This month marks AAPI Equal Pay Day—how far into 2019 Asian American and Pacific Islander women have to work to earn the same amount white men did by the end of 2018. It’s a moment that usually passes without much notice. But as a Muslim American who has experienced unequal pay and religious discrimination, it’s personal for me.
AAPI women earn only 85 cents, on average, for every dollar a white man earns—but this number doesn’t tell the whole story. AAPIs are a diverse group of different religions, cultures and histories, and we’re impacted by wage inequality in unique ways.
In my own Bangladeshi community, women earn less than 80 cents per dollar, and a fifth of the community lives in poverty. Disaggregated data shows that Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander women like me face some of the largest wage gaps of any groups. My personal experience, unfortunately, echoes those findings.
One of my first jobs was with a large healthcare corporation that provided wellness services along with private consultations and tours on rehabilitation. Like most recent college graduates, I was overwhelmed with gratitude to even have a job, and it didn’t occur to me to negotiate for a better starting salary. I remember explaining to my hiring manager that I came from a single-mother household, and that my income would be supporting her along with my younger sister. As the daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants, being close to home and helping with whatever I could was both a cultural and religious value.
I soon learned these personal details could not have mattered less to the company. When I was asked one day to organize personnel documents, I discovered I was one of the lowest-paid staff members, despite my tenure along with contributions to the company. I had been pushing for a potential salary raise or promotion, but I kept being passed over in favor of newer staff members. It didn’t matter that I consistently went above and beyond in my job, often taking on work which fell outside the scope of my job description.
Blatant racism and sexism were rampant in my office, and my identity as not only a woman, but a South Asian and Muslim woman, compounded the challenges I was facing. Despite the company’s commitment to “diversity,” I often felt like a token, and I was constantly reminded in subtle ways to stay in my lane whenever I offered suggestions for creating a more inclusive atmosphere. (They would eventually go on to hire a white man and extend him more privileges than any of the staff of color, including professional development opportunities along with higher pay.)
When my boss and one of her close colleagues were configuring the staffing of a conference booth, they told us they needed “all hands on deck,” but I was later told I would not be able to staff the booth—because my boss didn’t think I could “swoon the boys.” She assigned a newer hire, a blonde woman she thought resembled a “model,” to the task instead.
I was the only Muslim woman who observed hijab at my office, and these incidents forced me to contemplate what that meant to and for me. I didn’t want to attract unnecessary attention or be judged for my looks, but rather my intellect. My dignity under the guise of hijab was more important to me than how my body appeared to men.
I didn’t want to sacrifice my values—and ultimately, it took a toll on my paycheck and long-term earning potential. That’s not fair, and it isn’t right.
It’s time to close the wage gap, for women across the country and in every community. Congress can make that happen now by passing the landmark Paycheck Fairness Act, which would combat wage discrimination, strengthen workplace protections for all women and finally close the loopholes in the Equal Pay Act leaving women like me behind.