Fighting for AAPI Equal Pay

Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) women are often cited as making 85 cents to the white male dollar, but disaggregated data shows that various ethnic groups experience vastly different levels of pay. In fact, new Pew research revealed that the AAPI community now has the highest rate of income inequality out of all racial groups.

This comes as a surprise to many—however, many working AAPI women have long been among the lowest paid, obscured by the data point that states that on average, we make 85 cents to the white male dollar. Pew’s stunning finding is a testament not only to the falsity of the Model Minority stereotype, but also makes a strong case for disaggregating data within our communities so that we can close the AAPI wage gap.

The idea that Asian Americans and Pacific Islander women are a monolith is not only inaccurate, it’s irresponsible—and it’s hurting our chances at getting equal pay. (Steve Rappaport / Creative Commons)

The wage gap is still a real problem that is hurting millions of women—particularly women of color—in a time when workers are still fighting just for dignity and fair pay. The recent Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME dealt a blow to collective bargaining and unionization, and if Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed to the Supreme Court, workers could stand to lose even more rights. Most importantly, with an anti-worker justice on the court, we will only end up farther away from closing the wage gap.

Women of color, including AAPI women, have often been left behind in the conversation about equal pay. The AAPI community faces unique struggles in getting the help we need because of the common misconception that we are all financially well-off. Because of the common, “model minority” myth, many assume that everyone in the AAPI community are doing really well financially and our community doesn’t see disparities in wages like other communities do. This is a dangerous and harmful misunderstanding, as equal pay remains a big issue in our community today, and has a real effect on everyday working AAPI women.

We need to start by dismantling the idea of the model minority—which overlooks Asian ethnic groups who not only have not achieved pay parity, but often have even wider pay gaps than Black and Latina women overall.

What many fail to recognize as distinct about our community is the breadth of the socioeconomic spectrum that we occupy. For example, while Sri Lankan and Chinese American women have on average more wage parity, Burmese and Laotian American women make approximately only 51 and 60 cents to the white male dollar, respectively. The pay gap is also larger for AAPI women who are employees at workplaces that have not unionized.

The wage gap is not just an issue for our elected officials and corporations to pay lip service to: It has a meaningful, real life impact on the everyday lives of working women. Closing the wage gap would mean that AAPI women are able to make decisions and choose the quality of live for themselves and their families.

In particular, eliminating the wage gap would help AAPI women better handle everyday costs of living, which are rapidly rising across the country—especially in large cities—while wages continue to stagnate and the cost of healthcare continues to increase. For the average AAPI woman working full-time year round, closing the wage gap would mean more than seven additional months worth of rent and more than 53 weeks of food for herself and her family. Moreover, systematic wage discrimination has been found to negatively impact women’s mental health—so correcting the pay gap would take a large step towards improving overall health outcomes.

Today, we find ourselves continuing to fight just for basic data collection measures and laws that would help ensure better adherence to the Equal Pay Act. Last year, the Trump administration chose to halt the collection of salary data under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The Paycheck Fairness Act, the latest version of which was introduced last April, would add protections to the Equal Pay Act to help close the wage gap—but it has been repeatedly blocked along party lines and has failed to pass.

With further legislation and data collection stalling, many continue relying on misinformation and the model minority myth to understand AAPI women’s pay issues. All of these factors combine to weave a web of silence around equal pay, ultimately impacting AAPI women and their ability to support themselves and their families financially.

The idea that Asian Americans and Pacific Islander women are a monolith is not only inaccurate, it’s irresponsible—and it’s hurting our chances at getting equal pay.

As we celebrate the anniversary of the Equal Pay Act this year, we need to remember all the women whose voices it has failed to include in the past—and continue working hard to pass legislation like the Paycheck Fairness Act that builds on its important legacy.

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. She is a Public Voices Fellow with the Op-Ed project.

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