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Young women are winning battle of the pay gap

  • Article by: Gail Rosenblum
  • Star Tribune
  • August 11, 2007 - 7:18 PM

Kelcey McKean didn't have time to read recent news about city women in their 20s surging ahead of their male peers in wages. She's too busy living it.

McKean, 22, graduated in May from the University of St. Thomas with a real estate degree. A month later, she began working at a commercial real estate firm in Minneapolis. Goodbye, breezy summers. Hello, property assessments and market evaluations.

"I've been 'tee'd up' to do great things, and it's completely up to me what I do with that," said McKean, who lives in St. Louis Park. "A lot of young women today are like that. They don't see boundaries."

So much for that old glass ceiling.

An analysis of 2005 census data reveals that, for the first time, the wage gap no longer holds true for women working full time in a few of the nation's largest cities.

In Minneapolis, the wages of full-time women in their 20s were 19 percent higher than men's, or $31,000 vs. $26,000, said researcher Trent Alexander of the University of Minnesota's Minnesota Population Center.

The study was conducted by Queens College of New York demographer Andrew Beveridge. The biggest leap was in Dallas, where women earned 120 percent of men's wages. Women ages 21 to 30 in New York City working full-time also saw "an amazing jump in their wages," Beveridge reported. While women in the city earned, on average, about $7,000 less than men in 1970, by 2005 they made about $5,000 more, or 117 percent of men's wages. Chicago and Boston reported similar findings.

More schooling, more bucks

The shift is not entirely surprising. Young women are graduating from high school -- and college -- in greater numbers than young men. More education typically means a bigger paycheck after graduation, particularly in the fields of business, nursing, engineering and computer science.

In Minnesota, college enrollment among women has far surpassed that of men every year from 1997 to 2006, according to the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. Last year, for example, more than 210,000 women enrolled in state colleges compared with about 147,000 men. The college completion rate is 39 percent for women ages 25 to 34, compared with 33 percent for men of the same ages, according to the 2005 American Community Survey.

However, Alexander cautions that while far more women are entering higher education, women with college degrees still make less than men with college degrees.

The tables could soon turn.

"So many more women are going to college and professional schools," said Paul Anton, chief economist for Wilder Research, a division of the Wilder Foundation in St. Paul. "Men are falling farther and farther behind because they're not doing well in school."

Not all young men are in trouble. The percentage of male workers with college degrees has gone up, from 15 to 22 percent, between 1970 to 2005. It's just that women, Anton said, "are passing 'em by," leaping from 13 to 35 percent in the same time period.

Interestingly, innovative programs directed at young working women might be equally effective for young men.

At Best Buy, for example, Senior Vice President Julie Gilbert heads up the company's Women's Leadership Forum (WOLF), whose mission is to recruit and retain the best and brightest young female employees. That includes aggressive mentoring and networking, so that women at all stages of professional growth don't fall through the cracks.

"It's about women supporting other women, which has not been the case historically," Gilbert said. "Older, more experienced women are feeling the responsibility to reach down and really coach, mentor and open doors for other women."

Career women flying high in their 20s means little if those women hit their 30s and bolt from the workforce when they take time out to start families. Some choose never to return. Those who do often are frustrated at how much traction they've lost by stepping aside, even for only a few years.

One pilot project launched by Best Buy last year offered a job-sharing opportunity to two women, one a college student, the other a mother, who each work 30 hours a week with full benefits. The program is predicted to grow. "This is not just a nice-to-do," Gilbert said. "This is smart business."

Ready to soar

Nobody needs to tell McKean. As she starts her commercial real estate career, she epitomizes the young women of Beveridge's study. Educated. Confident. Driven. Disarmingly funny. McKean, who grew up on a hobby farm in Freeborn, Minn., is a little surprised by the attention the study is getting. Most of her friends are ambitious: "Everyone I'm surrounded by has big dreams," she said.

Her mentor and boss, Andrea Christenson, second vice-president at Colliers Turley Martin Tucker, predicts McKean will be "one of the top agents in the next five to six years."

McKean doesn't know about that. But, like everything else in her impressive life so far, she's willing to give it a go.

"I want to be looked up to in our industry, to pull strings for people I believe in," she said. "And I want to be married and have kids, too. I think it's completely manageable."

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 • grosenblum@startribune.com

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