z, a growing priority for young women in the workplace going forward will be higher wages.

“They’re really showing that financial security is something that’s very important to them,” says Ms. Sicilia.

Another priority will be workplaces that reflect their values and are involved in giving back to the community. Career mentoring will also be crucial to keep Gen Z women engaged in their place of employment.

“[With] Gen Z being more socially dynamic, they’re going to want that sort of confirmation and reassurance in terms of having help with defining their goals, tracking their progress, [achieving] those things and getting the recognition for it.”

For Gen Z individuals considering a job offer, Ms. Waseem suggests that they ask employees within the organization about the company culture, particularly when it comes to work-life balance.

“Does the CEO model healthy boundaries by making time for their life outside of work? Do managers work with employees who might be facing extenuating circumstances to create a supportive environment?” she says.

“Questions like these help reveal how deeply entrenched inclusion is in the fabric of the organization, beyond just statements or idle company policies.”

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