A Pew Research Center survey found women in the Millennial generation earned just 93 percent of what their male counterparts earned in 2012. That’s up from just 89 percent in 2005.

By Michelle Hicks

(Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the Idaho Business Review. Michelle, a senior professional in human resources, is a director in the communication practice of Buck Consultants, A Xerox company.)

“In spite of achieving near parity, experts warn the gap could increase for Millennial women as they age.” – Michelle Hicks

“In spite of achieving near parity, experts warn the gap could increase for Millennial women as they age.” – Michelle Hicks

Some exciting news on the gender pay gap came out in December. A Pew Research Center survey found women in the Millennial generation, ages 25 to 34, earned just 93 percent of what their male counterparts brought in in 2012. That’s up from just 89 percent in 2005.

This news is a silver lining when you consider that the combined income gap for women in 2012 was 84 percent. The study believes several factors contribute to younger female workers earning more. Today’s Millennial women work in a greater variety of jobs than their predecessors, and their education levels are greater than male Millennials. Thirty-eight percent of women in this age group have bachelor’s degrees, compared to 31 percent of males.

In spite of achieving near parity, experts warn the gap could increase for Millennial women as they age. Previous generations of female workers watched income disparities increase as they got older. Some of this can be attributed to women putting the brakes on climbing the corporate ladder, or intentionally dropping out of the workforce, when they had families. But there could be another factor at work, what Harvard researchers call “second-generation gender bias.”

The researchers who identified and described this bias in the September 2013 issue of the Harvard Business Review are actually quite excited to be able to name it. They believe that by identifying and defining what this bias is, women and the organizations that employ them can overcome it.

“We find that when women understand the subtle and pervasive effects of second-generation bias, they feel empowered, not victimized, because they can take action to counter those effects,” the researchers stated.

They wanted to take a look at what’s going on as women of all ages are working more and getting more advanced degrees, yet just 4.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are female. Primarily, the researchers considered this bias in the context of barriers for women aspiring to leadership roles.

Essentially, the researchers warn of “powerful but subtle and often invisible barriers for women.” Second-generation gender bias, they say, is not overt – it may not even be there on purpose. They liken it instead to “something in the water – in which women fail to thrive or reach their full potential.” You can find the entire article and their arguments at hbr.org/2013/09/women-rising-the-unseen-barriers.

To overcome this, the Harvard researchers say organizations should help women focus on developing a leadership identity. Organizations can do this by developing women’s leadership programs and coaching relationships. They believe that as women understand core leadership competencies and how to remain focused and purposeful in their pursuit, they gain the confidence to take risks and exhibit leadership behaviors that will get them promoted. But for women, as well as men, learning to be a leader is an iterative process involving trial and error, and affirmation and encouragement for taking risks. Employers who want to support women need to create “safe spaces” for leadership identity development.

As leadership opportunities grow, so may income. Since higher positions equal larger paychecks, could solving leadership barriers increase income parity? Could it be that the long-term solution to the gender equity gap is resolving the female leadership gap?