For Gen Y’s multicultural women, inclusion doesn’t mean joining an affinity group—it means having a say in where your career is going and how fast it’s moving. That’s why our top companies are pulling out all the stops.
Kelly Tharp doesn’t hold much back at work. The 27-year-old marketing rep for Chubb Group of Insurance Companies talks freely with colleagues about her Latina roots, her family, even her social life. While she’s generally an open book, Kelly says she finds many older women of color in the office to be less forthcoming. “Their families are private, their hobbies are private,” she says. Outside of how they do their jobs, “you don’t know a lot about them.”
It’s not surprising that young multicultural women like Kelly, raised on MySpace and YouTube, are bringing their free-to-be-me sensibility to the workplace. Like her 71 million Generation Y cohorts, ages 14 to 31, Kelly seems to feel far more comfortable than prior generations sharing the personal—and sometimes colorful—details of daily life with colleagues. “We want to bring our whole selves to work,” she says, “not to be somebody at work and then somebody different at home.”
It’s an openness that extends to how they think about who they are, too. Unlike their Baby Boomer parents, who defined themselves primarily by race or ethnicity, Gen Yers tend to look beyond skin color for their identity, choosing instead to define themselves by age or lifestyle, notes Misti Burmeister, a corporate consultant and author of From Boomers to Bloggers: Success Strategies Across Generations.
This significant shift is causing forward-thinking companies like Chubb, Verizon and Ernst & Young to rethink their diversity strategies so they resonate with a group that’s focused not so much on the challenges in their path but on inclusion and speedy advancement. Verizon, for instance, now offers professional development programs targeted specifically to younger workers on the career fast track, while Chubb has tweaked its diversity training so managers can learn what each generation needs and wants from their work experience.
Age Trumps Race
Gen Y’s attitudes about race and ethnicity stem in large part from childhood experience, experts say. More than their parents and grandparents did, today’s twenty-somethings grew up with friends of diverse backgrounds and learned about varied cultures early on through music, food and television. Now, as young adults, “they’re more comfortable navigating multicultural environments,” says Jane Hyun, a multicultural leadership strategist and author of Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling.
Akansha Dayal and Jennifer Hess typify that trend. At 25, both are senior associates at accounting giant Ernst & Young. Working side by side at clients’ offices, they hit it off, sharing an interest in movies and faraway lands. “Akansha is one of my best friends,” says Jennifer.
Their one major difference: Akansha is from India, and Jennifer’s background is European American. Yet Akansha says that because they have the same interests and goals, she feels more connected to Jenny than to others who simply share her cultural background. “There are quite a few Indian people at Ernst & Young, and we’re all friends, but it’s not like we stick together in a pack,” she notes.
La’Shara Doss, a 27-year-old marketing and communications manager at Wal-Mart Stores, feels a similar kinship to others her own age rather than to African-American women in general. Her mom, Sharron Doss, 50, at La’Shara’s age was closest to other black women at work, but La’Shara’s circle of work friends extends way beyond African Americans. In fact, to La’Shara, race is almost an aside when she defines herself. “I think of myself as a young professional woman,” she says. “If you asked my mom, she would probably say she’s an African-American woman. But Gen Y came up in a time when segregation and civil rights struggles weren’t as present in our lives.” Tina Sani, a 26-year-old assistant vice president with Credit Suisse, who identifies herself as Asian, agrees. For her, age typically trumps race and even gender. “The people I have the most in common with are those in my age group—and not necessarily women,” she says.
Even before she was hired, notes Jess Jolly, 26, a specialist in financial planning and analysis at communication services provider Verizon, her boss told her the company was seeking a fresh perspective. “That’s why they were looking for someone rather young,” she recalls. To Jess, her perspective has little to do with her Indian ethnicity and much more to do with her age. “I think I look at things in a new way because I don’t have that old way of doing it,” she says.
On the Fast Track
Though La’Shara, Tina, Jess and other Gen Y women of color define themselves by factors other than race or ethnicity, they don’t want to check their cultural heritage at the door, either. That’s in sharp contrast to previous generations, who felt their backgrounds didn’t allow them to fully fit in, notes Hyun. “This generation is aware of their cultural identity and proud of it,” she says.
Priscilla Zee, 25, who is Chinese and was born in Brazil, believes a diverse background helps her do a better job
as a marketing associate at global food products manufacturer General Mills. When her team is looking for insights into how to reach Asians or Hispanics, Priscilla readily shares her own experiences with the group. “My background makes me diverse not only in the way I look but in the way I think,” she says.
Gen Y women of color like Priscilla are in a hurry to move forward with their careers—and they expect employers to recognize that and help them. “Waiting to get ahead is not in their DNA,” says Burmeister. Indeed, with more and more women of color holding management positions, Gen Yers expect to follow in their footsteps—soon. “I’m a woman of color, and Jenny is white,” says Akansha at Ernst & Young, “but we both have the same responsibilities, the same number of people to report to and the same number of people under us. That puts us on equal ground because our success is determined by our performance as opposed to our race.”
Sensing this urgency, some companies are giving younger employees more responsibility, if they have the skills
to handle it. “We’ve had to look a little differently at the work assignments that we give to them,” says Ernst & Young’s Billie Williamson, Americas director of flexibility and gender equity strategy. “What young people are telling us is ‘I got it the first time,’” Williamson says. As a result, the firm’s managers now pay closer attention to giving junior workers a broader range of duties so they feel continually challenged.
Verizon is also aware that many Gen Yers want the fast track. That’s why the company nurtures their can-do gene with a Leadership Excellence and Development program designed specifically for younger workers. Liza Kellerman, a 27-year-old section manager who identifies herself as Mexican, participated in the two-year program. Through professional development training and meetings with senior managers throughout the company, she learned about jobs that might interest her in the future. Most of all, Liza says, she was impressed that the program was offered in the first place. “It showed how important it is to Verizon that Generation Y is here,” she says.
Getting that sentiment across to Gen Y employees is increasingly critical to companies, given the aging of the workforce and the need to train and retain new quality employees. Two years ago, for example, word bubbled up from Chubb’s field offices that they were having trouble attracting and holding on to younger workers, notes chief diversity officer Kathleen Marvel. That feedback led the company to introduce new training for supervisors that explores generational differences in the workplace. The firm is also considering offering more flexible hours, a benefit that Gen Yers value, Marvel says.
Fitting In Everywhere
Gen Y women of color also view diversity programs differently. Whereas those of older generations join a specific employee affinity group to feel a sense of belonging, Gen Y multicultural women often don’t, even as they recognize the valuable networking such groups can offer. The reason, says Marvel, is that Gen Yers want to fit in everywhere. In fact, younger women are more likely than those who came before them to join multiple groups as a way to network and volunteer rather than as a means of support.
Typifing that attitude, Liza belongs to Verizon’s Hispanic support organization mainly for its volunteer efforts in the community. She’s also active in the women’s resource group and a cross-functional group that includes people of varying ages and races. “Each group offers a different perspective,” she says. “I don’t want to have just one viewpoint.”
Gen Yers also don’t hesitate to seek out diverse viewpoints on their own. When Magda Yrizarry, Verizon’s vice president of workplace culture, diversity and compliance, started an informal mentoring circle in 2001, it consisted of other Latinas. Fast-forward to 2008 and the circle now includes both male and female Gen Yers of various races and ethnicities. “They look to me as a role model despite our differences,” says Yrizarry, who at 45 remembers a much less diverse workplace 20 years ago. These days, she says, “employees expect to see workplace diversity that mirrors what’s increasingly experienced in society. The Internet has expanded our ‘neighborhoods’ to global communities that interact in ways we didn’t years ago.”
Indeed, people of all backgrounds share common interests today, whether it’s listening to hip-hop music, watching American Idol or following a presidential primary season that pits a woman against an African-American man. Says Yrizarry, “We’re seeing a diversity of role models in society that crosses traditional segments.” And now, she says, Gen Y women of color expect the workplace to operate the same way