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Why Does the Millennial Gender Pay Gap Exist?

And what can women (and everyone else) do about it?
Hannah Ewens
London, GB
Image: Jozef Micic / Alamy Stock Vector

"We had male managers who were known as 'The Boys', but not in an ironic way. The Boys did no work. Two of them shared an office and you'd just hear screams of laughter."

Anna* is a woman in her twenties who worked at a major music label. She describes an office culture in which she and other younger women were shafted with more of the admin, and subtly blocked from taking on more creative work. She also points to a lack of transparency around pay at every level, which makes it hard to negotiate a higher salary. She left recently as a result of what she felt was a "laddy" and "intimidating" environment. It's no coincidence that this label was part of a conglomerate that recently reported a hefty gender pay gap.


The music industry was one of a number of sectors heavily staffed by millennials, including retail and media, that dominated headlines when UK companies with 250 employees or more reported their gender pay gaps in April of this year. The results were so stark (almost eight in ten firms pay men more than women) that this month MPs said smaller companies – those with over 50 employees – should also be made to share their pay gaps. Besides confirming a lack of women in senior positions, the reports weakened the simplistic and oft-cited argument that the gender pay gap is purely a result of women bowing out of work for pregnancy and to look after children.

The reality: women earn less from the very start of their careers. But why? Why are women of the millennial generation – one supposedly more enlightened and equal than previous generations – earning less than their male counterparts from the get-go?

Photo: RichardBakerNews / Alamy Stock Photo

Recent Department for Education statistics show that the gender pay gap begins immediately for those in a first job post-university, and widens over time. One year after graduating, women were on a typical salary of £18,300, compared to £19,900 for men. Three years after graduating, women earned £21,800, compared to £24,200 for men. Five years, and that becomes £24,500 to £27,800. At ten years, typical salaries were £27,100 for women and a far larger £35,100 for men.

Gender bias is still at play in the modern workplace; it's just more insidious than it previously was. Sarah* had her first media job at a large London-based company that reported a wide gender pay gap. She tells me that "overbearing" male staff knocked her confidence as she was just entering the industry: "They bulldozed around with that macho, imposing nature," she says.


Sarah speaks fondly of talented women senior to her who had been ideal to look up to, but says: "They really had to challenge things a lot more because they were women – and try a lot harder to speak up."

This mirrored Anna's experience in the music industry. Even when there were senior women, the disrespect they were sometimes shown stuck with her. She remembers a conversation between an older senior woman and a younger junior man, in his early twenties: "She was just talking about how it'd been raining loads the night before and she got wet. It wasn't even nearly an innuendo. He made some disgusting comment in the kitchen about it being [too] early to hear that. I felt it was really inappropriate as he was so junior, and thought, 'As if he could say that to this woman, who, in this context, is better than [him]."

"The men just dominated," she adds.

Invariably, there is a strong link between male-dominated office cultures and a gender pay gap. As Andrew Bazeley, policy and insight manager at the Fawcett Society – the UK's leading women's rights charity – tells VICE, "Social cultures that exist in companies have a big impact on pay. Any social culture that feels quite masculine will be part of why they have their gender pay gap, because that will affect who gets promoted."

The reality of gender biases, based on extensive research, is that men are promoted on potential and women on performance. Or rather, men are lifted up by virtue of what they might do, while women must have already done that work and embody the promise of more.


When basic pastoral care in a workplace erodes to a certain point, it not only creates an environment in which women don't feel like they can ask for promotions, but also that those women don't feel supported enough to stay. All of Anna's bosses at the record label identified as men, which brought with it a certain management style and an unavoidable lack of innate empathy.

"Whenever I had a catch-up, it was a situation where I was sat in a room in front of middle-aged men. I felt uncomfortable at work and would be unhappy, crying in this meeting, and they were all just looking at me," she says.

Although it sounds like a generalisation, 40 years of research suggests that women are socialised to be better managers when you consider factors like encouraging employee development, holding conversations about progress and giving praise for good work.

"Half the reason I left was because I couldn't stand the atmosphere and lack of support," Anna continues. "In my previous job, in a similar role at a different company, I had a female boss, and the atmosphere comes from the top… I hated the job just as much, but I stayed for longer because I felt supported by her." She elaborates, saying that leaving jobs when they become too difficult to bear in this way can mean moving to another junior role elsewhere, stunting your career progression.

Image: Gary Waters / Alamy Stock Photo

This leads us to the gendered nature of legacy employees. Some of the women I spoke to for this article – and others I've spoken to in personal conversations – frequently noted how they've watched men be promoted multiple times, and quickly, within a company. Meanwhile, talented women come and go. If you buy into the rhetoric of feminist bad-boss-bitch rulebooks by everyone from Sheryl Sandberg to NastyGal's Sophia Amoruso, we are encouraged to hustle hard, network and move around. Ostensibly, that's meant to be more effective than sitting still, never being taken as seriously as the men, and feeling increasing irritated and resentful as a result.


If you work in a male-dominated field, take a look around. Chances are you'll see a concentration of older men at the very top levels of your organisation. In fact, your company doesn't even have to be male-dominated: women's fashion brand Coast, for example, had a median pay gap of 40 percent and mean gap of 71 percent, down to the fact that while only 12 men work at the company (the remaining 867 are women), most are in executive positions.

In this climate, it can feel as though the winners are consistently men who haven't had to hustle against the same gender barriers as women, and move with more ease through the workplace. They seem to possess the "right" to become senior.

There is, as yet, little to no research related to this idea of legacy employees, but as Andrew Bazeley from the Fawcett Society tells me, "[It] definitely fits with the idea of men being overvalued and women being undervalued in organisations… we know it happens."

Dealing with the pay gap goes further than young women simply demanding pay increases. We know that women ask for higher wages as often as men but receive them less often – and studies show that even when a woman does get her raise, the company tends to hold it against her and see her as demanding or "difficult". Lasting change would take concerted effort from employees at every level, from HR to line managers and male co-workers.

Professor Sue Vinnicombe researches women in the workplace and the lack of women in leadership positions. She opens our chat with a story of how she asked someone in a very senior position at a major bank in the City why they pay men more than women. "He just said: 'Men ask for more.' I said, 'Don't you think that's discrimination? They're doing exactly the same job.' He said, 'No, that's what they ask for.' Even within pay grades, there is flexibility on pay, and blokes are just put on the highest point and women at the bottom."


This, Vinnicombe points out, is how women end up with the cumulative disadvantage. When you start a new job, many companies will ask: how much do you earn now? "That is discriminatory," says Vinnicombe. "People should be paid for the job, not according to what they were paid in their last job. If you start off with a gender pay gap, it will continue." She insists this "irrelevant" common practice should be outlawed.

There are, of course, ways to push that progress along yourself. Obviously, lie if you can – but women are probably not lying hard enough. Vinnicombe estimates that men generally exaggerate their current salary by close to £10,000. Zing Tsjeng, Broadly's UK editor, uses a 20 percent rule: you ask for 20 percent more than you think you deserve as a minimum, with the knowledge that they'll haggle you down. "Because," she says, "you've almost definitely been undervalued, whether unconsciously by yourself or by the people paying you." The result: you'll likely end up with more than you'd expect.

In Otegha Uwagba's Little Black Book, she suggests asking those in your field whether they'd hypothetically take X position for X amount of money as a way in to salary negotiations. I've found people of a similar age to be very receptive to this – who in their twenties and early thirties doesn't indignantly believe they are underpaid?

It is a new millennial phenomenon, Vinnicombe says, to harbour this low-level suspicion that everyone at work is earning more than you. But, it turns out, it's for a good reason: if you're a millennial woman, chances are they are. Lower starting salaries, male-dominated environments and workplaces in which women aren't given the incentive to either ask for promotions or stick around, eventually earning as much as male legacy employees, all conspire to keep the gender pay gap wide open, even among millennials.

Of course, we weren't fully aware of the breadth of that gap until recently, because upper management's lives are generally easier in environments without much transparency, and so they keep pay under wraps where they can. It's why you'll often hear senior management condemning those who share their salary. You can, though: it's illegal to formally punish employees for talking about how much they are paid. And, of course, when it comes to closing your own pay gap, untrendy work unions will help, particularly in precarious industries like the ones discussed here.

Eventually, Anna left the major label and The Boys, and hasn't looked back, despite the loss of salary and the kudos that came with the company she worked for. "I have no regrets. I do actually feel relief every day that I left and" – she says this last part half in jest – "never want to work for a man ever again."

*Some names have been changed to protect identities.