No, Today Isn’t Really Asian American Equal Pay Day — Here’s Why

It’s time to start a deeper conversation about the wage gap.

O n Tuesday, March 7 of last year, we observed Asian American Equal Pay Day; this year, the symbolic date when Asian American women’s earnings “catch up” to non-Hispanic white men’s earnings from the previous year falls on today, February 22. As Asian American women are paid 85 cents for every dollar a white man earns, it still takes an extra two extra months for them to earn what a white man earned in the previous year.

In the past few years, feminist and mainstream outlets alike have taken up the issue of equal pay and the wage gap. And while many celebrities — including Beyoncé and Patricia Arquette — have spoken out about the wage gap, it remains challenging to find Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) who are vocal on the issue.

For members of the AAPI community who have access to wealth, talking about issues like the wage gap can feel uncomfortable. It forces people to acknowledge areas of privilege, and it forces us to chip away at the myth that all members of the AAPI community have the same access to opportunities.

For those who don’t have access to wealth, discussing financial hardship can cause feelings of vulnerability— as if you are not living up to the standards and expectations outlined by family, friends, your community, and your dominant culture. The silence within our community makes it hard to shed light on the lived reality of so many AAPI people.

For those who don’t have access to wealth, discussing financial hardship can cause feelings of vulnerability.

My father is an immigrant from Pakistan. I grew up hearing him proudly share stories of how he worked as a pizza delivery driver and a factory worker in Chicago. He framed it in the “good immigrant” narrative — an example of how he rose up to the “American Dream.”

Except we didn’t live the “American Dream.” He spent most of my childhood as a single father, working the third shift in a lab at a local grain factory in Illinois. He was subject to mandatory overtime and limited access to leave. Even after having a heart attack, he had to quickly get back to work for fear of losing his job.

And while education was always an expectation in my family, we didn’t have the money saved in order to help pay for college. So while I accumulated college debt, I also worked two or three jobs at a time — a string of retail and restaurant positions necessary in order to make it all work. I was usually paid minimum wage, and subject to sexist miscroaggressions that I was told was simply part of the job.

There are thousands of AAPI women (cis- and transgender) whose stories of work and wages do not fit the narrative of the Asian “model minority.” And as long as those experiences remain shrouded in shame, guilt, and pride — we will never be able to tackle the many ways in which our communities continue to be shaped by racism, sexism, and classism.

There are thousands whose stories of work and wages do not fit the narrative of the Asian ‘model minority.’

The AAPI community is not monolithic — it includes over 50 different ethnic and racial groups. Economic hardship and gender discrimination impacts our communities in complex ways — and it’s about time that we start talking about it.

So while March 7 may symbolize the reality of some members of the Asian American community, closing the wage gap means uplifting the experiences of those most impacted by gender, racial, and economic discrimination within our communities.

Want to start a deeper conversation this Asian American Equal Pay Day?Here are facts that can help us move beyond the 85 cent statistic.

1. Asian American women still make only 85 cents to the dollar — but the reality is that many members of the AAPI community experience much wider wage gaps.

A few years ago, Pew Research Center released an article that called Asian Americans “the highest income, best educated, and fastest growing racial group in the United States.” The tone of the article all but called racial, ethnic, and gender discrimination in the Asian American community a thing of the past — mentioning the wife of Mark Zuckerberg, Priscilla Chan, as their hallmark of “making it” in America.

The “model minority myth” paints all AAPI people as wealthy, healthy, and educated. While there are many problems with this narrative (including that it pits Asian Americans against their own communities and other communities of color) — one particular issue is that it paints an incomplete narrative of the Asian community and frames it as the only narrative.

The ‘model minority myth’ paints all AAPI people as wealthy, healthy, and educated.

AAPI women are not just doctors and engineers, and while many occupy high-level management and supervisory positions, they also work across other sectors — including service, domestic care, and farming industries.

And when we examine the pay gap by specific Asian and Pacific Islander ethnicities, Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander women actually face some of the highest wage gaps. For example, Bhutanese women make on average 38 cents to a white man’s dollar and nearly one-third of AAPI women workers make less than a living wage.

The myths about AAPI women make it challenging for members of our community to speak openly about the value of their work and the financial struggles they may face.

2. Wealth inequality that exists within the AAPI community is widening.

This means that those without access to wealth are becoming poorer and those with access to wealthy are become more wealthy. This is creating a distinct class divide that is also impacted by ethnicity and gender.

Wealthy Asian Americans in the top 10% have over 168 times the wealth of Asian Americans in the bottom 20% — with the top 10% of wealthy Asian Americans reporting a household income of $1.4 million and the bottom 20% reporting less than $10,000.

Wealthy Asian Americans in the top 10% have over 168 times the wealth of Asian Americans in the bottom 20%.

Pacific Islanders are significantly impacted by poverty in the U.S. — with Tongan Americans reporting poverty rates of nearly 19% and Samoan Americans 16%. Certain Asian American ethnic groups also experience high rates of poverty — for example, Hmong Americans have a staggering poverty rate of 27%.

And yet, AAPI communities are often completely left out of discussions about poverty. Redistribution of wealth must occur within and between our communities, but first we have to shed the notion that poverty is not an “AAPI issue.”

The wealth inequality not only is shaped by ethnicity, but by gender, as well. The Center for American Progress recently reported that wealth inequity between Asian American women and Asian American men was greater than between white women and men. And, as always, there’s more to the story — some ethnicities experience even wider wage gaps. For example, Indian and Japanese women earn only 73 cents to the Indian and Japanese man’s dollar.

3. Transgender and gender non-conforming AAPI people are also impacted by the income disparities.

A lot of the focus around Asian American Equal Pay Day revolves around cis-gender men and women. Data on transgender and gender non-conforming communities are rarely collected by population surveys, making direct comparisons to the wage gap challenging. We do know, however, that transgender and gender non-conforming respondents report disproportionately low incomes.

The National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that 18% of AAPI transgender and gender non-conforming individuals reported a household income of less than $10,000 — that’s six times the rate of the AAPI community at large and four times the rate of the general population.

Transgender and gender non-conforming respondents report disproportionately low incomes.

The survey also found high rates of job discrimination and workplace harassment — and more than one in five AAPI transgender and gender non-conforming respondents said they had lost their job due to discrimination.

Gender equity and economic security must start with those most impacted by gender discrimination. In the movement for pay equity and economic security for AAPI people, we must make sure trans and non-binary people are always a part of the conversation — and directly confront the transmisogyny that can manifest in equal pay day rhetoric.

Economic justice for the AAPI community is so much more than a number.

While unpacking the truth about AAPI people and the wage gap is a start — it is only a piece of the larger puzzle. The wage gap is a symptom of historical and systemic racism, sexism, and classism.

In a time fraught with class tensions, we must be open to how dominant narratives of gender and ethnicity have shaped AAPI communities in the U.S. — as well as how classism continues to create divisions and tensions within and outside AAPI communities.

The wage gap is a symptom of historical and systemic racism, sexism, and classism.

Tackling the wage gap will be a step in the right direction, but it won’t fully address the widening wealth inequality that exists within AAPI communities. It won’t fully address the rising poverty rates and educational barriers that face the AAPI community.

As Vijay Prashad said:

“To fight inequality is not simply to bargain for higher wages, but principally to change the way power is held in our society, to fight to radically alter the institutions and attitudes that shape accumulation and dignity.”

We do not live single issues lives, and our experiences with wage discrimination are also not single-issue. We have to continue to complicate our narratives of gender and racial discrimination — and ensure that those most marginalized and impacted by oppression are centered in our conversations about wage gap and gender income inequity.

We live at the intersections of identities — and need social and political solutions to the wage gap that represent those intersections.

How can you deepen the narrative this Asian American Equal Pay Day?

Read fact sheets and articles about the wage gap, economic justice, and AAPI communities:

Share statistics and facts about the AAPI wage gap on social media, as well as your own experiences and stories about wages and work, using #NotYourModelMinority and #AAPIEqualPay.

Learn more about the Paycheck Fairness Act and other federal and state legislation that advances pay equity.

AAliya Khan is the Policy Associate at the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) based in Washington, D.C. When she isn’t advocating for gender and racial justice, she enjoys tweeting about The Bachelor.