Young women are closing the gap between what they and their male peers make, a new study finds. But that's not helping them feel any more encouraged about the prospects for their career.

CREDIT: Pew Research Center CREDIT: Pew Research Center

A new Pew Research Center survey and analysis of census data finds that, in 2012, young women aged 25 to 34 made 93 percent of what their male peers made, up from 89 percent in 2005. That's far above the 84 percent pay gap for all women, according to the Pew analysis released Wednesday.

"What really stood out is the youngest cohort of women have entered into the workplace at a place of near-parity," said Kim Parker, associate director with the Pew Social & Demographic Trends Project. Yet when asked about their future careers, "they feel like men earn more than women for doing the same job, and that it's easier for men to get top executive jobs. Their view of the world is very similar to middle-aged and older women despite the fact that they have made these gains."

The attitudes the young women express in the survey stands in contrast to the views often assigned to Generation Y. "The conventional wisdom is that millennial women don’t know what’s going to hit them when they have children, that they're so naïve," says Joan Williams, the founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at UC Hastings College of the Law. "Well, not so much. This shows millennial women know they’re not facing a level playing field."

In question after question in the Pew study, young women reported sensing that the deck was stacked against them. Seventy-five percent of millennial women--nearly as many as their Boomer generation parents--say the country needs to continue making changes to bring about equality in the workplace. Sixty percent believe men generally earn more for doing similar work. Fifty-eight percent of young women believe it is easier for men than women to get promoted into top positions.

And 62 percent of young women who've yet to have children believe that doing so will make it harder to advance in their careers. However, what's especially interesting about that number, Williams says, is that it's roughly the same as the number of millennial men who think having kids will slow down their careers.

"That's a big change," Williams says."It has really profound potential to actually fuel the kinds of changes that mothers have needed and not gotten for two generations. Organizations that have been willing to just scratch their heads when it comes to losing mothers are going to have to do something about it when it comes to losing men, too."

CREDIT: Pew Research Center CREDIT: Pew Research Center

The millennial generation is also the only generation in which women were seen to be more focused on their careers than their male counterparts were. That could be due to a greater realism on the part of young women, who've watched their mothers struggle with balancing work and family demands, about how difficult it will be and how hard they must work early in their careers to set themselves up for success once they have children.

In addition to the survey, Pew analyzed hourly wages from U.S. Census data to examine the gender wage gap. The trajectory of women's wages begins to decline 10 to 15 years into their careers, Parker says. The timing of that decline coincides with when women are faced with the demands of starting families, and must make choices about cutting hours, taking time off, turning down promotions or quitting jobs--all of which Pew's survey shows women do in greater numbers than men.

Despite the obstacles young women sense about balancing their careers and families, just 14 percent of all women in the survey said they have ever been the victim of gender discrimination on the job. Roughly three-quarters of women say their own workplaces offer them the same opportunities for advancement as men receive.

The contradiction between those numbers and the challenges so many women (and men) cite reveals the "very widespread perception that there’s something wrong and people haven’t a clue about what to do about it," Williams says. "They’re sensing that the world is still very much weighted against women and they don’t have an explanation for why many of the things they report are actually evidence of discrimination."

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

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