My Two Cents on the Wage Gap

Let’s share it again, everyone’s favorite debatable statistic. Women in the United States make 78 cents on the dollar compared to men1. Or more recently from a February 2017 Glamour magazine article, 82 cents on the dollar2. My post today is a direct reaction to this article because apparently, even in 2017, we still can’t seem to agree on 1) what the wage gap actually is and 2) what or if we should do anything about it.

Before we get to the bulk of it, let me just backtrack my own story a bit.

A few years ago, I was selected to be a part of the American Association of University Women National Student Advisory Committee3 while I was a student at the University of Utah. During my time on the committee, I educated myself and others on a variety of issues which are impacted by binary gender roles. One of these issues–the gender wage gap. I entered the exploration with preconceived notions–as we all do with any line of inquiry–but I was determined to shed some light and gain a better understanding of the subject.

Research > Hypothesis > Methods > Analysis > Conclusion (Refine, Alter, Reject, Expand Hypothesis)

You know, scientific method and all that.

My method of choice was to organize a public discussion at the Hinckley Institute of Politics and invite Günseli Berik, a professor of economics at the University of Utah, to help us navigate through some of the technicalities4. The event went off without a hitch, we had a great turnout, and long story short I had some big takeaways from that day:

  1. It’s problematic to use the 78 (or 82) cents to a dollar statistic as the poster child for the gender wage gap.
  2. The gender wage gap is much more complicated than this statistic would lead you to believe.
  3. Gender roles suck. (Ok, to be completely honest, this was one of my preconceived notions, so there might be some confirmation bias there.)

First, let’s talk about the 78 cents to a dollar statistic. This number is derived from statistics reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics with women’s median full-time earnings over men’s median full-time earnings5. There are several important criticisms of this figure:

  1. This statistic is the median of all men and women working full-time in different fields (i.e. the earnings of a software engineer and a line cook are calculated together).
  2. This statistic does not account for work experience (i.e. the earning of someone who is right out of school versus and the earnings of someone who has been working for several years are calculated together).
  3. This statistic does not take into account the challenges people of different backgrounds face when entering the workforce (i.e. women of color, non-binary people, men entering traditionally “feminine” fields, men of color, women entering traditionally “masculine” fields etc.)

As someone who believes in the gender wage gap and identity-based discrimination, I do not deny the validity of these critiques. I would even agree and say that the 78 cents to a dollar statistic is an oversimplification and generalization. Every time I’ve seen it used, it’s used as a method to catch the unsuspecting eye and gives people an easy way to be either for or against the issue.

This brings me to my second major point, the other ways we can talk about the wage gap. Many wage gap critics talk about choice. If people want to earn more, they should just choose higher paying fields. If people want to breakdown gender roles, they should just go out there and do it. There is nothing stopping them, right? After all, there are no laws that say women can’t be CEOs and men can’t be daycare providers, right?

Now this is where the debate gets interesting.

I’m going to talk about the wage gap in the context of identity. This, I realize, is also where many people might stop listening. Because apparently sharing a first person narrative is having a victim complex. Because apparently even talking about identity in relationship to sociological trends is unwarranted and purposely divisive. Google the terms: oppression Olympics, social justice warrior, snowflake syndrome, and virtue signalling for more on this type of rhetoric.

In spite of all that, I’m going to share anyway. So, here it goes.

My name is Cynthia Chen. I was born and raised in the United States. People would like to think that America’s a great post-racial, post-gender, freedom loving melting pot where identity is no longer relevant. If this were true, then why are my childhood memories filled with being called out for being Asian?

“Hey! Speak Chinese for us!”

Why is it that in grade school, secondary school, and even into university it was not uncommon for me to hear the following phrase?

“Of course you got an A, you’re so Asian!”

Why do my achievements have to be accredited to my race rather than my individual drive? Can I retain some sense of self in the things I do?

“Wow, you’re English is really great.”

That one was always elicited an eye-roll on my part.

Having the individual strength of character to push past these questions in a classroom setting is one thing, but what happens when you have to enter a job market and culture where these biases and expectations are normalized?

For me, it manifests with self-doubt. Here are some snippets of my internal monologue:

“I wonder if I should charge less for English lessons because I’m worried French parents won’t want to hire someone named Madame Chen?”

“Is it possible for me to pursue a career in public service? I don’t know anyone who has. What does that path look like?”

“Are employers going to assume certain things about my personal characteristics based off of my name?”

“Am I being too aggressive, too passive?”

“Do I have to worry about assumptions of my future marital and family plans? Wait…I don’t even know myself if those are things I want!”

Yes, I know everyone has self-doubts when making career choices and entering job interviews. But what I’m saying is that everyone’s self-doubt is tinted by their identity. The challenges I face are different than someone who’s never had to grow up wondering if their self-worth is related to their race and gender. I’m not writing this so people will have pity. I’m not looking for pity. I’m writing this so people might understand where I’m coming from. I’m looking for empathy.

So yes, the wage gap is so much more than just the 78 cents to a dollar statistic. I like to see the wage gap as this bundle of identity tinted self-doubts paired with subconscious biased hiring practices6,, but that’s kind of difficult to visually represent with a gender equality bake sale, am I right?

In the end, my conclusions from that day were yes the wage gap–in its complicated, multifaceted, and nuanced way–is very real. The real conundrum is–like many important issues in our time–whether or not taking legislative action will make matters better. Can empathy really be legislated?

Flash forward to 2017. We’re living in Donald Trump’s America. The American public seems to have lost all sense of decorum when it comes to debate. Internet slacktivism is alive and well. We are content to repost a hashtag and pass judgement without considering the human factor.

And I feel like it’s now more than ever that we need to be talking about the human factor. This is the real beauty about the Glamour Magazine article about the wage gap2. It’s not demanding that we pass legislation now, but it is demanding that we listen and acknowledge the role that identity plays in confidence, self-worth, how one chooses to navigate through society–and yes–a huge part of that includes job choices and pay. (We can talk about our capitalistic obsession with measuring work as self-worth another day.)

The Glamour article inspired me to come out and share my story in how my identity has shaped my self-worth and career choices. I’m not out here pushing a policy (at least not yet), but I am out here pushing the idea that people (women, men, non-binary, people of color) are negatively impacted by the stereotypes placed upon them especially when it comes to likelihood of being hired6, work options, and upward mobility.

If certain stereotypes do not impact us directly, the least we can do is listen, try to understand them, and mitigate personal bias.

If we can get as far as this step, I’d be willing to call that a little win. Because in this day and age, even agreeing on what constitutes a problem seems to be an uphill battle.


1. Don’t Buy Into The Gender Pay Gap Myth by Karin Agness
2. The Big Salary Reveal: 12 Real People Discover What the Pay Gap Looks Like by Liz Brody
3. AAUW National Student Advisory Committee 2014-2015
4. Hinckley Institute of Politics at University of Utah hosts “Equal Pay: Debunking the Myths Behind the Gender Wage Gap”
5. The Simple Truth about the Gender Pay Gap (Spring 2017)
6. Research: How Subtle Class Cues Can Backfire on Your Resume

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