The XX Factor

The Wage Gap Is Closing, So Why Do Millennial Women Still Feel Unequal?

No really, millennials, do it

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A new Pew Research Center report brings glad tidings about gender in the workplace, although some of the cheer is fleeting. After surveying 2,002 adults (including 810 millennials) and combing through 2012 census data, researchers found that women are more educated, more active in the labor force, and more likely to hold high-paying positions, than ever. Young women saw the most gains: Women ages 18 to 32 are a few slim percentage points away from wage parity. Those advances have yet to register psychologically, though. Women still perceive an uphill climb ahead of them, in part due to the unequal “responsibilities of parenthood and family.” All three generations of women surveyed—millennial, Gen X and Boomer—“view this as a man’s world.”

But first, the good news. Once upon a time, in 1980, women made 64 percent of what men did. Today’s working ladies earn 84 percent of the male paycheck. Female millennials in particular are tantalizingly close to crushing the wage gap, pulling down 93 percent of their male counterparts’ salaries. 

For that, they can largely thank their educations. As the paper reveals, “Among older Millennials today (those ages 25 to 32), 38% of women have a bachelor’s degree, compared with 31% of men. And among younger Millennials (those ages 18 to 24), women are more likely than men to be enrolled in college (45% vs. 38% in 2012).” But there’s bad news: The gap is also narrowing as male wages decline. “Overall, the median hourly wage for men decreased 4% from 1980-2012,” the study says, with wages for younger men dropping by 20 percent.

Do young men and women feel equal? Not really. Pew found that 51 percent of female millennials (and 55 percent of female boomers) believe that society favors men over women. And both millennial women (75 percent) and millennial guys (57 percent) are convinced that workplace equity is far from acheived. Despite that large vote of no confidence, though, only 15 percent of young women say they’ve personally experienced gender discrimination at work.

Why do the feelings of inequality persist? One might assume that these young, survey-taking women are just slow to awaken to their brand new day, clinging instead to their mothers’ disappointments. But Pew wisely points out that female millennials may be projecting into the future: “There is no guarantee that today’s young women will sustain their near parity with men in earnings in the years to come,” they write.

That’s because, where pay is concerned, working women tend to fall farther behind men the older they get. According to the report, more than half of mothers believe their off-the-clock responsibilities have compromised their careers, compared to only 16 percent of fathers. It should come as no surprise that 63 percent of millennial women likewise expect to lose some job opportunities when they have children. What’s more, millennial women are still less likely than millennial men to say they have ambitions of being the boss—and they are significantly less likely to report they have asked for a promotion or raise. As a millennial woman, I can attest that the words “Lean In” at this point make me want to lobotomize myself with a grapefruit spoon. Still, when it comes to slowing the trend described above, I hope my generation’s unquenchable narcissism will assert itself in time.