Younger generations could drastically impact the future of working women

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April 27, 2011 - 7:00pm

Part one of this two-part series on women and the economy can be found here

It's just about 7 p.m. on a recent Wednesday. Seven young women, ages 19 to 21, are seated in a circle on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus for a meeting of the Undergraduate Women in Business club. One is from Swanton. Another hails from Fremont. A third calls Crete home. They're pursuing career-driven majors like actuarial science, accounting and marketing and management.


Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause

Members of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Undergraduate Women in Business club discuss event plans at a recent meeting.

Teaser video for an exhibit on young women and the economy currently online at the International Museum of Women.

Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause

Twenty-year-old University of Nebraska-Lincoln actuarial science student Kelsey Bridges, Crete, said at a recent meeting of the Undergraduate Women in Business club that when she thinks about the wage gap, it makes her angry.

"I think part of it is, at least for me, and I think most of us in this room There's no difference between us and guys in our classes and things," said Marian Hanigan, a 21-year-old actuarial science student from Lincoln. "We've been pushed and we've seen ourselves excel just as well as they have, and that's been expected in the academic realm.

"So maybe we'll see it's different in the workforce, but I think for all of us, we've grown up being told we could do what we wanted and be anything we wanted," she continued. "Where our parents' generation wasn't told that, and they entered the workforce where that was that bias already."

The national wage gap sees women earning about 80 cents for every dollar men make, even after adjusting for experience, position, industry and education.

But according to a 2009 study by the non-profit Families and Work Institute, hourly employed women 20 to 24 years old in 2007 earned 90 percent of what their male counterparts earned, Teenage women earned 95 percent of what their male counterparts earned. Although teenagers of both genders generally have rather menial jobs, young women might have higher expectations about wage parity than in the past.

In fact, the business students I spoke with were surprised to learn the wage gap was still so high.

"I feel like in our generation, or how I've grown up, I've always felt equal to the males," said Courtney Wells, a 21-year-old accounting student from Palmer. "I've never felt like they were more likely to get a job over me or anything like that. So it's a little surprising to me."

Almost all the students said they plan to have families and careers, though they acknowledged it might not be easy. This fits with the results of a 2010 study by business research company Accenture, which found that 94 percent of young professional women believe they will have rewarding careers balanced with fulfilling personal lives.

Kelli Schmitt, aged 20, is a marketing and management student from Elgin. She said expectations her mother faced as a young woman have changed.

"You know, at the time it was her job when she got pregnant to kind of quit school and take care of the family, to start the family," Schmitt said. "Nobody thinks that way now. You know, I don't think I have to quit my job to establish my family. It's a lot different that way."


Click here for the 2010 report from business research company Accenture on millennial women in the workplace

Click here for the a 2009 report on the changing workforce, from the Families and Work Institute

The women surveyed by Accenture were asked to rank barriers to their careers. Twelve percent cited marriage, while 19 percent mentioned maternity policies. Thirty percent cited the wage gap.

20-year-old Kelsey Bridges, an actuarial science student from Crete, said although she's not worried about the wage gap affecting her, the thought of it makes her angry.

Heidi Hartmann, president of the non-profit Institute for Women's Policy Research, said she hopes women fuel that anger into change.

"They may find it not too easy to do what they prefer to do," she said. "And in that case, I would hope that this generation will get involved in trying to change public policies and trying to change policies at their workplaces."

But even if labor policies don't change in the near future, attitudes for both men and women already have, according to the Families and Work Institute study.

In 1977, less than half of men agreed that mothers who work can have just as good of relationship with their children as mothers who don't work. Thirty years later, that number has increased to almost 70 percent.

And men are sharing household duties more equally. Employed fathers under 29 spend more than twice as much time per workday with their children than the average employed father in 1977. Hartmann said she thought this trend will continue.

"As this generation moves into parenting and having children, I think we will see come signs of more equal parenting," she said.

Another major factor for change is education. According to the U.S. Department of Education, women are outpacing men in high school diplomas, undergraduate, graduate and even master's degrees.

And simply growing up with a working mother has changed attitudes for both men and women, experts said. About half the UNL students had working mothers.

Chart on attitudes toward traditional gender roles from a 2009 report from the Families and Work Institute.

Heidi Cuca, 45, is a major gift officer for BryanLGH Health System in Lincoln. A fifth-generation Nebraskan, the DeWitt native said she never felt like taking time off after her two children's births hurt her career.

"I think the women probably before me, maybe just the generation right before me, were probably the pioneers," she said. "I think I'm lucky in that I was in the right time, and just took advantage. Maybe made that situation better for hopefully the women that follow me."

Despite gains made, however, the young women who will be tomorrow's workforce acknowledge that their choice to have it all won't be easy.

"I do understand that it's probably going to be really hard," said Bridges, the 20-year-old actuarial science student. "But hopefully with good support, and a good employer that understands about taking time off for your kids' stuff, and when your kids get sick, (it'll be easier). And maybe even a daycare at work or something. That would be helpful."



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