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Wage gap between men and women almost closed for Millennials

Published: Friday, Dec. 20 2013 10:46 a.m. MST

A new study by Pew shows the wage gap is closing among Millennials, but will it last as the workers get older and make decisions about starting a family?

Cathy Yeulet, Getty Images/Hemera

A study from Pew Research shows that Millennial women (ages 25 to 34) are now earning 93 cents for every dollar earned by Millennial men. The gap dropped to 7 percent from 33 percent back in 1980.

This is not all good news, however.

Behind those numbers are other problems — and ongoing social trends that predict that parity may be fleeting.

Education and equality

"Millennial women are in this really strong position relative to men in terms of their wages, and we also know they are exceeding men in terms of educational attainment now," says Kim Parker, director of the Pew Social & Demographic Trends Project.

Pew finds that women ages 18 to 24 are more likely than similarly aged men to be in college (45 percent vs. 38 percent in 2012). Women ages 25 to 32 are also more likely to have completed college than men in that age group.

But these gains haven't entirely changed perceptions yet.

"When you look at their attitudes, they are really skeptical if the playing field is going to be level for them and they wonder what their chances are going to be to get ahead relative to men," Parker says. "Seventy-five percent of the Millennial women say that more change needs to come about in order to bring about workplace equality."

Fifty-seven percent of Millennial men also say the country needs to continue making changes to achieve gender equality in the workplace.

"When it comes to looking at corporate America and government, there are some more prominent women now," says Parker. "But the statistics there are pretty unbalanced."

Pew's report quotes statistics from nonprofit research group Catalyst, which finds that women currently hold 4.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions and 4.5 percent of Fortune 1000 CEO positions.

Millennial women are less likely than young men to work in a top leadership position. Thirty-four percent of young women say they do not want to be a boss or top manager — 10 percent more often than young men.

"Doesn't that mean there is going to be a pay gap?" says Kay Hymowitz, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor at City Journal. "You could argue that girls are not socialized to be leaders … but they have been primed from day one for leadership."

Few experience bias

Although 75 percent of Millennial women say change is needed, only 15 percent say they have been discriminated against because of their gender.

"When they take a broad view, they say the playing field is not level and that they will not get a fair shake," Parker says. "But when we ask about their work and whether men and women get paid the same for doing the same job they say, 'Oh, yeah, we are paid equally at my workplace and women have the same opportunity to advance as men.' That is an interesting contradiction."

Although the main reason the gap has closed is because women are earning more (they have risen by 25 percent over the last three decades), men are also bringing home less.

"This is a big part of the story," Parker says.

From 1980 to 2012, the median hourly wage for men has dropped 4 percent. For younger men, the drop has been 20 percent.

And it is even worse for young men without a college degree, Parker says.

Pushing for equal numbers

"Young women are more likely to be enrolled in college," Parker says. "They are more likely to be getting bachelor's degrees. They're more likely to be getting many different types of graduate degrees."

Hymowitz says pushing for equal numbers may be fighting against the personal choices women make. "There is this assumption that in equal numbers they will want to be computer programmers," she says, "or in equal numbers they will want to be CEOs or in equal numbers they will want to give up time with their kids and work long hours. If you showed me that was what people wanted, if you had evidence for it, I would say fine. But where is the evidence?"

Still, Millennial women are starting out at near pay parity. But will it continue?

"Look at what happens to women when they are about 10 to 15 years into their career," Parker says. "They start having families and start having to balance those types of responsibilities."

And when family needs require a parent to sacrifice, according to the survey, it is the women who take time off, cut back on hours or even quit their job far more often than men. Women are also more likely to turn down promotions because of family responsibilities than men are. Although men are doing more than in the past, Parker says there is still an imbalance.

"Women hit this downward slide when they have to manage all these competing responsibilities of family and work," Parker says. "When push comes to shove on these things it is usually the mom who takes time away."

Hymowitz says there are differences between the sexes in relation to taking care of children. "So much of the pay gap, in recent years, is a function of women taking time off and reducing their time at work," she says.

The majority of women say being a parent makes it harder to advance in their field of work. Only 16 percent of men say being a dad makes it harder at work.

Hymowitz speculates there might have been different results if the Pew study took mothers out of the survey. She says it may be that the remaining childless Millennial women even surpassed Millennial men's wages.

Removing barriers

"There are barriers and work hours and flexibility issues that I think we can chip away at for the sake of both men and women," Hymowitz says, "so that they can have more flexibility to combine work and family. I have no problem with that ... but should that be because our ultimate goal is absolute parity in every field? I don't think so."

Parker says Pew asked women who took these career interruptions for their work and asked them if they were glad they did it.

Both men and women who had to take steps to adjust work because of family say it was worth it; 94 percent say they are glad they did it.

Although she says she recognizes that many families couldn't afford to do so, Parker says she also took time away from her career to spend more time with her young children.

"I took five years," she says. "I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world."

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