We’re Not Interchangeable: Telling the Real Economic Stories of AAPI Women on AAPI Equal Pay Day

Women Employed
Feb 11 · 4 min read

by Corinne Kodama

Today is AAPI Equal Pay Day, marking the extra weeks into 2020 that Asian /Pacific Islander women need to work to earn the same as White, non-Hispanic men did the previous year. However, given the great economic disparities between Asian American and Pacific Islander women from different ethnic groups, this date is misleading. The National Women’s Law Center notes that while AAPI Equal Pay Day represents that on average AAPI women make 90 cents to the dollar of White men, there is great variation among Asian ethnic groups and some, like Nepalese women, earn as little as 50 cents to a White man’s dollar.

There is an inside joke among Asian Americans that one of the main things we have in common is that we are misunderstood and often mistaken for each other — we’ve seen that exacerbated in the wake of the recent coronavirus outbreak, for example. Unfortunately, the ways we typically collect race/ethnicity data in the U.S. (i.e., the “big five” White, Black, Asian, Latinx, Native, and Other) exacerbates this issue. Using the “AAPI” term means grouping as many as 50+ ethnic subgroups together!

As a result, using the term “AAPI” is not as inclusive as people intend. For example, often the content of whatever that “AAPI” label refers to does not actually include anything related to Pacific Islanders. As a native Hawaiian friend once said, “If you’re going to use ‘PI’ in the title, then I expect to read something about my community. If you’re not going to do that, then don’t pretend like you are.” In fact, what many do not realize is that since 2010 the U.S. Census no longer groups Asians and Pacific Islanders together, and instead counts them in separate categories: “Asian American” and “Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander.”

However, the majority of corporations, state agencies, and research studies continue to use some sort of APA/API/AAPI umbrella term, so it is important to note that economically, different Asian Americans and Pacific Islander ethnic groups have a wide range of experiences and needs. Even in writing this piece, I relied on organizations that use multiple data sources to examine data on AAPI women — in some instances, the data refers to Asian women alone and in others, the data refers to Asian American or Pacific Islander women. But the AAPI population is extremely bifurcated in relation to socioeconomic status and educational attainment. For example, a Pew research study found that income inequality in the U.S. is greatest among Asians (not including Pacific Islanders), and thus Asians are the most economically divided racial or ethnic group in the U.S. This makes any kind of “average” difficult to interpret and misleading regarding real economic disparities among such a diverse population.

As a result of these disparities, AAPI women are over-represented in both low- and high-wage workforce and the gender wage gap for AAPI women persists in both lower- and higher-wage jobs. The wage gap is even wider for those with less education, who are older, and who are mothers. Racial and gender discrimination combine to create economic injustice for many Asian American and Pacific Islander women, and there are many undocumented AAPI women who experience even greater barriers to economic equity. Even when we use the “average” gap, the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum notes that AAPI women lose $240,280 over a 40-year career. “To make up for lost wages, they have to work longer hours, multiple jobs, and often, past retirement age. For those taking care of children, family members, and loved ones, the extra burden posed by the wage gap makes it difficult for AAPI women to provide emotional and economic support to their families and communities,” a recent NAPAWF report concludes.

Understanding this diverse population is complicated. As a researcher and advocate, I have had to confront the model minority myth: the persistent, mistaken belief that AAPI people are all well-off, unaffected by racial discrimination, highly educated, and not in need of resources or support. This belief is driven by a simplified single narrative that does not reflect the diverse and complex economic experiences of AAPI people that are illuminated when you disaggregate the data. (Ensuring useful data is one of the many reasons Women Employed also advocates for participation in the Census).

So when you read information about the economic status of AAPI women, look closely as to which AAPIs they’re referring to. We owe it to each other to fully appreciate and understand the communities which make up this often-misunderstood and rapidly growing “AAPI” group if we are truly working towards equal pay for ALL women.

Corinne Kodama is a Policy Analyst for Women Employed. To learn more about what Women Employed is doing to advance equal pay, visit womenemployed.org/equal-pay

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