Sarah Ridder and Liz Tsybulski are about to wrap up their studies at National Louis University and graduate with degrees in human services -- credentials directing them to a traditionally female-dominated field where Ridder says they will "do a whole lot for a little money."
The two seniors say they are grateful for an education that has given them realistic salary expectations, but they're frustrated by one factor still entering the equation concerning their eventual earning potential: gender.
Reports recently released by the American Association of University Women indicate a gender pay gap not only still exists in the American workforce but often reveals itself the moment women accept their first job.
Women working full time one year after college graduation are paid an average of 18 percent less than men also working full time one year after receiving a bachelor's degree, according to "Graduating to a Pay Gap."
Some of the difference may be because many women pursue majors and enter careers that offer less pay. Some of it could be caused by varying levels of salary negotiation skills or other factors. But in many cases, the study suggests, part of the gap results from gender alone.
"So many times people hear about the overall pay gap and say 'That's because women are making different choices,'" said Christianne Corbett, AAUW senior researcher and one of the report's authors. "We were really trying to get at a group that was as close to the same as possible right out of college … and we still found a gap."
Fifty years after the passage of the Equal Pay Act, college women probably are not surprised to hear a gender pay gap remains, but some are reluctant to talk about it. Some say they would confront an employer if they felt their salary was unjust, but others say they feel powerless to change a problem so daunting, especially while in hot pursuit of any job offering a full-time salary in a challenging economy.
Researchers say the gap is problematic not only because it still exists, but because a portion cannot be explained by factors such as college major, grades, hours worked or occupation. Decreasing both the "explained" and "unexplained" segments will require increased education for women about topics like negotiating a salary, Corbett said, but also a change in attitude among employers.
"The pay gap cannot be solved by individual women alone," she said. "The bulk of the work has to be done by employers because it's a systemic problem."
Pay gap problems
College graduates new to the workforce, like 23-year-old Hannah Elger of Villa Park, often have no way to determine whether the pay they're getting measures up to the salaries of others doing the same work.
Elger said she felt lucky to land a job with President Barack Obama's campaign for re-election after graduating from Bradley University in December 2011 with a political science degree. Paid in the low $30,000s to work as a field organizer, Elger said a flat salary structure gave her some assurance her salary was fair.
"As far as I'm aware, we all got the same thing, but we were not privy to that information," she said.
Since the campaign, Elger hasn't felt so lucky. She works for a temporary employment agency that placed her as an executive assistant to a director of operations at a company in Cook County. The pay is $12 an hour "and I know the going rate for that job is significantly more," she said.
Instead of thinking about the problem of gender-based gaps in pay, young jobseekers say they worry most about their own problems -- college loans, the desire to become financially independent, pressure from parents -- and simply focus on getting a job. Any job.
"Right now, I just want to get a job," said Tsybulski, 21, of Glen Ellyn, who soon will complete her human services degree from National Louis. "I want to get paid with my degree."
So does Elger, but when she struggled to find employment in her field after Obama was re-elected, she began looking for sales jobs, business positions, temp work -- anything with a paycheck.
"Women do tend to take jobs that are outside their major because they just need to find work, and I think that's part of the problem," Elger said.
AAUW research backs her up, showing females are more likely than males to work in fields unrelated to their major. "Graduating to a Pay Gap" found 39 percent of female engineering or engineering technology majors were working as engineers one year after graduating, compared with 57 percent of males.
"Occupational segregation is a stubborn and persistent phenomenon that occurs even among students who graduate with degrees in the same field," the report says.
It's also part of what causes the pay gap.
The gap explained
Differences in occupation, hours worked, college major, type of institution and grades account for roughly two-thirds of the 18 percent gap, what AAUW researchers call the "explained" portion.
"When we say it's explained, it means that we understand it, not that it's fair," Corbett said.
It also means the cause of the remaining one-third is anyone's guess.
The AAUW used data from the U.S. Department of Education, which surveyed 15,000 workers one year after they graduated from college in 2007-08. Researchers found grades and type of institution did the least to explain the pay discrepancy. College major and occupation did the most.
Salaries differed most between female and male computer and information sciences majors, with women's pay trailing men's by 23 percent. Those who majored in education, humanities, mathematics or biological, physical or agricultural sciences reported similar pay no matter their gender.
Sales and business management occupations showed some of the widest gender pay gaps, at 23 percent and 14 percent, respectively; while female and male nurses, engineers, social services professionals, and those in administrative assistance and science fields earned similar wages.
Researchers said subtle and overt pressures continue pushing women and men into fields considered "traditional" for their gender, which leads more women into lower-paying jobs such as the social work positions Tsybulski and Ridder are seeking.
"It's important that you stand up for what you should get, and women should be paid the same as men," said Ridder, 21, of Bensenville. "It just pushes me to stand up for myself and my opinions 10 times more in the workplace."
While researchers found reasons for two-thirds of the gap between women's and men's salaries, a 7 percent discrepancy exists after controlling for all those variables.
Corbett said the reasons women still make less could include a lack of negotiation skills, less willingness to travel or relocate for work, gender discrimination or other biases.
The Chicago regional office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recorded 274 charges filed under the Equal Pay Act in the past five years, 226 of them from women charging they were being paid unfairly between 2008 and 2012.
Catherine Hill, director of research for the AAUW, said such charges are being filed more often, showing "gender discrimination remains a serious problem in the American workplace."
College graduates about to head into the workforce can research salary expectations and use that information to negotiate pay, but Corbett said more must be done in legislation and education to ensure fair wages.
The AAUW is backing the Paycheck Fairness Act, which has been introduced unsuccessfully several times in the U.S. Congress. The act would allow employees to share salary information with co-workers and close loopholes in the 50-year-old Equal Pay Act.
Corbett also said increased transparency in pay systems would help workers determine whether they are being compensated fairly.
Local human resources professionals say there would be benefits and drawbacks to providing pay-range details, but setting salaries based on market research and internal parity would go a long way toward eliminating gender-based discrepancies.
Sue Riffer, past president of the Northwest Human Resources Council, which includes HR professionals from Cook, DuPage and Lake counties, said employers need to realize risks they run if they do not pay women fairly. She said recent grads who may have stayed two or three years could leave sooner if they feel their salary is inadequate, creating more turnover and less company loyalty.
As college graduates continue the quest to find a job, some say changes to education, even at an early age, also could help decrease the gender pay gap.
"There's not a huge push to get women into the higher-paying jobs," said Elger, the political science graduate now working for a temporary employment agency. "What teachers steer children toward makes a huge difference."
As students enter college, professors and advisers can do more to inform them that the gender pay gap is not just a problem for their parents' generation, or women who leave the workforce to have children, or those pursuing female-dominated fields.
Michelle Fadely, president of Illinois National Organization for Women, said lower average salaries for women is a problem for all families with a female wage earner.
"It would be great if women were aware that they're going to fight this inequality and to equip them with as many negotiating tools and information as possible," Fadely said.
Career advisers at colleges often provide a holistic overview of the job search and do not address salary or concerns about inequalities unless students bring them up, said Francine Navakas, coordinator of the Gender and Women's Studies program at North Central College in Naperville. But knowledge is power, she said.
"The more we can address the realities of our workforce environment for all of our students," Navakas said, "the better off they will be."
Pay: Women may not feel company loyalty if they earn less, expert says