How the Model Minority Myth Hurts Equal Pay Efforts

On February 22, 2018 we observe Asian American/Pacific Islander Equal Pay Day, because Asian American women work roughly fourteen months to earn what a white man earns over the course of a year — two whole extra months. The typical Asian American woman will lose almost $300,000 in her lifetime due to this inequity. But we know there is more to the story.

The Model Minority Is a Myth

Sharmili Majmudar

Growing up as an Indian-American woman, I remember the pressure to fit into the concept of the “model minority” — the narrative that all Asian Americans are doctors, lawyers, and engineers and are wealthy and economically secure. But even within my relatively privileged family, there is a wide range of professions. Yes, I have doctors and lawyers in my family, but we also have teachers and social workers. When she immigrated to the U.S., my mother’s degree and experience as a nurse in India were completely dismissed, and she was told she would need to redo her high school education and beyond in order to continue to work as a nurse. As a result of this bias against a foreign education, she was forced to leave a profession she loved behind.

As I’ve learned, the “model minority” myth obscures the very real challenges that many people within Asian American and Pacific Islander communities face, and makes invisible the diversity of our lived experiences. For example, a report by Asian Americans Advancing Justice LA found that Asians were overrepresented in STEM fields and in “personal care and service occupations,” including nail salons, garment production, and taxi and livery drivers — a much broader range of occupations and economic opportunity than the “model minority” myth would have us believe.

Today, we push back against the stereotype; AAPI workers are #NotYourModelMinority — we work across sectors and professions, and we deserve equal pay for equal work.

Representation Matters: Disaggregate the Data

The “model minority” myth is sustained in part by the fact that we continue using aggregated statistics, grouped in broad categories such as “Asian American and Pacific Islander.” Despite being the fastest-growing population in the United States, AAPIs are overlooked or reported as a one homogenous group in research on racial and ethnic disparities. Aggregate statistics undermine specific communities’ contributions and needs. The mainstream narrative claims Asian American women make more on average than other racial/ethnic groups in the United States; however, when you disaggregate the data by ethnicity, Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander women actually experience some of the widest pay gaps.

Vietnamese women make 62 percent, Laotians make 60 percent, Cambodians make 62 percent and Hmong make 59 percent of what a white man makes. Further, Burmese women make 51 percent, Marshallese 44 percent, and Bhutanese 38 percent of what a white man makes.

Although the Department of Labor recently updated their salary data collection forms to include gender and ethnicity questions, the EEO-1 form does not disaggregate “Asian” by ethnicity or disaggregate “multiracial.” It also offers limited gender identity options. As a result, there are limited means of even assessing pay inequity across AAPI ethnicities and gender identities. We need data disaggregated by ethnic origin to change stereotypical narratives around AAPIs and our needs. We call for data equity and the implementation of best practices for AAPI disaggregation in pay equity research. We also call for increased gender identity options in government surveys so that disparities for AAPI transgender workers can be collected and reported. AAPI communities deserve equal pay for equal work and need research, advocacy, and policies that acknowledge the diversity of needs that exist across our communities.

AAPI people deserve to be included in research, advocacy, and policy efforts to ensure that the labor of all members of our community is visible and valued, and that each member of the community can achieve pay equity and economic security.

Inclusive Equal Pay

Today is the first of many different Equal Pay Days — the average wage gap for women is marked in April, but the gaps for Latinas, black, and Native women are represented as far out as November. The model minority myth minimizes the role racism and sexism play in the ongoing struggles of AAPI people as well as other racial and ethnic minority groups — especially black Americans. As discussed above, if we disaggregate the data for AAPI women, we can see that some women are only earning $0.38 for every dollar a white man earns! Closing the 20 per cent wage gap for women — the gap most popularly known and cited — will not address the inequity faced by millions of women of color. If we are to truly create pay equity and economic security, we must close the largest gaps. Only then can we say that the labor of all women is valued.

Equal Pay NOW!

It is time for Congress to act on equal pay for equal work! Take action and find out about the Paycheck Fairness Act here, then contact your Representative and Senator and ask them to support and sign-on as a co-sponsor to the reintroduction of the Paycheck Fairness Act. To contact your elected officials, find your Representative and Senator here, then call the U.S. Capitol Switchboard at (866) 220–0044. Women Employed supports comprehensive equal pay policies on the federal level like the Paycheck Fairness Act, as well as on the state level, like the No Salary History bill in Illinois.

For more information on pay equity for AAPI communities, read the first ever comprehensive report on the status of AAPI equal pay here.