Believing that people should receive compensation for their work is a nearly universal sentiment. In the United States, for the most part, workers are compensated fairly for the jobs that they do, but are they always paid equally? The answer, unfortunately, is no.
Pay discrimination may seem like a preposterous term at first glance—how can anyone get away with not paying their workers equally in this day and age? Throw the term intersectionality in there, and you may turn more than a few heads. These terms and concepts can be a lot to swallow, and understandably so. That’s why this article will break these ideas down so you can understand the intersectionality of pay discrimination.
It’s important to note that pay discrimination is specifically a legal term. It manifests when individuals receive lesser pay than their colleagues based on discriminatory factors such as race, gender, age, or disability rather than on their job performance or qualifications. Therefore, pay discrimination can happen to absolutely anybody, and while it certainly can, that’s not where things tend to skew.
A popular term many confuse as synonymous with pay discrimination is the “gender pay gap” or the “gender wage gap.” However, these terms refer to a specific issue and are not necessarily phrases you’ll see within the legal field. The wage gap falls under the umbrella of pay discrimination but specifically refers to the financial disadvantages presented to women.
Understandably, this term may sound very strange. How are employers simply allowed to pay women less? Well, very rarely, if ever, is this term referring to an active choice by an employer to pay a woman less. This term refers to the socioeconomic factors that put women in a position to make less money than men across jobs and industries.
Women, due to a slew of sociocultural factors, tend to have fewer opportunities than men and may find themselves in lower-paying jobs. How? Let’s look at the STEM field as an example. We know that positions in the STEM field tend to pay favorable wages. However, due to the prevailing yet outdated view that STEM is a “man’s” field, women are sometimes too intimidated to participate.
Women end up in lower-paying jobs due to a lack of access to education in some cases. Once again, this may seem strange to some working under the idea that universities are outright refusing women. This belief isn’t true either. A woman may lack access to education because she may have to care for her relatives or her baby, cutting her educational career short.
Whatever the case may be, these factors put women at a disadvantage. While women may work hard to climb the ladder to qualify for higher-paying jobs, education, time, effort, and experience may still not be enough. Though it is illegal—and considered pay discrimination—in most states, some employers will look at past salary history to set your pay. Therefore, you may never have the chance to broaden your horizons, no matter how hard you work, if you’re not immediately starting on the right foot. Given the circumstances discussed, women have a harder time jumping over these hurdles, and many do not.
Scholar Kimberlé Willliam Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality in 1989. It is a framework that recognizes how multiple forms of discrimination overlap and intersect in simple terms. Just as a road map shows the numerous, interlinked paths between different locations, intersectionality offers a way to view how various social hierarchies, such as race, gender, and class, compound.
For example, a woman of color might face discrimination that is both sexist and racist. This complex web of discrimination is not simply the sum of sexism and racism but a unique struggle that stems from the intersection of these identities. We can get a more holistic and nuanced view of social inequality by looking at discrimination through intersectionality.
Understanding the intersectionality of pay discrimination requires one to define intersectionality and pay discrimination as separate terms first, then we can further our understanding by determining how they come together. How do they intertwine and affect the broader spectrum of social inequality?
Pay discrimination is the act of unequal pay based on protected characteristics such as sex, age, gender, race, disability, and religion. However, intersectionality tells us that discrimination can compound, and if you belong to multiple minority groups, your struggle may look very different than someone else’s. Depending on the group someone belongs to, they may be more at risk of pay discrimination or experience it more severely. Let’s look at a hypothetical example to better understand how these concepts intertwine.
Aaliyah Osman is a 32-year-old Muslim woman and second-generation immigrant whose parents were born in Senegal, Africa. She speaks fluent American English, received good grades throughout her primary education, and is on track to attend medical school to become a successful doctor, just as she and her parents dreamed of.
However, one day, Aailyah’s mother, Sadaf, becomes very ill, and her father, Faisal, cannot take care of his wife because he works full-time and must provide for the family. As a result, Aaliyah must put her education on pause to take care of her mother.
Years pass, and Sadaf passes away from her illness, but during that time, Aaliyah found a husband, got married, and is now raising their child. She still dreams of becoming a doctor, but as a stay-at-home mother, she doesn’t have as much time. However, she does find an online nursing program that allows her to improve her education from home, and after some hard work, she earns her nursing degree.
However, Aaliyah is now in what is known as a “pink collar” job, and instead of being a doctor and getting paid more, she is in a service role that requires caring for others. With her new life, it will become much harder for her to become a doctor than it would have been if she could focus solely on school, but it doesn’t end there.
Aaliyah is not just a Muslim woman; she is a Black woman and is much more likely to encounter discriminatory employment practices. Not only must she work harder than others to reach her goal—as she is at an educational and financial disadvantage due to life events—but she must also overcome the hurdles of systemic racism. Aaliya will have to fight general pay discrimination and the gender wage gap. According to data gathered by the United States Census Bureau, the wage gap for women of color is much larger, with Black women being paid $0.64 for every $0.79 that white women make.
While this example aptly shows how intersectionality and pay discrimination intertwine, it doesn’t include the roles that disability, age, national origin, and genetic information also play. Society must conduct more research to truly understand the complexities and nuances of this issue.
However, one thing remains clear. The Law Firm of Tamara N Holder is here to help if you believe you are a victim of pay discrimination. We’ll put you in touch with one of our dedicated equal-pay lawyers to ensure you receive proper compensation for your hard work and never have to live in fear of discrimination.