Beyond the Gender Paradigm: an Intersectional Approach to Wage Disparity

Wage disparity has been part of the American political conversation for centuries. Dating back to the 19th century, feminist trailblazers, such as the underappreciated suffragist and once presidential nominee, Belva Lockwood, have been fighting for income equality for women. This discussion of gender wage disparity has made its way into our common political discourse, being covered in major political debates and across several forms of media.

While it excites me that these conversations on gender wage disparities are finally being covered (as well as somewhat disheartened that it took this long), I find most of these conversations to be oversimplified and exclusive. As a liberal arts student who has spent much of her academic career interested in identity politics, the simplistic binary analysis that overwhelms the present coverage of wage disparity studies is not only disappointing, but has its own negative impacts. Just by taking a few minutes to google “wage disparity” (which I strongly suggest you do), you can easily see the lack of full media representation of different forms of wage inequality, especially related to those who are part of more than one minority group. Overwhelmingly, what pops up in the search is information that solely covers gender differences in wage, with the common narratives such as women make “77 cents to each dollar” that men make. This stat in no way equally represent all females.

Intersectionality: asking “the other questions”

By looking at just the male/female dynamic, we see only a small part of the picture, leaving out those who are either marginalized on multiple levels and/or who do not fall into a gender binary. Scholars and activists alike have taken it upon themselves to take a new approach to their analyses – an intersectional approach. Intersectional approaches, as Dara Strolovitch, PhD, explains, “highlight the ways in which social and political forces manipulate the overlapping and intersecting inequalities within marginal groups” (23)[1]. Put a bit more concisely by legal scholar Mari Matsuda, intersectional theory is about “asking the other questions” (1991, 1189).[2] If you see the sexism in a situation, ask where layers of racism exist. If you identify heterosexism, look to see in what ways issues of class and wealth are present. Intersectional theory is all about delving deeper into an issue to better understand how different forms of oppression intersect and affect those marginalized on multiple levels.

What is that you ask? What are the other questions when it comes to wage disparity? I thought you would never ask!

Layered data

As already noted, the conversation around wage disparity has been focused on gender dynamics: How much do women earn versus how much their male counterparts earn? Wage discrimination, though, is not only a gendered issue. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, which highlights several subgroups such as race, educational attainment, age, occupation, and more, starts to build a fuller picture of actual wage disparity, one that goes beyond the simple male/female dichotomy. Other studies, such as the Pew Research Center, highlight data on multiple (though usually just two) levels of marginalization. Let’s take a look at one example of marginalized subgroups by looking at gender, race, and ethnicity in conjunction.

Before looking at the intersectional data, though, we should remind ourselves of the simple male/female wage disparity:

Women’s earnings as a percentage of men’s, for full-time wage and salary workers, 1979-2014 annual averages

Women's earnings as a percentage of men's, for full-time wage and salary workers, 1979–2014 annual averages
Note: Percentages are calculated from annual averages of median usual weekly earnings for full-time wage and salary workers. Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In 2014, women on average earned 82% of what their male counterparts earned, and clearly there has been significant improvement over the past several decades. This data, though, does not hold up when looking further into demographic breakdowns.

Median usual weekly earnings of women and men who are full-time wage and salary workers, by race and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity, 2014 annual averages

Note: People of Hispanic or Latino ethnicity may be of any race. Estimates for the race groups shown (White, Black or African American, and Asian) include Hispanics. Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Unsurprisingly, the earnings distribution across gender and race varies greatly. In 2014, on average black women were earning 83% as much as white women and earned only 68% of white men, and Hispanics and Latinos show even greater levels of disparity with average earnings for Hispanic or Latino women earning 75% as much as white women and 61% as much as white men. It is evident that this data creates a fuller, though certainly not complete, image of how different forms of inequality impacts those who fall under intersectionally marginalized subgroups[4].

What else is and isn’t represented in our data?

Further important insights would be seen if you continued to layer on other demographic data, including educational attainment, locality, and age. While much of this data is available, most analyses performed stick to either one or two levels of demographic indicators (like the example I gave looking at gender and race/ethnicity). Continued data analysis of subgroups should be explored to give increased understanding into how systems of oppression affect intersectionally marginalized populations, those who are systemically marginalized on several fronts.

Some minority groups, though, are not represented in our data. The transgender community’s felt inequality, since they don’t fit into the simple binary definition of gender that is used in the Labor of Bureau Statistics data, isn’t present. Similarly, data on sexual minorities (lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and pansexuals), isn’t available through the Bureau of Labor Statistics. With this lack of representation in wage disparity data, academics, LGBTQ organizations, and NGOs have taken it upon themselves to perform studies on inequality in the workforce. Much of this data, due to the significant level of workplace discrimination that LGBTQ community members face, covers the levels of social stigma and discrimination sexual minorities and gender variant individuals face, which includes risk of being fired, facing workplace harassment, as well as overwhelming levels of poverty.

The Williams Institute, a think tank at UCLA that is devoted to research on sexual orientation and gender identity, has contributed significant studies surrounding economic inequality faced by the LGBTQ community (including this great interactive data on their website). According to their study from 2007[5], while lesbian women earned higher wages on average then their heterosexual counterparts, gay men earn 10% to 32% less than heterosexual men. Unfortunately, this data does not break down further into other sexual minority groups, such as bisexuals and pansexuals. Although there have been incredible recent gains in rights recognition for sexual minorities, the LGB community still faces enormous levels of social stigma and economic inequality across the U.S., and one or two statistics does in one way covers the full discrimination felt by the LGB community.

There is even less data when it comes to the transgender community. Similarly depressing, the situation is much worse for gender variant individuals. A 2012 study by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force on transgender discrimination showed their respondents were four times more likely to live in extreme poverty[6]. The only easily accessible data on the transgender wage disparity is on the effect on an individual’s wage post transition. The study found that those who transition from male-to-female saw a wage drop of around one-third post transition, while female-to-male transgender individuals saw a very slight increase in their earnings[7]. One single study does not show a complete story for transgender individuals, especially since the transgender community is incredibly diverse. This just barely brushes the surface of the economic inequality the transgender community faces.

Continuing the intersectional approach

While this has been a beginner exercise in the intersectional approach, hopefully it has perked further interest into understanding the many layers of discrimination individuals can face. This process, while I applied it to wage disparity, can be practiced on practically any issue. It starts just with the beautifully short and yet sneakily complex inquiry of “what questions aren’t we asking?”

For those who are inspired to learn more about intersectional theory and its application, check out incredible minds such as Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, bell hooks, and Cathy Cohen. So stay curious; keep asking the other questions.


[1] Strolovitch, D. Z. (2007). Affirmative Advocacy: Race, Class, and Gender in Interest Group Politics.         Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[2] Matsuda, M. (1991). “Beside my Sister, Facing the Enemy: Legal Theory out of Coalition.” Stanford Law Review. 43(July): 1189.

[3] In no way does this exercise provide a full and in-depth analysis of the affects of the many forms of oppression that is felt by different minority groups. Instead, this exercise is meant to be a starting point to look at how examining different demographic and identity-based data helps to better understand and highlight the forces that create inequalities for those who belong to more than one minority group.

[4] Intersectionally marginalized populations are multiply disadvantaged subgroups (Crenshaw 1989).





IMG_0576Lauren Bauman is a Marketing Assistant at Econsult Solutions, Inc. (ESI) and a student at Drexel University studying Global Studies with a focus in International Business and Economics.


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