Companies & Industries

Gen X Women: Moving Up


Who says Gen Xers are slackers? A new government study finds that women between the ages of 25 and 34 work in higher-skilled professions, put in more hours, and are more likely to take on multiple jobs than their counterparts did a quarter century ago.

And Gen X women are getting paid more than the generation before them, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). True, women in this age group earned only 82% as much as men in 2000 on average. But that's considerably better than in 1979, when they brought home only 68% as much. "Young women have substantially closed the 'earnings gap' with their male counterparts," write BLS economists Marisa DiNatale and Stephanie Boraas in a recent study, The Labor Force Experience of Women from "Generation X."

RISING, THOUGH NOT EQUALLY. More education and antidiscrimination legislation help account for the gains women have made, the researchers say. Many more women have college degrees today than in 1975 -- 30% in this age group have completed four years of college, up from 18% back then. The changes haven't affected all ethnic groups equally, though: Black women are also heading off to college in greater numbers -- 17% of those aged 25 to 34 have completed at least four years of college vs. 10% in 1975 -- but they aren't as well represented as their white counterparts.

Once out of school, young women are working harder and longer. Women toiling in nonagricultural fields worked on average 2.5 hours more a week -- 37.9 hours in all -- in 2000 than in 1976. Men in 2000 worked only 0.7 hours a week longer, or 43.9 hours, vs. 1976. Young women today are also more likely to hold more than one job. In May, 2001, some 6% of women were juggling at least two jobs, compared to only 3% in 1975 -- if you don't count maintaining a household as a job.

The increase in hours likely reflects the fact that Gen X women hold higher positions in business than their predecessors did. In 2000, young women made up 51% of total employment in executive, administrative, and managerial occupations, according to the BLS. As recently as 1983, they represented only 38% of total employment in these higher-profile jobs.

BARRIERS REMAIN. Still, women aren't as well represented in top corporate jobs as they should be. "Movement over time [into more prestigious jobs] would make sense, as [more] Gen-X women [with higher aspirations] entered the workforce in the 1970s and '80s, and they've been in the pipeline longer," says Johanna Ramos, a spokeswoman for Catalyst, a New York group that works for the advancement of women in business. But she adds: "Although women see themselves moving up the ladder, they're still finding the same barriers as women in the previous generation: The key advancement strategy is that women have to work harder to get the same reward."

The BLS study also reports that young black and Hispanic women are underrepresented in high-wage fields. For instance, black and Hispanic women make up 7.1% and 5.6%, respectively, of everyone in the workforce aged 25 to 34. However, they account for only 5.7% and 4.1%, respectively, of the executive, administrative, and managerial jobs held by people that age.

Moreover, "women continued to be concentrated in some fairly traditional 'women's occupations,'" the economists write. The study shows that women 16 and older made up 99% of kindergarten and preschool teachers, 85% of librarians, and 84% of legal assistants in 2000.

PLENTY OF OPTIONS. The percentage of working mothers has also jumped dramatically since 1975, according to the study, partly because in many families, it now takes two incomes to support a middle-class lifestyle. In 2000, some 70% of young women with kids were in the workforce, compared to 45% in 1975. Even more revealing, some 63% of women with children younger than three were employed, while only 33% worked in 1975.

Husbands still believe that their careers are more important than the careers of their spouses, says Ramos. That's just one of the challenges women continue to face, along with workplace discrimination, a chronic shortage of mentors, and greater responsibility than men for personal and familial obligations, according to Catalyst. Even so, Gen-X women have broader horizons and higher expectations than their predecessors did, setting an inspiring example for those who will follow. By Billy Cheng in New York


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