Last week, the Pew Research Center published some news that appeared to be of the good kind: Millennial women are finally closing the gender wage gap.
Pew revealed that in 2012, the median hourly wage for women came out to 84% of men's, while as recently as 1980, women had only reached 64%. But millennial women in particular were making larger strides, while millennial men were making slightly smaller ones; in 2012, millennial women made 93% as much as their male peers on the hour.
And yet, millennial women aren’t fully satisfied with the results. Three-quarters of those surveyed agreed that the country needed to do more to bring about workplace equality. Only 57% of millennial men concurred.
In some ways, the working environment for women is better than ever. As Pew points out, women are outpacing men in college enrollment, and have worked our way into highly skilled, high-paying professions in force. But at the same time, several inequalities persist. Studies have shown that women either ask for raises less often than men, or when they do, they're still held behind. Pew also wonders what will happen to women once they reach an age at which they want to have children—will the gap widen? Then, there's also the larger working environment outside of white-collar gigs to consider, which may still be eons behind the times.
There's a lot of conflicting information out there about women asking for raises. One oft-cited tome on the subject, by Carnegie Mellon and Harvard University researchers Linda Babcock and Sarah Laschever, cites some troubling statistics about women in the business world. Babcock found that there was a 7.6% difference in starting salaries of male and female MBAs, and likely due to the fact that the vast majority of women didn't to negotiate. (More than half of men, they found, did negotiate, with success.)
Other research claims the opposite conclusion. When two researchers from Catalyst, a nonprofit supported by major multi-national corporations, tracked more than 1,660 MBA graduates they had identified as "high potential" over the last decade, they found that women, just as much as men, aspired to become CEOs or reach managerial positions. They also found that women, even when doing the negotiating or shifting jobs, saw slower compensation growth than men who did the same.
A couple of anecdotes to illustrate both phenomena: As a millennial woman, I will never forget the look on one male boss’s face one of the first times I’ve ever asked for a raise. He had been a real mentor to me, and I worked my ass off in gratitude. I was extremely young, working full-time, and for significantly less than I probably deserved. I received raises in rank and responsibility, but not in cash. After a year, I decided I needed to figure out a better way to feed myself than by periodically asking my parents to send boxes of Trader Joe's macaroni to my apartment.
I was very polite, ingratiating even. But it was a no-go. The next time I was asked to throw out a new desired salary, I decided to call guru and writerly confidante of female journalists, Ann Friedman. We spent at least half an hour going over what kinds of figures would be reasonable, and once I had enough sourcing from those in similar positions in the industry, how I’d pitch. I’d present my number as the culmination of thorough reporting (like it was), and speak slowly, rationally, without an inch of "I deserve!" in my tone. When I tried it on my new boss, there was a second-long pause. "Sold!" he said.
Women are succeeding in the workplace at an unprecedented rate. But the fact remains that many formerly male-dominated industries were designed with built-in biases. Women were simply excluded at the time those institutions’ DNAs were coded. As a result, as much as our society has changed, the friction and dysfunction persist. We’re learning the language of asking for what we deserve, though even when we speak it fluently, it can come as a surprise, or cast us in a negative light.
It’s also impossible to look at the millennial earning phenomenon in a vacuum. Outside the world of white-collar labor, service industry jobs are growing, but wages are stagnant. Some 70% of the service industry is female, and they represent some of the most exploited workers in the country. If you're earning minimum wage, or below minimum wage at $90 a week, and spend 35% of your earnings on child care, there's not much "living up to your potential" or "breaking through the glass ceiling" to be had: There's just surviving.
Nearly three-quarters of public assistance benefits go to the already-working poor. Because their industries pay them so little, they're forced to rely on government. In October, a blockbuster study from the University of California-Berkeley revealed that this was the case for 52% of fast-food workers nationwide.
Some hope that the effects of high-powered, wealthy women who Lean In will eventually trickle down to the masses, but there's some reason to be skeptical of that assumption. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer sits on the board of Walmart, which recently received a bellyful of bad press not just for its maintenance of low-wages, but for a donation bin in an Ohio store for its poverty-stricken workers. More than half of Walmart's 1.3 million employees are female.
It's not all bad news: Walmart recently issued a promising new platform for women entrepreneurs. Then again, that was only after a massive, but dismissed, class action gender discrimination suit dominated headlines in 2011. Meanwhile, Walmart, Sears, Children's Place, and other American retailers have refused to compensate the victims of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, where more than 1,200 workers, the majority of them women, died as a result of poor working conditions.
Leaning in is part of, but not necessarily a comprehensive solution to, these ills. So should millennial women shut up and be placated about working equality? There's still a long way to go, within and outside of white-collar labor. It's no wonder that 75% of us are working our asses off for more.