How Racism and Sexism Create the AANHPI Wage Gap

by | Apr 5, 2023 | Fair Pay

Is our economy working for everyone? April 5 marks Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Equal Pay Day – reflecting that overall, AANHPI women are paid just 80 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men. And it’s especially bad for many AANHPI groups, such as Burmese women, who are paid just 52 cents on the dollar.

Last month in Women’s Work Is Undervalued, and It’s Costing Us Billions, we detailed how the number one driver of the wage gap is the one-two punch of occupational segregation: women are kept out of higher-paying jobs, and women’s jobs are paid less. The long legacies and current experiences of structural racism, sexism and ableism profoundly affect which jobs AANHPI women are more likely to work or less likely to have access to, and how much they’re paid. Long before Asian women were even allowed to lawfully enter the United States or obtain citizenship, AANHPI women – including Chinese women who were specifically targeted for exclusion – worked difficult, low-paid jobs in agriculture, laundries, factory work and domestic work with limited legal status or protections.

Anti-Asian hate and other experiences of discrimination, harassment and violence continue to harm AANHPI people and their communities. In fact, AAPI Data reports that 10 percent of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Americans and 6 percent of Asian Americans report “having experienced physical violence based on their race or ethnicity in the last 12 months.” The COVID-19 pandemic has produced an especially vile wave of racism directed against individuals of East Asian descent based on xenophobic conspiracy theories. Stop AAPI Hate has found that Chinese Americans report the largest share of hate incidents, followed by Korean Americans. And pernicious stereotypes about Asian women and sex workers led to a gunman attacking three Asian-owned spas, targeting Asian women and killing six Asian migrant women.

Occupational segregation also impacts health. For example, our analysis found that AANHPI women are unusually concentrated in low-paid personal care jobs, such as manicurists, skincare specialists and massage therapists, where they are exposed to health and safety risks including toxic chemicals.

Occupational segregation limits the opportunities and incomes of AANHPI women.

Our analysis found that the jobs employing the greatest number of AANHPI women include both relatively high-paying occupations in health care and the tech sector, and very low-paying occupations in the service sector. In fact, manicurists and pedicurists, and cashiers are among the 20 lowest-paying occupations across the economy for full-time, year-round workers.

AANHPI women are not a monolithic group, and there are differences in the types of occupations most often held by Asian American women, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander women and multiracial AANHPI women. (Lack of adequate data limits our ability to analyze specific occupations or disaggregate these groups further.) For example, the occupation group employing the largest share of Asian American women is health care practitioner jobs, while for Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander women, it’s office and administrative support jobs.

Wage gaps within these occupational groups also differ for different groups of AANHPI women. Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander women in management jobs experience especially large wage gaps, for example.

Overall, AANHPI women make up just under 3 percent of all workers who are employed full time, year round. But they make up a disproportionate share of employees in certain service sector jobs, including more than half of all manicurists and pedicurists (typically paid just $22,500 per year), more than one-quarter of skincare specialists ($24,900 per year) and nearly one in eight massage therapists ($30,300 per year). Even within most higher-paid jobs where AANHPI women are overrepresented, they experience significant wage gaps. Among pharmacists, AANHPI women are typically paid $5,600 less per year than white men; among physical scientists, $17,600 less; and among medical scientists, nearly $21,000 less.

Even in higher-paying fields, AANHPI women still experience discrimination and harassment.

There are a few seemingly bright spots in the data for AANHPI women, jobs in which the wage gap seems either small or nonexistent. Are those jobs a secret key to solving the wage gap once and for all? Not quite.

Some are jobs that pay close to the minimum wage, such as cashier or manicurist. In some cases, low-paying service jobs have too few white men to even be able to calculate a wage gap.

As our data shows, AANHPI women make up a significant share of workers in some better-paying fields, including health care and STEM, that typically require a lot of training and credentials. (Research shows that increases in women’s education levels relative to men have helped narrow the wage gap since the 1980s, though women still make less than men at every level of education.) Unfortunately, no amount of education and training can entirely overcome systemic racism and sexism. Even within higher-paying fields, AANHPI women face pay inequities and barriers to advancement. For example, a National Academy of Sciences study of several Silicon Valley tech companies found that in one firm, in professional jobs Asian women were paid 35 percent less than white men, in technician jobs 25 percent less, and in office and managerial jobs 24 percent less.

How to achieve economic equity for AANHPI women

Undoing centuries of exploitation and discrimination is a tall order. But every action we take to dismantle structural racism, sexism and ableism helps – and there’s plenty that can be done right now. Some especially urgent priorities include:

  • To fight employment discrimination and harassment and identify wage inequities, Congress must support robust funding for anti-discrimination enforcement and the Senate should swiftly confirm Kolpana Kotagal, President Biden’s nominee for Commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
  • To ensure AANHPI women have opportunities and support to enter and advance in non-traditional occupations, state and local governments can partner with the Biden administration and community-based organizations to center gender and racial equity and the creation of good, high-paying union jobs in implementing the bipartisan infrastructure law (Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act), the CHIPS Act and the Inflation Reduction Act.
  • Congress must finally pass the Paycheck Fairness Act to make it harder for employers to engage in sex-based wage discrimination, prohibit employers from forbidding their workers from discussing wages and institute data collection that will help inform future enforcement efforts.