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Closing the Pay Gap for Asian-American Women

We can and must do more to better understand and address the pay gap in the AAPI communities.

Ed. note: This is cross-posted on the U.S. Department of Labor's blog. See the original post here.

Throughout Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month in May, the Labor Department shared the latest data available on the employment status of AAPI workers. Secretary Perez discussed the overall employment situation for AAPI workers, Deputy Secretary Chris Lu wrote about the importance of education and Assistant Secretary Portia Wu described the challenges of long-term unemployment. There’s another issue that I’d like to discuss, one that this administration – and the Labor Department in particular – has made a top priority: equal pay.

As the director of Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, my job is to enforce the civil rights of the nearly 22 percent of American workers who are employed by companies that profit from contracts or subcontracts with the federal government. At OFCCP, we make sure that those workers get a fair shot at employment and a fair shake when it comes to placement, promotions and pay.

When taken as a whole, AAPI workers have the highest level of earnings compared to other racial and ethnic groups. Half of full-time AAPI workers earned $987 or more per week in 2013, approximately 14 percent higher than the median weekly earnings of white workers.

On the other hand, the gap in earnings between men and women in the AAPI community is very high. As you can see in the chart below, the weekly median earnings of AAPI women is $839, compared to $1,125 for AAPI men. While AAPI women earn more than other women of color, they only earn 75 cents for every dollar earned by AAPI men.

Of course, we know that looking at this data in the aggregate is also problematic because it doesn’t tell the full story. There is wide variance among the different immigrant, refugee and native populations that make up our communities.

When you disaggregate the AAPI pay gap data by national origin, you find that it varies broadly. As you can see from the following chart, pay gaps within the AAPI community have a range of 19 cents – from Japanese women, who have the largest gap (when compared to Japanese men), to Filipino women who have the smallest gap (when compare to Filipino men).

So what does all of this data tell us? It tells us we have work to do. We need to beef up our enforcement and pay more attention to pay discrimination in industries where AAPI women are highly represented. Issues of race-based discrimination overlay with issues of gender-based discrimination. And, most of all, we need to do more to educate American workers about their rights to fair and equal pay – in ways that are culturally appropriate and accessible for those who may have limited English proficiency.

The pay gap isn’t just a women’s issue, it’s a problem for families that depend on a woman’s income. It’s a problem for communities of color and people with disabilities. And it’s a problem for our economic recovery. In fact, we know that pay gap costs our nation more than $400 million in lost productivity. That is unacceptable.

We at the Labor Department are taking action to close the pay gap. That includes strengthening our enforcement, recovering back pay for those who are paid less due to discrimination, educating workers on their rights and making it illegal for employers to retaliate against employees who talk about their pay. Our efforts to increase the minimum wage will also help by both raising and leveling the playing field for low-wage workers, including many AAPIs who work in restaurants, nail salons, factories, etc.

AAPI workers have, as a whole, achieved much success; but many challenges remain. Understanding those challenges begins with data – collecting it, reporting it, analyzing it and using it to inform decision-making. As the secretary’s representative to the Interagency Working Group on AAPIs, I regularly meet with my colleagues from 24 different federal agencies to discuss how we can improve access to our programs and services by members of the AAPI communities.

The truth is we can and must do more to better understand and address the pay gap in the AAPI communities. Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month may be over, but our commitment to AAPI workers and all others is year-round. 

Pat Shiu is the director of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs.