National Equal Pay Day won’t make a difference for women of color

National Equal Pay Day won’t make a difference for women of color
© Getty Images

Every year, organizers with the National Committee on Pay Equity choose a date in April to mark “National Equal Pay Day,” which, in theory, represents the extra time in the year a woman would have to work to make as much as a white man did the previous year.

This year, that date is April 10. That means, according to organizers’ calculations, that the average woman in the United States would takes one year, three months, and ten days to make what an average white man made in 2017. On average, they say, a woman makes 81 cents for every dollar a white man makes.

But of course, in America, when you speak in averages, you stand to leave a large chunk of the population out. Despite the calculations that determine an “average” pay gap for women, many women of color experience wage gaps that are far greater — in some cases double — the average gap.


According to Equal Pay Today, an organization advocating for paycheck fairness, African-American women make 63 cents to every dollar a white man makes and their equal pay day is Aug. 7. Native American women make 57 cents for every dollar a white man makes, and their Equal Pay Day is Sept. 27. Lastly, Latinas make 57 cents for every dollar a white man makes, and their Equal Pay Day is Nov.1. 

Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) women make 87 cents for every white man’s dollar, according to the organization, and therefore AAPI Equal Pay Day is on Feb. 22. But this calculation fails to take the diversity of the Asian American Pacific Islander population into account.. For example, Burmese American women make 51 cents to a white man’s dollar so their Equal Pay Day won’t come around until Dec. 17, 2018 — a full eight months from now.

The bigger question remains: Why are women of color, who collectively form about 40 percent of the female population in the United States, faring so much worse than white women?

While women make up just under 50 percent of the workforce, according to the National Women’s Law Center, women comprise two thirds of employees working low-wage jobs, defined as those that earn less than $10.50 an hour.

This gendered concentration is often referred to by sociologists and economists as occupational segregation. It is a common myth that a woman’s occupational choices result in gender pay disparities. In reality, multiple factors outside of individual choice influence occupational segregation.

Historically, women in the United States have been discouraged or passed over for traditionally “masculine” jobs such as management or executive leadership, while being explicitly recruited for service roles — such as nurses or teachers. Social expansion of gender roles, as well as workplace nondiscrimination policies, have resulted in increased occupational integration, but occupational segregation continues to shape wage setting and pay equity.

Wage setting refers to how society decides the worth of an occupation. Occupations that predominantly employ women are sometimes valued less than male dominated professions. When women move into traditionally male-dominated career fields, the value and compensation rate of those fields decreases, while the opposite trend occurs when men enter into certain occupations.

For example, women once dominated the computer programming sector, but when it shifted to be predominantly men, wages increased. Women and men both pay penalties for working in predominantly female occupations, but in general, men across skill-level and occupation earn higher median hourly wages than women in the same occupation.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the four occupations that are projected to be the fastest growing are personal care aides, home health aides, food preparation and serving workers (including fast food workers) and retail salespeople. These jobs typically pay less than $10.50 an hour and require no formal education. Women of color, especially, disproportionately take on positions in these fields.

The National Women’s Law Center has also found that 17 percent of women occupying the four fastest growing low-wage jobs are foreign born. African-American women are 2.6 times more likely to land one of these jobs than a high paying job.

It’s become clearer than ever that when we talk about Equal Pay Day, we cannot treat it as a gender only issue. We must take into account that pay inequality is a racial issue as well.

The wage gap is a symptom of greater issues steeped in decades of racism, redlining, and sexism in the workforce.

It’s not enough to fight for paycheck fairness or to demand that companies be more transparent about what they pay men and women. We need to fight for paid sick leave, paid parental leave, affordable child care, and a livable minimum wage, which would establish humane working conditions for all workers. For women of color, advocating for paycheck fairness on Equal Pay Day is just the tip of the iceberg. We’re just getting started.

Sung Yeon Choimorrow is the executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, the nation’s only organization dedicated to advocacy at the intersection of gender and racial justice for Asian American Pacific Islander women and girls. Sung Yeon is a Public Voices Fellow with the Op-Ed project.