Wage Gap Means AAPI Women Earn $400k Less over Lifetime

Written by Asha Banerjee and Molly Bashay

If making rent in a recession sounds difficult, try doing it when you’re earning $10,000 less per year. That’s the reality for Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) women who are paid just 85 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men. This gap in pay amounts to over $800 in lost wages per month, $10,000 every year, and $400,000 over a 40-year career.

Put another way, AAPI women have to work more than 14 months to match what white, non-Hispanic men make in just one year. That means an AAPI woman who managed to navigate 2020 in good health and was employed full-time only just hit that milestone for last year on AAPI Equal Pay Day, which is March 9.

But this is just the topline. A closer look reveals stark wage gaps even within the AAPI community. While AAPI women as a whole face a 15 percent wage gap, Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander women face much larger wage disparities, with Nepalese, Burmese, Fijian, Cambodian, Hmong, Samoan, and Bangladeshi women all paid between 50 and 62 cents for every dollar their white male peer earns. This wage gap is also a steep difference from white women who are paid 79 cents for every dollar their white male peer earns. Put simply, many AAPI women from the ethnicities noted above are not only paid 40-50 percent less than their white male peers, but also 20-30 percent less than their white women peers. Clearly, remedying and reversing the wage gap is both a gender equity issue and a vital racial equity issue.

At any other point in time, this kind of wage gap would be unacceptable; in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and economic crisis, it is unconscionable.

The Pandemic Has Intensified the Historical Inequities Facing AAPI Women

The pandemic and recession have devastated whole industries and destabilized family economic security across the nation, though women—and particularly women of color—have been hit especially hard.

Even before the pandemic, AAPI women were overrepresented in service sectors where low pay, lax labor enforcement, and hazardous conditions proliferate. And throughout the pandemic, AAPI women have been overrepresented in the frontline, high-contact industries providing essential services for us all. Asian American women have also faced some of the highest pandemic-related unemployment rates since April 2020, with still a higher rate than the national rate. Pacific Islander women saw their rates of unemployment more than double from 2019 to 2020.

In addition to disproportionate economic burdens, AAPI communities have suffered increased anti-Asian hate and racial scapegoating as the pandemic spread. This AAPI experience—from providing essential labor to being viciously scapegoated as the economy turns—is rooted in historic and systemic oppression. From the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1884 to the Immigration Act of 1924 to today, the AAPI community has long seen workforce and wage exploitation alongside racist rhetoric.

We’ve Got More Work to Do

Our nation should not have to designate a day to draw attention to unequal pay. Landmark legislation like the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964—and more recently, the Equality Act—explicitly prohibit discrimination based on sex, race, gender, and sexual orientation that produces wage inequality.

Obviously, advocates and policymakers have work to do. Asian American and Pacific Islander women need investments and protections that foster and safeguard their economic security and mobility. Policymakers can start with:

  • Better enforcement of discriminatory practices and worker protections
  • Investments in good jobs with high wages and advancement pathways
  • Raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, eliminating the tipped wage, and closing Fair Labor Standards Act loopholes that enable payment of subminimum wages
  • Strengthening worker organizing and collective bargaining rights and protections
  • Investment in the care infrastructure to support the caregiving and economic needs of workers simultaneously.

We should not accept AAPI women being paid less than their white male peers. We must advance policies that assure fair compensation and workplace protections so that all workers are valued and paid equitably for their crucial labor.