Millennial women are finding roadblocks remain on their road to success
CHICAGO — When Courtney Winfrey, 30, graduated in 2009, she knew she might not get a dream job right away.
Still, she hoped for more than what became her best offer after applying and interviewing during a recession: an unrelated sales job without benefits. But she accepted and was determined to work her way up. The same for the next job and the next.
Winfrey, who has since found a fulfilling job as a university recruiter, is one of many millennial women working her way through jobs after college graduation. A new report by the Population Reference Bureau found that many millennial women’s careers are stalled.
Unlike generations before them, millennial women are not experiencing an improvement in well-being, according to “Progress in U.S. Women’s Well-Being Stalled in Recent Generations” from the bureau, a private, nonprofit organization that specializes in statistics necessary for research and academic purposes.
The June report states that today’s millennial women face persistent poverty, and although they are more likely to have college degrees, that isn’t translating to high-paying jobs. The report notes that the poverty rate rose 37 percent between Generation X and millennials, a statistic that surprised even researchers.
“When we started, frankly, we expected to see progress,” says Beth Jarosz, senior research associate with the bureau and co-author of the report. But entering adulthood during a serious and prolonged recession, she says, “clearly has had an effect on earnings and on poverty for a whole generation.”
Millennial women face unique challenges. Many graduated in a recession-weary job market. Often, women say, they accepted jobs with lower salaries than expected or were unable to find a job at all. Some moved back in with their parents or juggled multiple minimum-wage jobs. At the same time, they face high student debt.
Men, too, have dealt with effects of the recession and student debt after graduation. The reference bureau’s report does not compare women’s well-being to men’s, instead comparing millennial women only to women from earlier generations. But experts all noted that when millennial women enter the workforce, they encounter a stubborn wage gap and sexism.
“Women are so highly educated to do all these wonderful things, but nobody tells them what the tricks are in order to succeed at work,” says Andie Kramer, a lawyer who mentors young women and co-author of Breaking Through Bias: Communication Techniques for Women to Succeed at Work.
When she graduated from law school five years ago, Bethany Whittles Harris, 32, like many of her peers, accepted a salary lower than what she might have received in a different economy.
“A lot of people felt like they didn’t have a great bargaining position,” she says.
Her experiences highlight the array of obstacles facing millennial women. Told as a girl she could do anything a boy could, she and friends were surprised to find persistent sexism at various workplaces. Harris and her colleagues have experienced everything from being pursued by bosses to being congratulated for their looks instead of their work.
“There’s still people behaving in these ways, there’s still this wage gap, and realizing that was a rude awakening,” says Harris, who now works at a firm where she hasn’t encountered any of these issues. “There’s still so much to navigate through as a female professional that men just don’t have to.”
Sexual bias, too, affects her earning potential, she says. “If you really valued me as a lawyer, as an equal, as an intellectual, as an advocate of our clients, then you wouldn’t be subjecting me to this behavior.”
Women are severely underrepresented in high-paying jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Minority women are particularly underrepresented among science, technology, engineering and mathematics workers — in 2015, black women made up 7 percent of the population of ages 25 to 34 but just 2 percent of high- earning science, technology, engineering and mathematics workers. Hispanic women were 10 percent of that population but just 2 percent of those high earners.
The dour data don’t surprise millennial Sarah Labadie, a senior policy associate at Women Employed. Labadie, 33, says friends of hers struggled to find decent-
paying jobs in their fields after college.
Like Labadie, who began work at the nonprofit after graduating in 2006, the report notes female millennials might pursue “do-gooder” jobs — careers that make a difference.
Those jobs rarely carry salaries that afford a skyline view from a downtown apartment.
Labadie adds that the gig economy — the prevalence of patchwork jobs with companies such as Uber — contributes to lower earnings.
And debt just compounds the problem. According to the American Association of University Women, women hold nearly two- thirds of the outstanding student debt in the United States.
“That kind of spirals out of control into more women living in poverty because they’re trying to juggle rent, student debt payments, all the costs of living,” she says.
This stew of hurdles sounds familiar to Foram Sheth, 27, co-founder of Chicago-based Ama La Vida, a coaching company where she helps millennials who feel stuck.
Women have more opportunities than ever before, she notes. But pursuing degrees can equate to loan debt, and marrying later means building a life on a single income.
“There are these consequences that have never been faced before,” she says.
Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer works with young Chicago women through programs like her Off the Sidelines, which connects and supports girls and women. Millennial women face stubborn obstacles, she says, but they are also forging their own definitions of a fulfilling, balanced life.
“The question is, are they worse off, or do they have a different definition of success?” she says.
The bureau report suggests women need social and societal structures to excel. Here is where Dorri McWhorter, YWCA Metropolitan Chicago’s chief executive officer, agrees. The YWCA counsels young women on skills like negotiation. It also started a Not That Complicated project pushing for pay equality.
As a member of the YWCA’s Future Leaders Council, those resources, and working her way up and learning from each new role, helped land Winfrey her job at accounting firm Grant Thornton. She assists in recruiting a diverse workforce, including women and minorities.
Like many millennials, she juggles jobs and goals. After work, she maintains a lifestyle blog, and she harbors hopes of becoming a motivational speaker.
“As a millennial, I’m all about, make your own path,” Winfrey says.
Nicole Wood (left) and Foram Sheth are co-founders of Ama La Vida, a Chicago-based coaching company for millennials.
Courtney Winfrey works for a summer leadership program that gives work advice to millennial women.