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Life-Time Self-Sufficiency: Eight Things Every Young Woman Should Know

By Minjon Tholen and Heidi Reynolds-Stenson

An Institute for Women’s Policy Research study analyzing men and women’s earnings over a 15-year span found that women in the prime working ages of 26 to 59 made only 38 percent of what prime working-age men made during the same time span. This major gap is due to occupational segregation, discrimination, caregiving obligations, and other factors, and creates a critical obstacle for women’s economic security throughout their working years and into retirement. Depending on a woman’s socioeconomic status and race/ethnicity, this gap may be even larger. Here are eight things all young women need to know now to be self-sufficient later.

1. Education

Education levels are strongly associated with earnings. The median weekly earnings of bachelor’s degree holders are 65.8 percent higher than those with only a high school degree. Women increasingly recognize the need to further their education and now outnumber men among those graduating with bachelor’s degrees, yet women still earn less than men at every level of educational attainment.  Postsecondary education is therefore an important tool for young women to increase economic security over their lifetime.

2. Reproductive Choice

Since educational attainment is a major determining factor of one’s income levels throughout life, and completing high school or college is difficult to combine with child-rearing responsibilities, a woman’s ability to control her own reproductive life is crucial for her economic security. If you are in school and have children, familiarize yourself with and use the student parent support services available in your school and/or community, and advocate for more such services.

3. Occupational Segregation

Many women work in occupations that are traditionally female-dominated and are undervalued and underpaid compared to male-dominated occupations. As of the 1990s, after decades during which occupations increasingly became more ‘mixed’, further gender integration stalled. There are now proportionately fewer women in Information Technology occupations, which are generally well-paid, than there were 15 years ago. As a young woman choosing a career, explore non-traditional career options and keep in mind the implications your career choice may have for your ability to support yourself into the future.

4. Wage Gap

Women also earn less than men within nearly every occupation, indicating that occupational segregation is only part of the story. The gender wage gap begins early (with young women starting off at lower salaries than young men with comparable qualifications in comparable positions), widens over time, and can be larger or smaller depending on one’s race/ethnicity.  Part of the problem may be that young women are less likely than young men to negotiate for a higher starting salary or a raise.  Also, many employers work to keep pay information confidential; nearly half of all workers say they are either contractually forbidden or strongly discouraged from discussing their pay with their co-workers. Knowledge is power. So, talk to your co-workers, do research on average pay in your industry, and negotiate your salary. Know what you’re worth and ask for it.

5. Discrimination and Harassment

Research indicates that a significant portion of the wage gap within occupations cannot be fully explained by known factors—such as education or experience—suggesting that gender discrimination is still a significant barrier to women’s economic progress. Everyone has a right to a workplace free of discrimination and harassment based on gender or race/ethnicity. Know your rights under the law, familiarize yourself with the policies and protections at your workplace, and speak up when you feel these rights are violated.

6. Work/life balance

Although the majority of women are active in the workforce, they remain the primary caregivers to children and other dependents. Balancing work and personal life can be a struggle for many women and taking time out of work can have a long-term impact on your earnings and job security. Find out whether your employer offers flexible work arrangements and is subject to the Family and Medical Leave Act, in order to know your rights and responsibilities when balancing your work life and personal life.

7. Social Security

Compared to men, women rely on Social Security for a longer period of time (because they live longer) and depend on Social Security for a greater share of their income.  Yet, women receive, on average, significantly lower Social Security benefits due to a lifetime of lower wages and periods of decreased employment due to caregiving responsibilities for children, parents, or others. As a young woman, be aware that there is strong likelihood that you will live alone for at least part of your retirement. Educate yourself on how to maximize your Social Security benefits, strive towards ensuring other sources of income in retirement, and work to protect this program which is so vital to so many women and men.

8. Assets, Savings, and Pension Plans

Women face specific barriers to acquiring assets, building up savings, and investing in a pension plan. Women’s lifelong lower earnings due to occupational segregation, the wage gap, and caregiving responsibilities make it difficult to accumulate assets and savings. Women are also significantly less likely than men to have access to and participate in employer-sponsored retirement or pension plans. On top of these factors, women who do receive income from their own pensions receive on average less than half as much as men. To offset reliance on Social Security, start thinking about other ways to supplement your income in retirement early in your life and career.

Be cognizant of how gender inequality impacts your ability to be economically secure.  These inequalities are reflected in policies, institutions, and attitudes that affect all of us on a daily basis.  Know you have the ability to change this by educating yourself and others, and advocating for women-friendly policies. For in-depth studies on the issues described above and many others, visit the Institute for Women’s Policy Research research portal.

Minjon Tholen and Heidi Reynolds-Stenson are Research Interns at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research

IWPR Hosts 22nd Annual Summer Intern Social

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research hosted its 22nd annual summer intern social on Thursday, July 14 at the Stewart Mott House. IWPR summer interns worked together to coordinate all aspects of the successful Midsummer Mixer event, which was attended by over 200 interns from nonprofits, think tanks, and congressional offices around Washington, DC. Members of IWPR staff, including President Dr. Heidi Hartmann, were inspired to mingle with the next generation of researchers, advocates, and policy makers in a casual setting. The Midsummer Mixer was co-sponsored by the National Council of Women’s Organizations. Below is a selection of photos from the event. Check out our full collection of photos here!

Young Women Need Paid Sick Days (Too)

by Claudia Williams

While some workers lacking paid sick leave can take time off without losing pay, many lose pay when they are out sick and cannot afford to take a single day off. This is particularly the case for young women. At an early stage in their careers, many younger women workers are living day to day and others juggle multiple jobs to make ends meet.  With limited wealth and savings, a large debt from college or even a steady income, younger women often find themselves between a rock and a hard place when illness strikes. Younger women are often not in a position to take lower pay when sick, especially when medical expenses are involved.

While part-time and low-income workers’ concerns are widely discussed, the needs of younger workers are almost unheard of, as it is usually assumed that their health status—without the burdens of chronic health conditions and age—is excellent, and that they don’t yet have care giving responsibilities.

Data from the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), however, shows that young workers need paid sick days just like everyone else. In fact, of those private sector workers that reported having fair or poor health, 30 percent were 35 years or younger and a larger portion were young women (18 percent compared to 12 percent for young men). The same data show that a majority of young workers lack paid sick days; only 37 percent have paid sick days, compared to 58 percent of all workers.

Across the board, younger workers have limited access to paid sick days, no matter what they do for living, what their schedule looks like, or the size of the business they work for. For instance, whether young workers are employed in high-end jobs like legal occupations or in lower paying occupations like  health support, data from the NHIS show that only one out of five workers with paid sick days in those occupations are  between 18 and 35 years old.

For younger workers concentrated in traditionally low-income occupations or small businesses, the picture is even grimmer. Along with part-timers, these workers are most often afflicted, and women are overrepresented in this type of work arrangement. The outlook is especially challenging for young women with care giving responsibilities on top of lower earnings: paid sick days are even more essential for them to to stay afloat. For single mothers, usually with limited resources and often living in poverty, having paid sick days can make a big difference when medical problems arise.

Paid sick days are essential to all workers, but even more so to those with limited resources, including younger workers who are more vulnerable and have fewer resources than many of their older counterparts.

Claudia Williams is a Research Analyst with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Social Security on the Rocks: What’s at Stake for Younger Women

By Jennifer Clark

For many young working women, retirement security rests at the bottom of a lengthy priority list loaded with seemingly more pressing concerns. These include finding a satisfying, well-paying job, negotiating a raise and, for many, juggling family responsibilities with career advancement. Social Security, a government program associated with older Americans, might seem even more abstract to demographic whose retirement years are quite a few decades away. But as a panel of experts explained to an engaged crowd of young professional women recently, women face unique challenges in retirement and, for women of all ages, the future of Social Security is a shared concern.

The panel—hosted by the Women’s Information Network (WIN), a professional network of women in Washington, DC—featured young women experts and advocates who debunked common myths about Social Security and pointed out sobering facts about the program’s critical role in ensuring economic security in retirement. (View IWPR’s Flickr to see photos from the event)

Ensuring Your Retirement Security Starts Now

Lara Hinz of the Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement (WISER) started with an overview of the unique challenges women face in retirement. Women live longer, earn less, and have less in savings or pensions. In addition, women are more likely to spend time out of the workforce, work in part-time jobs, and live alone in retirement, all of which increase women’s  risk of poverty in old age. Then Hinz delivered a wake-up call to the room of young working women: even women who live comfortably in their working years may be poor in retirement. Social Security then plays a vital role in retirement security for women. One in four unmarried women in retirement receive all of their income from Social Security benefits and, without access to Social Security, 58 percent of women over the age of 75 would be living below the poverty line.

Social Security is Your Insurance Plan for Retirement

With 90 percent of women making less than $55,000 per year, nonexistent savings is a real risk to retirement security. Social Security, as Kathryn Edwards from the Economic Policy Institute noted, helps mitigate the risks associated with income insecurity in retirement. But what exactly is Social Security? “Saying that Social Security is money older Americans receive from the government is like saying the Pentagon is the largest office building in the world. It’s not wrong, it’s just not the full picture,” explained Edwards, who is writing  a forthcoming EPI textbook for young Americans on Social Security. Social Security is an insurance program, which helps protect workers and their families from the risks—old age, disability, or death—associated with not being able to work.

For young Americans, Social Security is not just money that older Americans receive from the government, Edwards stressed, “this is your insurance that you are already paying into.”

Especially Vital to Women of Color

While women in general face unique challenges in retirement, Youngmin Yi from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research discussed how women of color face challenges that are particularly intense, making Social Security even more important to this demographic. Black women in particular experience higher rates of disability and are more likely than other women to live alone in old age. Seventeen percent of black women between the ages of 65 and 74 are currently living in poverty; without Social Security, 50 percent of black women in this age range would be living in poverty. Latinas also face more pronounced challenges in retirement, as they are more likely to work in low-wage jobs without pensions and are most likely to live longer than other groups of women. Social Security is the most common source of income for older Latinas, further underscoring the critical value of Social Security.

Countering Political Rhetoric with Informed Voters

If Social Security is a vital and efficient, insurance program, then why is it in crisis? Well, it’s not. It’s actually running a surplus—a big one—at $2.6 trillion. Melissa Byrne from the Strengthen Social Security Campaign pointed to current policy proposals that could potentially threaten Social Security’s long-term solvency and to how young women can join the effort to defend the program from future cuts. Far from strengthening Social Security, Byrne noted, efforts at means testing the program—reducing or eliminating benefits for those defined as “affluent”— would undermine Social Security as a universal insurance program, turning the system into a government welfare program. To many people, regardless of political leanings, raising the retirement age seems like a reasonable compromise to ensure Social Security’s long-term solvency. However, raising the full retirement age to 69 is a 13 percent benefit cut, a fact which rarely shows up in talking points (except these).

To ensure that these ideas do not become policy, Byrne suggested that young women stay informed, and most importantly, vote.

Resources for Staying Informed

Jennifer Clark is the Development Coordinator at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

A College Student’s Take on the Gender Wage Gap

By Lauren Hepler

In honor of Equal Pay Day, IWPR intern Lauren Hepler observes the impact of the gender wage gap as she looks to start a career after college.

In this economy, it is very scary to be a college student getting ready to graduate in just one short year. And with media profits tanking, it is even more daunting to be a journalism major set to graduate in 2012. Sadly, it is worse to be a female journalism student set to graduate knowing that women still only make an average of 77 percent of men’s yearly salaries (according to median yearly earnings in 2009).

Family friends of college grads, professors, and anyone who knows one—or follows one on Facebook— are curious about where we will land our first real jobs. With unemployment among people age 20-24 at 15.4 percent and showing no signs of easing, I would imagine that many other college students share my unsentimental notions on the issue. I will work wherever I can get a job.

This anxiety about finding any job at all often obscures the reality that we are still confronted with: Women make only make 77 percent of men’s median yearly salaries.

For a student used to living on a shoestring budget, the potential financial impact of the gender wage gap is daunting. On average, monetary losses due to the wage gap over a lifetime add up to $700,000 for a high school graduate, $1.2 million for a college graduate, and $2 million for a professional school graduate.

That is not chump change. That is money that could be spent paying back overwhelming student loans, financing homes or generally saving for the future—all things young people are constantly told to do but often can’t because of budget constraints.

Unfortunately, it appears this cash will not be materializing anytime soon. According to new IWPR research, if progress continues at the current rate, it will be 45 more years (or the year 2056) when men’s and women’s wages finally balance out.

In fact, one of the most alarming facts about the gender wage gap is that the rate of progress is actually slowing down (despite a small gain in the number of women in management positions). From 1980 to 1993, the gender wage gap narrowed by 12.9 percent. But in the 16 years from 1993 to 2009 the gap narrowed a meager 3.1 percent.

College history classes often hark back to the 1960s as the tipping point for gender discrimination, praising the shattering of the glass ceiling for women in the workforce. Now, half a century later, how far have we really come?

The Gender Earnings Ration 1955-2010 (click to enlarge)

In 1960, women, on average, earned only 60 percent of men’s wages for a year of full-time work. In 2009 that number had risen to 77 percent, with women still making almost a quarter less than their male counterparts.

And that’s just the national average. The numbers are even more jarring when comparing state-to-state, or across racial and ethnic categories.

In Wyoming, for instance, women still make just 64 percent of what men earn in a year. West Virginia and Louisiana are only slightly better, at 67 percent, which is roughly equivalent to the national average in the late 1980s.

As a percentage of white men’s yearly earnings Asian women average 82.3 percent, while white women average 75 percent, black women 61.9 percent, and Hispanic women just 52.9 percent of what a man earns.

Despite the bleak outlook for the immediate future, actions are being pursued to correct the imbalance in the gender wage gap, with the Supreme Court last week hearing arguments on the Dukes v. Wal-Mart gender discrimination case.

And there is a need for urgency on the issue.  A report by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) Educational Foundation shows that the gender wage gap starts early in a career and then widens dramatically. Just one year out of college, female graduates on average make only 80 percent of their male counterparts’ salaries. Ten years down the road, the report found that the gap widened, with women receiving just 69 percent of men’s earnings by that point in their careers.

This phenomenon is even more counterintuitive considering that in the last decade women have consistently outnumbered men at American colleges, with women averaging about 57 percent of enrollment. Despite making huge gains in education and being better prepared than ever to enter the workforce, complacency on the gender wage gap continues to hamper the careers of American women.

As a student preparing to go on the job hunt, I know I am not exempt from this problem. However, I certainly don’t want to wait until I reach retirement age (I will be 66 in the year 2056) to get the same pay as men in my field.

Lauren Hepler is the Communications Intern at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. She is majoring in journalism and women’s studies at George Washington University.

Young Americans and Social Security

By Youngmin Yi

Bloggers, policy experts, and politicians are urging young Americans to care more about Social Security, whether they are asking us to love it, hate it, tweak it, or scrap it. But the results are already in: we care.

And if we could have it our way, Social Security would be here forever.

According to findings from an AARP report, the vast majority of people of all ages believe that Social Security is important, including 90 percent of those aged 18-29. A recent Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) survey confirms this sentiment among young adults: 63 percent of those aged 18-39 don’t support cutting Social Security benefits for deficit reduction and more than 60 percent of the group don’t think we pay enough for Social Security.

People my age (somewhere in my 20s) have grown up knowing and expecting that Social Security will be there for us in the future. Another IWPR report shows just how vital the program is for older Americans. It provides 50 percent or more of income for more than half of all men and women over the age of 65. Social Security also kept over 14 million people over the age of 65 out of poverty in 2009, 60 percent of whom are women.

In the wake of the Great Recession, American households saw their savings, home equity, and investments slip away, leaving many scrambling for resources. Pension payouts and asset values rise and fall with the tumultuous economy, and earnings remain uncertain in the face of high unemployment. But Social Security has remained a steadfast source of income in both good and bad times.

It is clear that Social Security will be important when we face retirement. But as the discussion remains focused on current retirees and deficit projections for future decades, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the Social Security debate needs our attention now and will affect us – young workers – more than anyone else.

Why is our voice important now?

Some of us already need Social Security.

If you’re like me and my friends, the term Social Security conjures up images of old age and years that lie far ahead. However, as of December 31, 2010, approximately 3.2 million children under the age of 18 were receiving Social Security benefits as children of disabled, deceased, or retired workers. 949,000 disabled children over the age of 18 were receiving benefits, as well. More than a third of Social Security beneficiaries are not retired workers. To some among us, Social Security is not only a promise of security when we are old, it is vital now.

We are already paying for and earning our retirement security.

Take a look at your most recent pay stub. It shows that you have had 4.2 percent of your wages withheld for the payroll tax, and therefore, Social Security; before the December 2010 tax package was passed, that amount was 6.2 percent of wages.  The inflammatory media and disconnected politicians have hammered away at the misguided notion that the exhaustion of the Social Security trust fund means ruin for us all. Their hypocrisy lies in the fact that younger people are told to worry and care about our future, yet policymakers give us even more of a reason to worry by threatening to cut and weaken the very program that would ensure income security for us in old age. Meanwhile, working Americans, including those our age, have been paying into Social Security with the expectation that we will receive the benefits that we have earned when it comes time to claim them.

Young Americans want Social Security to stay and stay secure.

We’ve heard the miscalculated and misrepresented statistics and the apocalyptic fear-mongering about this vital program. Now, it’s time that the naysayers listen to what young people have been saying all along.

Youngmin Yi is the Mariam K. Chamberlain Fellow for the 2010-2011 academic year. Originally from New Jersey, she graduated from Wellesley College in 2010 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics and French.

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