The origins of the Gender Wage Gap and The Cost of Being a Girl

This week in North Philly Notes, Yasemin Besen-Cassino, author of The Cost of Being a Girl: Working Teens and the Origins of the Gender Wage Gapreveals her findings about how the origins of the gender wage gap begin as teens enter the workforce. 

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In the past few weeks, we have been bombarded with news from all over the world on gender inequality in the workplace. From Hollywood to media to politics, many sectors point to unequal pay in the workplace as well as other problems such as sexual harassment. Unequal pay has been a systematic problem of workplaces and women’s lives. A wide range of discipline and approaches have offered explanations to this persistent problem. Some have focused on the women and have argued the women have lower pay because of their own characteristics- they study different topics, have lower education, less job experience especially because they leave the workforce due to childcare and parental leave. Some have focused on occupational characteristics: women and men are concentrated in different jobs, different sectors and different positions. Women’s positions tend to pay less and have less authority. No matter how they looked at the pay, there always remained an unexplained portion: the cost of being a woman. As I studied these dominant theories, I sat at a coffee shop, where a teenage barista brought my coffee. It occurred to me at that coffee shop that we were looking at this problem all wrong. Even though the focus of the theories seemed different (workers vs. jobs), almost all the studies on the wage gap studied the same population: the adult workforce. However, work experience does not begin with the completion of formal education. Many teenagers work while still in school as working part-time while still school is a quintessentially American phenomenon. Therefore, work experience, and potentially the wage gap starts long before the start of “real” jobs. In The Cost of Being a Girl, I look at a substantial yet previously neglected portion of the workforce: teenage workers. Focusing on this group includes a previously understudied portion of our workforce to offer a more comprehensive understanding. More importantly, the teenage workforce is like a social laboratory: at these early ages these typical explanations of the wage gap “women have babies” “women leave the workforce” “women do more house work” are not relevant. If we look at 12-13 year-olds: they do not have spouses, they don’t have children. They are at the same education and skill level: what happens when we look at the wage gap?

  • Using NLSY data, I find that 12- and 13-year-old boys and girls have equal pay. Once they become 14 and 15, we see the emergence of the first wage gap which widens with age.
  • Some individual characteristics, such as race and age, exacerbate the wage gap. Age makes the wage gap wider—the older girls get, the wider the gap; African American girls have an even wider pay gap
  • The types of jobs are important too: girls remain in freelance jobs whereas boys move into employee type jobs. Even within employee type jobs, girls are put in positions to deal with difficult customers, do more aesthetic labor (buy more clothes to fit the look) and are less likely to deal with money.
  • Girls are expected as part of their jobs to buy the clothes and products they are selling to maintain the look of the company; as such, many girls end up accumulating credit card debt.
  • Among freelance jobs: girls tend to do babysitting. Through informal networks, their job description changes, includes unpaid hours and many other chores, whereas many boys who babysit have higher pay, little unpaid hours and clear job descriptions.
  • Experiments show that potential employers are not willing to give female babysitters raises: if she shows a connection to the child, and asks for money, she is seen as manipulative. If she does not show an attachment, she is seen as cold. Either way, care is seen in opposition to money, and asking for money is discouraged.
  • These early jobs also have long-term effects. With the longitudinal data set, I find that women, many years later, experience the effects of having worked as a teenager. Early work experiences benefit men but not women: results in lower pay for women. Especially girls who have worked in apparel sector report feeling overweight years later.
  • Girls are given mixed messages: they are told they can be anything they want at home and school but they are discouraged because they experience firsthand the problems of the workplace.
  • Girls are less likely to report serious issues in jobs like sexual harassment because they feel it is “not their real job.”
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