Make Space for Millennial Professionals in Higher Ed

Make Space for Millennial Professionals in Higher Ed

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A conversation at work this past week prompted a bigger dialogue between colleagues about disparities in hearing and being heard in educational-technology and higher-ed workplaces.

It was not one of those “big deal” things. We were not discussing strategy or ideas. We were just trying to schedule a meeting.

Here’s how the exchange went:

J: “Between 2 and 4 p.m. seems like the best time to meet, but not everybody is available for that whole window.”

M: “‘What about 2:30 p.m.?"

J: “If we meet at 2 or 3 p.m. then not everyone can meet. But if we meet at 2:30, then a key person could at least make half the meeting. So I think we should meet at 2:30."

M: Silence.

J: “Wait, didn’t you just suggest 2:30 p.m.?"

M: “Yes, but don’t worry about it.”

The younger colleague went on to explain, with good humor, that sometimes young professionals may feel that, unintentionally, their ideas or thoughts are not heard as readily as those of more time-proven colleagues. This might happen in situations as simple as making meeting decisions to key discussions about institutional priorities. And of course, age is just one factor affecting who is heard in our workplaces.

If you read Banaji and Greenwald’s "Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People" (and you should, it is excellent), you will learn that our actions don’t always follow what we believe to be our values. You learn that we are all susceptible to hidden biases when it comes to issues of gender, race, social class, sexual orientation, disability status and age.

In our seemingly youth-focused, technology-driven era it may come as a surprise that we may also act on hidden biases toward young colleagues. With millennials making up half of the workforce in 2015, we may be overdue to begin thinking intentionally about making space for the thoughts and ideas of everyone in our organizations, including our younger colleagues. This is especially true in technology fields: A recent survey by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation demonstrates a real need to widen the net for potential innovators in the U.S.

The world of higher education may be particularly susceptible to unconscious bias against young employees. In a field where great value is placed on the number of letters following one’s name, we may unconsciously confuse having a terminal degree with having greater perspective or insight. Without consciously making the decision to do so, academics, alt-academics and higher-education officials and administrators may place less value on the views and opinions of those in the early stages of their higher-ed careers. Young professionals may face preconceived notions about millennials in the workplace, in addition to lacking credentials.

The costs of not hearing our youngest higher-education colleagues may prove to be steep for our colleges and universities. And the need to attract or retain a new set of non-faculty, young professionals will grow as the needs of our institutions change. An appetite for risk and an absence of allegiance to business-as-usual, will be something that our colleges and universities wish to promote in their workforces—and may be attributes that younger employees can encourage.

Failing to meet basic requirements of inclusion—of making our young colleagues feel valued and heard—will quickly discourage tomorrow's potential postsecondary leaders from contemplating careers in our industry. On the other hand, opening our organizations to fresh perspectives in systematic ways, such as through early-career programs and representing young professionals on strategic teams, is a ready avenue to sow new ideas and advance our institutional missions of excellence in our fields.

As we hope this story illustrates, age bias is not an issue that can be solved without intentionality. Unconscious bias in the workplace, like accidentally not hearing a younger colleague as we shared in the real-life sketch at the start of this post, can have similarly negative consequences as those of conscious biases.

This post is our way of encouraging you to think about or start a dialogue around who is being heard in your organization: Whose ideas are being engaged, or not? Who is being asked to “prove it again?” Where are we missing opportunities to innovate because of our “blind spots?” And how can we carve out safe spaces to share in dialogue about how any form of bias, including bias stemming from age, impacts our educational technology and higher-education workplaces?

Morgan Matthews is the Presidential Fellow at DCAL (Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning) in 2015-16, where her work focuses primarily on research, evaluation, and communication projects for the center.

Joshua Kim (@joshmkim) is Director of Digital Learning Initiatives at DCAL, the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning Initiatives

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