Why Ambitious Millennial Women Could Be Disappointed

Caroline Beaton

Millennial women are taking education by a storm. US News reports that women both enroll in college at higher rates and are less likely to drop out than men. Sixty percent of college graduates are female, and women are also more likely than men to continue their education after college. Women now account for nearly half of students in law, medical and business graduate programs (compared to roughly 10% during the 1960s).

The future for female college grads feels bright. In turn, they have high expectations. Being successful in a high-paying career is actually more important to women than men (66% versus 56%), according to Pew Research Center.

Unfortunately, reality is the inverse of our hopes – and it gets worse with time.

Among workers ages 16-34, women earn roughly 90% of what men do. But this ratio widens for 35-64-year-old women, who earn 80% or less than men do on average, according to Pew.

Here’s what that looks like for a few common professions from 2015 BLS data: The median weekly earnings for male lawyers was $1914; for women, it was $1717. Post-secondary male teachers made a median of $1405; female teachers made just $1144. Male physicians made $1915; female ones made $1533. Male marketing and sales managers earned $1603, compared to $1258 among females. Over many weeks and years, these differences amount to tens of thousands of dollars.

But the gap between genders isn’t just wages. “The gender pay gap is not primarily about men and women being paid differently for doing the same job,” Mark Crail, content director at XpertHR, told the BBC. “It’s much more about men being present in greater numbers than women the higher up the organisation you go.” Crail’s research shows that the opportunity gap “begins to open up at relatively junior levels and widens – primarily because men are more likely to be promoted.”

According to a survey of 5000 working professionals by kununu and InHerSight, only 27% of senior level women are satisfied with their representation in leadership. The same fraction is satisfied with their access to equal opportunities.

Women compose only 19% of Congress. Just 4.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs are female, and one-in-six Fortune 500 board members are women. This isn’t because fewer women than men are in these fields: Women make up more than half (52.2%) of professional occupations in the U.S.

Women entrepreneurs may fare the worst. On average, men start businesses with twice as much capital as women entrepreneurs. And women receive only one out of every 23 dollars of small business lending, even though they own three-in-10 companies.

Why does the pay and opportunity gap persist?

The first, most obvious reason is biology. Women who leave work for children, even for a couple years, often forfeit the most competitive, promising era of their career. For instance, Harvard economist Claudia Goldin found that women MBAs who temporarily leave work to rear children see their pay drop 41% compared to male MBA earnings.

Career development consultant Alexa Kerr told the Guardian that women “can’t expect” to return to the workforce at a similar level after having kids. “I think really pretty much that’s universally understood. Everyone has to accept that things will not be the same.”

A second reason the opportunity gap persists is discrimination. Two-thirds of women say their gender faces at least some discrimination today, and four-in-ten believe that “lack of readiness by companies to hire women” is a major reason there aren’t more women leaders.

Notably, the gap isn’t because women don’t want to be working. In fact, 90% of women who leave their jobs during or after pregnancy want to reboot their careers at some point later. Just 19% of working mothers would prefer to not work at all.

Discrimination, inherently tough work-family balance, stunted opportunities and a stubborn wage gap may help explain why women become less satisfied with work as they age.

Early in adult life, research shows that women are more likely than men to “fulfill their material goods and family life aspirations.” They’re more satisfied than men at work, and their overall happiness is higher.

But, researchers explain, “in later life these gender differences turn around.” Men become more satisfied with their financial situation and family life, and are happier than women. Thirty-eight percent of working fathers are “completely satisfied” with their jobs, compared to only 21% of working mothers. In kununu’s survey, men reported higher satisfaction in 15 out of 16 workplace factors, which include family growth support, learning opportunities, sponsorship or mentorship programs and salary satisfaction.

Even among individuals with identical educational backgrounds, men are more satisfied. A survey of 4,000 full-time-employed men and women who graduated from top MBA programs worldwide found that women have “significantly less career satisfaction” than their male counterparts.

As a result, women seem to lower their expectations for their careers as they age. Associate director of Pew Research Center’s Social and Demographic Trends Kim Parker noted that “older women place a lower priority on career success [than do younger women].”

In short, millennial women graduate college with fierce optimism about their impending success in the workplace. Over time, however, they make less, have fewer opportunities, and are less satisfied professionally than men. They begin to see their ambition as frivolous idealism.

When there’s a discrepancy between expectations and reality, we have two options: change our expectations, or change reality. If we don’t understand the reality of women in the workplace, we’ll set ourselves up for disappointment. If we do, we’ll set the stage for change.

Moritz Kothe, CEO of workplace transparency platform kununu U.S., explained, “We can only change the current landscape once we have done our research, had conversations and garnered insights from those who have experienced these inequalities directly.”


This post was written by Caroline Beaton (@cs_beaton), kununu’s millennial career expert. She’s an award-winning writer and entrepreneur who helps ambitious millennials change their habits and behaviors to lead more fulfilling lives. Her writing has been has been featured in Forbes, Psychology Today, Business Insider and many others.

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