The poll comes at a complex moment of opportunity and continuing challenge for women in the workforce. Women now receive roughly three-fifths of both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from American colleges and universities. And for 47 of the past 50 months, the unemployment rate has been lower for women than for men, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (In the Heartland Monitor survey, men were more likely than women to say they had lost a job or had seen their hours and pay cut in the past five years.)
But women, at every step up the credential ladder, still earn less than men with the same level of education. (Indeed, in the survey, a majority of working women said they earned less than their spouse, and only one-fifth said they had more opportunity to advance in their job than their spouse did.) And while the Labor Department mostly forecasts the greatest job growth in fields dominated by women, many of those jobs, including health care and education, don’t pay very well. This reality means that the pay gap between men and women probably won’t disappear any time soon.
In fact, the survey found that 65 percent of women, and a narrower 52 percent of men, expect the wage gap between the sexes to persist. Yet only about one-fourth of each gender attributed the pay gap primarily to discrimination or unfair treatment in the workplace. The largest group in each gender—almost half of women and about two-fifths of men—said that the pay gap existed because “women have different family and home life priorities and responsibilities than men.” The remaining one-fourth of men and approximately one-sixth of women attributed the difference to women making “different choices than men in the workplace,” such as not pursuing promotions as aggressively.
Mothers who work were slightly more likely than woman overall to attribute the pay gap primarily to the family and home life priorities of women themselves. Sherryl Kuhnen of Beaver Creek, Fla., works full time as a resident nurse, but she left the workforce to care for her children when they were young. “We sacrificed financially so I could take care of my children,” she says. “I don’t regret that decision—I really don’t. I believe that a lot of problems in our society stem from the fact that we devalue the role of motherhood.”
Despite the persistence of the wage gap, the most powerful sentiment among women in the poll is a sense of doors opening, especially when compared with previous generations. That’s not to say that women believe the playing field is completely level today. Forty percent of women said that men and women have equal opportunities today, while 5 percent said that women have more opportunities than men. But 51 percent of women said that “men have more opportunities than women.” (Only 32 percent of men agreed; most men say that opportunity is now equal for both genders.)
Women now receive about three-fifths of bachelor’s and master’s degrees from American colleges.
Yet the survey captured a strong sense that trends for women are moving in the right direction. Fifty-four percent of both men and women said they believed that opportunities to get ahead were more equal now for women and men than they had been for their parents’ generation. About half of both women and men said that any opportunity gap for women will continue to shrink over the next generation. “Historically, men have been in charge of things,” says Brent Bevers, a student and a part-time bartender in Port Angeles, Wash., who responded to the poll. “If you look back to the first half of the [20th] century, women were the caretakers at home, and men were in charge of running businesses and being the breadwinners. And if you take that generation, and ask them whether women are just as capable of men, they’re going to have a different idea of what that means than people of this generation.”
When asked to compare themselves to their mothers, 68 percent of women said they enjoyed more opportunity to get ahead in society. Far fewer men, only 45 percent, said they considered their opportunities greater than those available to their fathers. A mere 7 percent of women said they had fewer opportunities than their mothers; the remaining one-fourth saw no change.
Just under one-third of women attributed these increasing opportunities to the growing number of women with college degrees; a roughly equal share attributed them to changing social attitudes about the role of women. About one in six gave credit to laws requiring equal treatment for men and women; an approximately equal number said that opportunity was expanding primarily because so many women were entering the workforce.
The sense of expanding opportunity was widely shared among women. Nearly three-fourths of working women with children under 18 said they enjoyed greater opportunities than their mothers. Not only did 77 percent of college-educated working women agree, so did 69 percent of working women without college degrees. (Again, by comparison, only 40 percent of working men without college degrees believed that their opportunities exceeded those of their fathers.) Just over two-thirds of both white and nonwhite women saw their opportunities expanding compared with their mothers.