Early on in my advertising career, I had the opportunity to work at a WPP marketing firm that was focused on women. I loved uncovering women's motivations and needs, but I didn't think of the work as groundbreaking. It simply felt necessary.
It wasn't until more recently, when I started working with Girl Up, a global leadership development initiative positioning girls to be leaders in the movement for gender equality, that I saw the fire in Gen Z's bellies. These girls—especially those born from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s—have the ambition, confidence and desire to make a difference in the world. So much so that they've inspired me to take the leap from communicating to women to making a real cultural change.
This new generation has a firm understanding of their power and are unafraid to go chase their goals. Not only that, as they prepare to enter the workforce, they're thinking beyond the walls of the office, imagining the ways they can spark change and improve the world at large, a notion I wish could have experienced at their age.
So, how should companies work with this empowered, opinionated generation? Here are some ideas, along with feedback from two Gen Z girls I spoke with recently:
Give Gen Z a seat at the table and a mic
Gen Z understands their power from an early age, so it's important that we not only give them a seat at the table, but encourage them to speak up. After all, if we can't get to the heart of their opinions if we don't give them the mic.
Open up to Gen Z
As managers and mentors, it's up to us to give Gen Z a safe space to discuss hard topics—and to offer their own ideas on how to improve them. Some companies are already doing a good job with this. Netflix allows for flexible schedules, while Ernst & Young recently launched its "r u ok?" program, encouraging employees to notice and ask each other how they're doing, helping to address addiction and mental health. But we need to see more of it.
Let Gen Z create cultural change in the workplace and beyond
High school junior and Girl Up sponsorship director Sydney told me, "In this day and age with social media, it's hard to ignore what's happening in the world. We all have a voice and we should use it." Let's step back and allow people like Sydney to make their dreams a reality.
Speak to them authentically
"In movies and advertising, Gen Z is often represented by people who aren't actually teenagers, or only show girls with no acne or cellulite," high school junior and Girl Up teen advisor Rebecca said. "Seventeen Magazine actually portrays real teens and has covered our generation's social activism, which speaks to me."
Sydney added, "Brands like Arie that don't retouch the photos of the models are giving us positive reinforcements. They care about their consumers and aren't about making a quick buck."
Give them a role model
Rebecca noted, "We grew up with incredible women like Michelle Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsburg on TV and in the media. So, we're used to seeing powerful women, and we're conscious of what's happening in the world." Having other strong, supportive women to look up to will be a motivator to these girls when they enter the workforce. With initiatives like the #SeeHer movement, the advertising industry is already making an effort to accurately portray women in media, and hopefully strong women will continue to take the spotlight.
Help inspire them outside the office
Individuality is important to Gen Z, so encouraging them to pursue their passions is vital. Recognizing that their lives are multifaceted and giving them the tools to explore and grow will help inspire them both at work and beyond.
Let them mentor you
Mentorship is a two-way street, and the more established generations could learn a thing or two from Gen Z. Opening yourself up to feedback from a younger team member might help you to see things from a fresh perspective.
As more and more of Gen Z enters the workforce, let's make sure they're being heard in a way that makes sense for them. These budding idealists have a lot to offer.