The Cost of Being a Girl: Working Teens and the Origins of the Gender Wage Gap

Iceland recently made it illegal to pay men and women unequally; New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed an executive order banning asking potential employees about their previous salaries. But despite these signs of progress, the reality remains that women make, on average, 77 cents on every white man’s dollar. To make things worse, women face the motherhood penalty—losing out on even more potential earnings after starting families.

We’ve heard it all before: Women have babies. Women take care of children. Women do more housework. Human capital approach scholars have argued that women’s lower pay is explained through gaps in their education and job experience due to work interruptions—like parental leave, childcare duties and other domestic duties. Occupational segregation approach scholars argue that it is not the individual differences between men and women that result in the pay gap, but rather differences in occupations; women and men simply work in different sectors and take different positions—for women, positions that pay less, and tend not to be managerial.

These approaches have one thing in common: they all focus on the adult workforce. But today, more than two-thirds of teenagers work while still in school—and the wage gap starts before they graduate.

In my new book, The Cost of Being a Girl: Working Teens and the Origins of the Gender Wage Gap, I focus on the teenage work force in order to pinpoint the emergence of the gender wage gap and trace its origins. In addition to centering an overlooked cohort in my research, these early work experiences also function as a social laboratory where we can naturally control for many background factors. Boys and girls are generally not married with children. They have the same (limited) education and job experience.

Using a mixed methods approach—in-depth qualitative interviews, statistical modeling and experiments—I explored gender inequality in the pay rates of teenage student workers. Using NLSY97 dataset, I found that 12- and 13-year-olds made the same amount of money—but within two years, a gender wage gap took shape. That gap then widens with age. Controlling for all background factors, the cost of being a girl remains higher than being a boy.

While some individual characteristics, such as race and age, exacerbate the wage gap, a more pivotal factor is in the concentration of the girls in freelance jobs, such as babysitting, and the concentration of boys in more employee-type jobs, such as service jobs. While boys move into those jobs, girls remain in the lower-paying freelance jobs—and even within them, boys and girls are placed in different positions, with girls in customer service and boys handling money and managerial tasks.

Even within babysitting jobs, girls have a different experience. Girls are paid less than boys who babysit, and their tasks tend to include more unpaid labor, light housework and errands. In more formal positions, girls face more demands to buy the products they are selling, putting them at risk for getting in debt, and are more likely to be dismissed when they ask for a raise.

These gender differences in pay have long-term effects. Working as a teenager has positive effects on later income for men‚ but not for women—who make approximately 2,000 less dollars per year and report feeling overweight and having negative body images as a result of work in specific industries, like retail and apparel. Many young women report receiving positive messages at home and at school, but they mistrust them because they experience inequality at work.

Part-time teenage jobs seem trivial, but they are the first entry into the workforce for girls and boys. In these jobs, they are socialized into the workforce—and they internalize its problems. The wage gap starts with girls—and we need to include them in our movement to close it.


Yasemin Besen-Cassino is a Professor of Sociology at Montclair State University and is currently serving as the Book Review Editor of Gender&Society. Her new book, Cost of Being a Girl: Working Teens and the Origins of the Gender Wage Gap, just came out from Temple University Press.