Despite numerous advances in gender equality, the gap in earnings between men and women has yet to be bridged. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, in 2015 female workers were making only 80 cents for every dollar earned by men – a 20 percent gap.
In her new book The Cost of Being a Girl, Sociology Professor Yasemin Besen-Cassino contends that the gender wage gap starts in the teen – not adult – years. “The wage gap is a very timely topic and so far a very stagnant problem, but I think we are looking at it the wrong way,” she says. “Most explanations focus on motherhood, housework and childcare – but things start long before then.”
“Its most important finding is that when teens are 12 and 13 there is no wage gap, but once employee-type jobs are available, boys move into them and girls remain in freelance jobs like babysitting. This is the start of the gender wage gap,” she explains.
Using a nationally representative, large-scale longitudinal dataset, she has tracked the same girls for many years, to find that working as a teenager helps boys but not girls, who are paid less many years after they first entered the workforce as teens. “Even many decades later, women who worked as teenagers make less money,” Besen-Cassino says.
She identifies mixed messages as the source of the problem. “We tell kids they can be anything they want at home and school, but they don’t believe these messages, because they have experienced the biases of the market firsthand,” she says. “We socialize our teenagers into the gendered expectations of the job market and it has long term effects on their self worth.”
According to Besen-Cassino, the wage gap is even greater for teens of color and lower income girls who are less likely to conform to the look or image sought by corporate employers. “We obscure the structural barriers to finding and keeping jobs,” she notes. “These look requirements make it seem like it’s their fault for not having the right outfits.”
All teen girls who work pay a psychological toll as well, especially those who are employed by the apparel industry, where they are paid less and are often made to feel overweight. Ultimately, these teen workers internalize gendered and unfair workplace assumptions.
A gender equality advocate who spoke beside Lily Ledbetter to support the 2009 Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, Besen-Cassino sees reason to hope that things will change. “Yet as a society, we need to take active steps. Without changing the structural problems of the workplace, we cannot simply continue to tell our teenagers that it’s going to be okay.”