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Millennial women have seriously narrowed the wage gap with men
But will that trend hold up as they get older?
Millenial women are getting out of the gates on more even footing with their male counterparts.
Millenial women are getting out of the gates on more even footing with their male counterparts. (Thinkstock)
M

illennial women are off to a record breaking start in the work force.

Not only do they earn more advanced degrees than their male counterparts, but they appear to have taken a significant bite out of the gender wage gap, says a new Pew Research Center study. Women ages 18 to 32 made 93 cents to every dollar men made in 2012. That's compared to an overall gap 77 cents to the dollar, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This figure makes them the first generation in modern history to "start their work lives at near parity with men," says Pew.

It looks like millennial women have a lot to feel optimistic about. But it seems that despite their robust early careers, they're not viewing the workforce with more optimism than their mothers and grandmothers. In fact, more than half of the young women Pew surveyed said society still favors men over women, while just six percent say society favors women over men — a nearly identical split to their older female counterparts.

Not only that, but it seems that educated women are more likely to think high-level jobs are harder for women to attain. "Among women with a bachelor’s degree or higher — the women most likely to be competing with men for top jobs — fully 71 percent say it’s easier for men to get these jobs than it is for women," says Pew. "Only 47 percent of women without a bachelor’s degree agree."

So why does a dreary outlook persist among young women, despite running a stellar first lap? Part of it may be that statistics back up their outlook: Just 23 women head Fortune 500 companies, says Bloomberg, accounting for yesterday's news that Mary Barra will become CEO of GM.

Their glass-half-empty outlook may also come from the fact that the gender wage gap tends to grow after women start having children. About one-in-four mothers that Pew surveyed say they quit their job at some point for "family reasons." And among mothers of all ages, 51 percent told Pew they have taken a "significant amount of time off from work to care for a child or family member." By comparison, only 16 percent of fathers said the same.

Separate research also shows that even when women continue to work while raising kids, their responsibilities at home remain intact. Last year, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that in most rich nations — the U.S. included — women still spend more hours on unpaid home-related work, like cleaning and childcare, even as they work more and more hours in the workforce. The result is that women work more hours overall per week than men, while still lagging behind in paid labor. How women may cut corners at home and work to maintain both may have some impact on their careers.

So is maintaining "parity" a matter of women doing less work at home as they start having children?

It is, of course, difficult to say. The parenthood policies at many companies don't entirely support equal parenting responsibilities at home — offering more benefits and time for maternal leave over paternal leave. But even when companies change their policy to offer men better paternity leave packages, men are less likely to use them, says a study by The Future of Children.

Some of this may come down to social attitudes. Scholars have studied the gender wage gap for decades, trying to parse out how much of it comes from women's career choices, discrimination, or some of the psychological factors Sheryl Sandberg discussed in Lean In, like resistance to negotiate raises. Pew says experts views differ widely, saying these factors may account for "anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of the earnings gap."

Carmel Lobello is the business editor at TheWeek.com. Previously, she was an editor at DeathandTaxesMag.com.

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