Millennial Women at Work: Progress and Struggles in the American Workplace

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The roles, opportunities, and treatment of women in the American workplace have been gradually shifting for many decades. Issues such as equal opportunity and equal pay for equal work have been addressed across several generations, yet remain unresolved. The Millennials are the latest generation to encounter these workplace hurdles. In October 2013, Pew Research Center surveyed 2,002 adults, including 810 Millennials (ages 18 to 32), asking questions pertaining to gender and work. Pew combined the results with analysis of Census data to create a picture of the roles and attitudes of men and women in the US workplace.

Using data from this survey and other relevant sources, this brief examines six trends impacting Millennial women and men in the workplace.

  • The wage gap between men and women has narrowed, but not disappeared for the Millennial generation.
  • There is a consensus that more work needs to be done to eliminate unequal treatment.
  • Women and men are less likely to perceive unfairness in their own workplace than in the working world overall.
  • Millennial women are strongly focused on their careers.
  • There are signs that Millennial women are dealing with significant stress and feeling lower job satisfaction.
  • Millennial women and men are not optimistic about balancing work and family.

FOCUSED ON CAREER

Millennial women appear to be strongly focused on their careers— by some measures, more so than Millennial men; by other measures, a bit less.

Strong career focus. When asked, “Of the people you know, who are around your age, who is more focused on their career?” most Millennials see no difference between men and women. Some 20 percent of Millennial men and 28 percent of Millennial women say women are more focused on their careers than men, while 15 percent of Millennial men and 10 percent of Millennial women say men are more focused on their careers than women. Among those who see a clear difference, Millennials are the only generation who see women near their own age as more career-focused than men.

Aspiring to reach the top. Millennial men (70%) are somewhat more likely than Millennial women (61%) to aspire to be a top manager someday. Aspiration to reach the top falls off in older generations, perhaps because workers have less career time remaining to achieve such a goal; the gender gap is also larger for older generations.

Willing to ask for a raise or promotion. Survey participants were asked whether they have ever in their working lives asked for a promotion or a pay raise. Some 45 percent of Millennials responded affirmatively, fewer than Gen Xers (54%), about the same as boomers (48%), and more than Silents (34%), despite the fact that Millennials have worked far fewer years than their older peers. About the same proportion of Millennial men and Millennial women have asked for a raise or promotion (47% versus 42%). Note that Accenture’s 2011 survey reported that Millennial women are less likely than Millennial men to actively manage their careers or ask for a raise. (Note also that age and time in the workforce are confounding factors in analyzing these results, as those with more time at work have had more opportunity to “lean in” in these ways. It is possible that Millennials are more aggressive in the workplace than members of other generations were at the same age.)

STRESSED AND AT RISK

There are signs that Millennial women are dealing with significant stress and feeling lower job satisfaction.

  • Less likely to be satisfied, especially women. Millennials (43%) are significantly less likely than Gen Xers (54%) or boomers (55%) to report that they are “very satisfied” with their current job. Roughly equal proportions of all generations (57% of Millennials, for example) are satisfied with the pay they receive. In the FleishmanHillard and Hearst study, 35 percent of female Millennials say they are extremely or very satisfied with their career compared to 54 percent of Millennial men. In that study, women are as satisfied or more satisfied than men in both the Gen X (36% versus 29%) and boomer (49% versus 46%) generations. A similar pattern was reported for satisfaction with home life, work-life balance, and finances.11 In the Accenture survey, 31 percent of female Millennials describe their career as “stagnant” and 47 percent say they are held back by lack of opportunities or a clear career path.
  • Ambitious and successful but stressed and exhausted. In the 2013 iteration of the Women, Power & Money study conducted by FleishmanHillard and Hearst Corporation, participants were asked whether they would describe themselves as “smart.” Among women, 70% of Millennial women, 63 percent of Gen X women, and 57 percent of boomer women agreed. (Just 54 percent of Millennial men, 55 percent of Gen X men, and 57 percent of boomer men see themselves as “smart.”) Similar patterns were seen for other descriptors, including “successful” and “ambitious” but also “anxious,” “stressed,” “exhausted,” and “sarcastic.” The study authors noted that US Millennial women were “the first to grow up in a post–Title IX world where few question the message that ‘girls can do anything boys can do.’”
  • At risk of burning out? According to Forbes contributor Larissa Faw, “a growing number of young professional women who seem to ‘have it all’ are burning out at work before they reach 30.” Faw offers several possible explanations:
    • Men are more likely than women to take breaks during the workday for personal activities or to relax.
    • Women are continuing a pattern of hard work/ overwork that they developed during their school years.
    • Women (and men) newly entering the professional workforce have unrealistic expectations about the rigors of a full-time job and have not prepared for building a career over the long haul.

HARD TO BALANCE WORK AND FAMILY

Millennials are not optimistic about balancing work and family, and indeed some may be choosing not to have children at all.

Children will impact advancement. When Millennials who are not yet parents anticipate having children, 62 percent say it will make career advancement harder while 34 percent say it won’t make a difference; there is no gender gap in these responses.

Children do, in fact, impact advancement. Some 58 percent of Millennial mothers who have worked (but only 19 percent of Millennial fathers who are working) say that being a parent makes it harder to advance in their career.

Generational, not gender, issue. Ruth Grant, a partner at law firm Hogan Lovells, sees a shift in workplace discussions about flexible working arrangements. “The whole Gen Y thing, I think, is going to convert this from being more of a gender issue to more of a generation issue.”

3 BUSINESS IMPLICATIONS

  • It will become increasingly important to recruit Millennial women into organizations, especially as the number of female college graduates exceeds the number of male college graduates. A “cost of entry” for becoming an employer of choice for this demographic is to offer equal pay for equal work and to root out any vestiges of workplace gender discrimination. The fact that Millennial men are more likely than men of other generations to believe that needed workplace changes have already been accomplished suggests that organizations will have to work diligently to keep focus on this issue, especially among male Millennial managers.
  • Both the Pew study and Stew Friedman’s Baby Bust suggest that having a job that has a positive impact on society is an important value for Millennial women. Organizations that can make a case that their activities make a strong contribution to society may have an advantage in recruiting and retaining female Millennials.
  • One of the clearest ways to demonstrate support for women in the workplace is to promote women to positions of senior leadership.