The role of women in the workplace has changed dramatically over the last few decades, with females experiencing greater opportunities for advancement and a higher income relative to men than ever before. Yet, for all that has changed, professional women still see this as a man’s world, and one where — in many cases — they feel overlooked for top promotions and opportunities based solely on gender. The Pew Research Center examined these issues and more in a recent study of 2,002 adults aimed at exploring the changing roles of women and men in the modern workplace. Here’s what they found.

Millennials level the playing field

While the income disparity between men and women is hard to quantify, findings from the Pew Research report suggest that the gap may be closing, at least for younger workers. According to the data, women ages 25 to 34 earned 93 percent as much as men the same age in 2012. That’s the highest ratio on record, up from a measly 67 percent in 1980.

This shrinking wage gap could be the result of higher educational attainment among women, notes Pew, as 38 percent of millennial women surveyed held a four-year degree, compared to only 31 percent of men. However, the statistics don’t hold up when you take the wages of older female workers into account. In fact, when you consider earnings for all workers ages 16 and up, women’s hourly wages were only 84 percent those of men in 2012. What this tells us is that women are starting their careers out relatively strong only to lose ground somewhere along the way. But why?

And baby makes three

Research shows that young women are beginning their careers with higher educational attainment than men and a high wage relative to what their mothers and grandmothers earned. Then, at a certain point, many experience the drastic shift in priorities commonly referred to as “parenthood.” Even in a situation where both parents work, research shows that women find it to be more of a struggle to balance career and family. A few interesting statistics from the Pew Research study:

  • 42 percent of working mothers surveyed reported taking time off to care for a child or family member, compared to only 28 percent of fathers
  • 39 percent of working mothers surveyed reported taking significant time off to care for a child or family member, compared to only 24 percent of fathers
  • 27 percent of women reported quitting their job to care for a child or family member, compared to only 10 percent of men

Unfortunately, while time off with the kids may be good for the family unit, it can negatively affect career momentum. According to recent data, 34 percent of mothers who reduced work hours to care for a child or family member feel that it hurt their career, compared to only 18 percent of fathers. And when it comes to promotions, female workers claim to take the brunt of missed opportunities due to parenthood. In fact, 51 percent of working mothers surveyed claimed that being a parent made it harder to advance in their career, compared to only 16 percent of working fathers.

A matter of perception

Part of the problem, according to findings from the Pew study, is that most women feel that the odds are stacked against them. Despite dramatic gains in educational attainment and wages, millennial women in particular tend to believe that they’re getting a raw deal. A full 60 percent of female workers ages 25-32 felt that men generally earn more than women for doing the same work, and 58 percent believe that it’s easier for men to get promoted to top positions. The study reported similar findings when questioning women of all ages, with 72 percent of women claiming that society needs to do more to ensure equality in the workplace, compared to only 61 percent of men. Even more, 71 percent of women with a bachelor’s degree or higher felt that they were at an extreme disadvantage when competing against men for jobs.

Strangely, women (and men) surveyed didn’t report gender equality issues within their own workplace at such high levels, which could mean that much of the unfairness in question is perceived and not necessarily derived from real world experience. The following statistics seem to back up this theory:

  • 75 percent of men and 73 percent of women surveyed felt men and women were paid the same for the same job where they work
  • 73 percent of men and 72 percent of women surveyed felt that women had the same opportunities for advancement where they work
  • Only 14 percent of adults claimed to have been a victim of gender discrimination at any time during their career, although a higher percentage of women reported it (18 percent of women compared to 10 percent of men)

Women: Leaning back as their careers progress

According to a 2012 McKinsey and Company study of 60 leading corporations, women made up only 27 percent of vice presidents, 24 percent of senior vice presidents, and 19 percent of executives in the C-suite. Since women account for nearly half of the U.S. labor force today, these statistics show that women’s careers are stagnating, leaving more room for men to move up. However, Pew Research data seems to indicate that, while women may dream of being the boss when they’re young, the desire tends to wane as they get older:

  • 61 percent of women and 70 percent of men ages 18-32 said they would like to be a boss or top manager one day
  • 41 percent of women and 68 percent of men ages 33-48 said they would like to be a boss or top manager one day
  • 21 percent of women and 32 percent of men ages 49 to 62 said they would like to be a boss or top manager one day
  • 53 percent of women of all ages claimed that they have no interest in being the boss

Research seems to indicate that many women’s priorities change naturally as they age and start taking on family responsibilities. And it makes sense. Raising a family is a time-consuming endeavor, and one that generally takes place during the prime of one’s career. However, that’s just one of the factors that seems to be holding women back. The Pew Research study claims that other forces may be at play, including gender stereotypes, discrimination, professional networks aimed at men, and the fact that women tend to be less aggressive about raises and promotions.

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