We’re No ‘Model Minority’: Addressing the Myth Through Equal Pay Day

Economic disparities fester behind the façade of the myth about Asian-Americans.

[Photo: A stressed woman sits near a laptop with her eyes closed and her glasses in her hands.]
When you take a closer look at the data—evaluating wages paid to AAPI women from different ethnicities—we find that Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander women experience some of the widest pay gaps. Shutterstock

February 22 was Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Women’s Equal Pay Day, which marks the two extra months that many AAPI women have to work to make what a white man makes in the previous year. But, there’s more to the story.

Asian-Americans often are pointed to as the “model minority” in the United States. The distinction may seem like a compliment, but this label creates the fantasy that all Asian-Americans are wealthy and successful. Further, it downplays the racism, xenophobia, and sexism we face. This sweeping stereotype perpetuates institutionalized racism when used to pit AAPI people against other communities of color, and even against ourselves. This narrative is used by mediathe general public, and even the so-called alt-right to undermine and make invisible the many people within our communities who do not fit that mold—especially AAPI women.

AAPI Equal Pay Day offers us an important opportunity to address the economic struggles of AAPI women, trans, and gender-nonconforming people. Economic disparities fester behind the façade of the “model minority” myth. For instance, when we talk about the pay gap between men and women, the conventional wisdom is that Asian-American women make more on average than other racial/ethnic groups in the United States. But the AAPI community is diverse—and so is the wage gap experienced by AAPI women. This is why we advocate for data disaggregation.

When you take a closer look at the data—evaluating wages paid to AAPI women from different ethnicities—we find that Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander women experience some of the widest pay gaps. In fact, the ethnic group with the widest wage gap is Burmese-American women, who make 51 cents to a white man’s dollar. This means that a Burmese-American Equal Pay Day will fall on December 17, 2018, which is ten months from now. Studies show AAPI women stand to lose an approximate $700,000 throughout their careers as a result of the wage disparity.

The situation is even worse for AAPI transgender and gender-nonconforming (GNC) people. Federal population surveys used to calculate the wage gap, primarily the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey and American Community Survey, do not currently collect data based on gender identity. The lack of comprehensive and inclusive data collection on salary and income for people within these communities creates limitations. We are unable to calculate comparable wage gap analyses for these groups—and it renders wage gap analysis for transgender and GNC people broken down by AAPI ethnicity nearly impossible. 

While there is no specific comprehensive data on the wage gap for transgender people, the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey reported that transgender and GNC communities experience high rates of poverty. Almost a third of transgender respondents reported living in poverty, and 30 percent reported a household income less than $10,000—higher than the overall U.S. population. Asian-American transgender respondents were more likely to report living in poverty (32 percent) compared to white respondents (24 percent). And 15 percent of Asian transgender and gender-nonconforming respondents reported a household income of less than $10,000—compared to only 9 percent of white transgender and gender-nonconforming respondents, and 12 percent of the respondents overall.

AAPI women hold a variety of occupations—some are well-paid. But even the women who earn more still make less than white men. We know that not all AAPI people are doctors, nurses, engineers, and lawyers. We work across all sectors and industries. Whether working as an engineer or at a salon, all AAPI women and gender-nonconforming people’s labor should be valued and compensated fairly.

One way we can create fairer working conditions for AAPI women is by supporting unions. Unionized women experience smaller wage gaps than nonunionized women. According to a 2017 report by the Economic Policy Institute, working women in unions are paid 94 cents, on average, for every dollar paid to unionized working men. Nonunionized women earn a mere 78 cents for every white man’s dollar.

Alas, a small number of billionaires, corrupt CEOs, and extremists are rigging the rules to interfere with the AAPI community and others’ ability to join together in strong unions. They’re bankrolling an upcoming Supreme Court case, Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31, that could make it harder for working people to speak up for ourselves, our families, and our communities.

There is a lot of work that needs to be done, both at the private business sector level, and in policymaking, to ensure AAPI women thrive in our society. We need to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, but we also need to increase the minimum wage and mandate paid sick leave and family leave so that AAPI women in the workforce can flourish. 

We also must stop treating Asian-Americans as a monolith. With more than 50 ethnicities and 100 languages, AAPI communities are diverse and distinct. While we all share the challenges of racism, xenophobia, and sexism, the impact is disparate for different ethnicities.

We’re not your model minority. But as the fastest-growing minority, we are the bedrock of this country and the promise for its future. Pay equity isn’t just fair, it’s critical in the larger struggle for economic and gender justice. Without pay equity, bad bosses will continue to get away with targeting AAPI women, transgender, and gender-nonconforming people for all kinds of workplace abuses—from sexual harassment to unsafe working conditions to wage theft.

Equal pay is about more than money; it’s about our dignity and basic human rights. AAPI women want the freedom to enjoy the same things as everyone else: the ability to sustain our families; to live in safe, healthy, and thriving communities; and the right to a better life. So, let’s not waste another day.