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Caroline Riseboro is the President & CEO of Plan International Canada

New data from Plan International Canada and Nanos Research reveals that perceptions of gender inequality reach a tipping point in the critical time when young women enter early adulthood. This has direct implications for young women who are continuing their education or starting out in their careers.

I still remember what it was like starting my career, trying to find my feet – and my voice – in a new professional setting alongside a host of male colleagues who seemed to exude all the confidence in the world. Where pathways to leadership and power have opened up to my male counterparts, I have had to squint to find the women in the ranks ahead of me. For lack of female role models, I often had to assert myself in spaces and situations that might not, at first blush, seem to be meant for me.

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As leaders, it’s our responsibility to understand that despite the progressive strides that have been made within our team cultures, hiring processes, mentorship programs and so on, we still need to get to the bottom of the deeply rooted gender inequalities that affect Generation Z. One of the biggest things we can change is to listen more to young professionals, find ways to amplify their voices, and commit to actively mentoring the next generation.

It’s 2019 – the new generation entering the workforce is not immune to gender inequality issues

Born between the mid-1990s to mid-2000s, most female Gen Z professionals have grown up in a society that has – theoretically, at least – championed their power and potential. Unfortunately, despite the positive rhetoric and encouragement, the data reveals that women experience the most gender inequality before they turn 25.

Young female professionals are told they can do anything – but do they believe it?

This past International Women’s Day, major brands went to great lengths to showcase the importance of seeing women succeed in their fields. Serena Williams called our gender bias in sport for Nike’s “Dream Crazier” campaign, McDonald’s flipped its Golden Arches to a “W” on its LinkedIn page, and Old Navy told women to believe there was no glass ceiling to break through a skywriting activation.

However, in practice only 38 per cent of young women in Canada believe they have the same opportunities as men to lead, and a scant 43 per cent of young women in Canada believe their ideas are taken as seriously as others because of their gender.

Mentorship: the missing link

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We know that mentorship works. But it’s important to be thoughtful about how it’s implemented in your organization. A study of 1000 workers by Gartner found that people who had mentors experienced higher levels of career satisfaction, commitment, mobility and positive attitudes about their work. As the job market prepares for a fresh wave of Gen Z professionals, leaders who mentor will have the opportunity to invest in the next generation of big thinkers.

Ask these questions of your leadership style and your organization’s practices:

What does mentorship truly look like?

Sixty-one per cent of young women aged 18-24 in Canada have never received mentorship, and that number jumps to 67 per cent of women aged 25+. Of all female respondents over age 18, 70 per cent have never been a mentor to other women and girls. Mentorship programs offer an opportunity for leaders to pass on crucial industry knowledge and insight beyond what’s learned on the job. If organizations want to achieve gender equality, especially at the managerial or executive level, they need to encourage seasoned leaders to mentor younger recruits. These relationships, whether formal or informal, equip women to climb the proverbial ladder and take up places of power.

How is Generation Z involved – are they at the table?

It seems intuitive, but rarely done. So, challenge the status quo and formalize a process to truly listen to your newest generation of employees. Let them tell you firsthand about the roadblocks they face or the unique pressures they’re dealing with as they’re adjusting into their professional lives. Some of their answers may surprise or enlighten you, and the immediate advantage of them having their voices heard is that they will feel more empowered within your workplace.

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How are you being a role model?

Every year I get the opportunity to share my role with a girl as part of Plan International Canada’s International Day of the Girl seat share initiative. When I ask these young women if they want to be a CEO, they usually say no – until they spend a day watching me do the job. I can think of no better illustration of the fact that young women benefit from seeing what’s possible. Leaders can adopt this classic “lead by example” principle by being transparent, sharing their career journey, the various challenges they’ve encountered and how they overcame them.

When “normal” in the Canadian workforce is a continued pay gap and less than half of young women reporting feeling equal to their male peers – it’s our collective responsibility to challenge business-as-usual. Start today with a chat over coffee, these informal actions can build confidence and help bolster a confident new generation of female professionals ready to take on the world.

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