April 19, 2012 at 11:12 AM ET
In a major reversal from the 1990s, young women are now more likely than young men to say a successful, high-paying career is one of the most important things in life, a new Pew Research Center study finds.
The report, released Thursday, found that 66 percent of women ages 18 to 34 said being successful and having a high-paying job are very important or one of the most important things in life. That compares to 59 percent of men that age who said the same thing.
Young women don’t seem to be willing to sacrifice other parts of their lives for their career, however. They were also more likely than men of the same age to say being a good parent and having a good marriage were among the most important things in life.
“They’re not backing away from wanting a successful marriage and wanting to be a successful parent,” said Kim Parker, associate director of Pew Social and Demographic Trends. “They’re saying they want all of those things.”
The most recent research is based on two surveys, conducted in 2010 and 2011, of working-age adults. Pew compared those results to a similar survey done in 1997.
The switch comes at a time when more women than men are getting college degrees, and women have come to make up close to half of the labor force.
Parker said that those changes have perhaps empowered women to want career success and financial rewards more than they used to. But she did not think the findings suggested that young men want those things less than they used to.
“I don’t think it’s saying anything negatively about men,” she said.
The percentage of women placing high importance on a successful, well-paying career has grown by 10 percentage points since 1997, Pew said. For men, it has increased by 1 percentage point.
The percentage of young women saying marriage is one of the most important things in life also has increased, from 28 percent in 1997 to 37 percent in 2010/2011. For men of that age, the importance of marriage has decreased during that time period, from 35 percent in 1997 to 29 percent in 2010/2011.
There was an increase among both young men and young women in the percentage who said that parenting is one of the most important things in life. Still, a higher percentage of women than men put high value on being a parent.
For both men and women, the importance of career and financial success lessens with age. The Pew study found that men and women ages 35 to 64 placed less value on workplace success than their younger peers.
Parker, the researcher, said it’s not clear whether the young women in the survey will remain as ambitious in their careers as they get older.
“It’ll be interesting to see if this plays out for them or if they end up running into glass ceilings or too many challenges in terms of balancing work and family,” she said.
There’s plenty of evidence that women start out virtually on par with men in terms of earnings, but then see their earnings fall behind as they get older.
In 2010, women in their late teens and early 20s earned about 95 cents for every dollar a man earned, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ analysis of median weekly earnings data. But women ages 55 to 64 earned just 75 cents for every dollar a man earned, according to that same data.
Overall, the wage gap between men’s and women’s weekly earnings has narrowed since record-keeping began in 1979. But it has always been generally true that the gender difference in pay was wider for older women than for younger women.
There are lots of theories as to why this is true, even for women and men who choose the same types of professions.
In 2009, University of Chicago professor Marianne Bertrand and her colleagues took a look at men and women who had earned MBAs from the university’s Booth School of Business between 1990 and 2006.
The researchers found that the male and female MBA grads started out earning about the same: $115,000 on average for women and $130,000 on average for men.
But the gap widened substantially as time went on. Nine years later, the women were earning $250,000 on average, while the men were taking home $400,000 on average.
They theorized that a major culprit was motherhood. The researchers found that women were taking more time off work, or not working at all, and also were more likely to be in jobs that paid less.
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