Gender Wage Gap: Near Equity for Young Millennials, But Then It Gets Worse

7408506410_715acb5f6fA new Pew Research Center survey shows that young U.S. women today are near wage parity with men. But don’t clap yet—the gender wage gap widens with age.

Among 25-to-34-year-olds, women workers earn 93 cents to every dollar earned hourly by a man, but by the time women reach their mid-30s their relative earnings start to fall. The median hourly wage for all working women is 84 cents to every man’s dollar.*

The wage gap being narrower for younger women is something researchers have seen for awhile, says Kate Gallagher Robbins, a senior policy analyst at the National Women’s Law Project (NWLP). One reason: Women face discrimination in hiring, promotions and pay raises. Says Gallagher Robbins,

When you are early in your career, you haven’t been through promotions yet, you haven’t had these pay increases, so the fact that your wages are more similar [to men] at a younger age is partly reflective of that.

In addition, motherhood is a high predictor for wage discrimination, says Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive director of the advocacy group Moms Rising. A Columbia University study found that employed mothers make 5 percent less in wages per child, controlling for education and other workplace factors. Another study from Cornell University concluded that mothers receive $11,000 less per year than childless women, even with equivalent experience and education. With 81 percent of U.S. women having kids before age 44, Rowe-Finkbeiner says,

[The discriminatory pay practice] impacts most women at some point in their lives, and everyone has a mother, so it really impacts us all.

Adds Lauren Frohlich, a public policy fellow at the NWLP,

It’s not just the fact that you’re a mother or a caregiver. There’s actually documented discrimination against women because they are assumed to be caregivers.

Working mothers also spend twice as much time on childcare than working fathers. Pew’s study shows substantially more working mothers than fathers reported taking significant time off work (42 percent versus 28 percent) or reducing their hours to care for a family member (39 percent versus 24 percent), and women were much more likely to say these work interruptions were a detriment to their career overall.

Children aside, Pew notes women face other gender stereotypes and discrimination. They have less robust professional networks than men and tend to hesitate asking for raises and promotions. Pew says these harder-to-measure factors may account for up to 40 percent of the gender pay gap.

Solutions abound for closing the widening gender wage gap. The Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act would help create an insurance plan that includes paid sick and family leave for all workers, and the Paycheck Fairness Act would allow women to discuss pay scales with their coworkers without punishment. As Gallagher Robbins notes, women, especially mothers, “don’t necessarily know they’re being paid less.” More sweeping solutions would include companies offering more paid time off for childcare and sick leave, Rowe-Finkbeiner says. May we add splitting childcare duties more equally among spouses and passing the Equal Employment Opportunity Restoration Act, which would allow employees to bring forth class-action lawsuits on the basis of existing anti-discrimination laws?

And then there’s what happens to women when they end their careers. As Gallagher Robbins explains,

One of the major issues that women face is retirement security. As you know, women have longer life expectancies than do men, but they also earn lower wages over the course of their career, and so their social security benefits are smaller, [and] if they’re lucky enough to have a pension, their pensions are smaller. … Older women have twice the amount of poverty that older men do.

Solutions exist. Remind your legislators.

*Pew’s number applies to both part-time and full-time workers and is based on hourly wages. Many organizations, including Ms., use the statistic that women earn 77 cents to every man’s dollar, which considers the annual salaries of workers working full time all year. Both are correct.

Photo from Tax Credits under license from Creative Commons 2.0




Emily Zak is finishing her B.A. in journalism from the University of Montana as an editorial intern for Ms.







  1. Thank you for your piece. Solutions do exist and I think wymin need to focus more on how THEY can independently solve this problem and less on what others can do for them. Here are choices that wymin in America can make which could “nip things in the bud”:
    1. Wymin can to choose to marry people who value gender equality and will do their fair share of household and baby work; stop marrying slackers!;
    2. Wymin can allow their partners to “step up to the plate” to do half of household and baby work; get out of the way and let the man work it!
    4. Wymin can make a short term sacrifice for a long term gain: wymin today could sacrifice having children (and marriage, if necessary) and work to achieve decision-making power positions in order for wymin to “change the rules of the game” and create the kinds of working environments that work for them and/or later generations of wymin. It’s not a bad thing. Many of us are happy to be childfree!

    • Wait–why are you spelling “women” as “wymin”? I can’t get passed that to read your (I’m hoping) thoughtful comment.

  2. Thanks for posting this article, especially the section on wage discrimination against mothers. I don’t think that the wage gap will end until employers required to do something about it. For example, employers need to post the average wages of their female and male employees for similar jobs. They need to show the steps they are taking to narrow the wage gap. They need to train their managers to monitor their subconscious sexism when a woman negotiates for higher pay.

    I know that in a capitalist society, employers are encouraged to get the biggest bang for the smallest buck, so requiring them to commit to fair wages is going to get a HUGE amount of pushback. However, most capitalist societies claim to be democratic, so it is fitting and long overdue for feminists to demand wage accountability from employers. Yes, that means legislation that goes way beyond The Fair Pay Act. Sorry, but if The Fair Pay Act is just about letting colleagues discuss their salaries, it’s a pretty wimpy piece of legislation.

  3. I enjoyed the post. I am working on my doctorate and my thesis work is on the gender gap, and I haven’t quite established what my question is, this helps to place a gender lens on my research.

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