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Wage disparity has been part of the American political conversation for centuries. Dating back to the 19th century, feminist trailblazers, such as the underappreciated suffragist and once presidential nominee, Belva Lockwood, have been fighting for income equality for women. This discussion of gender wage disparity has made its way into our common political discourse, being covered in major political debates and across several forms of media.
While it excites me that these conversations on gender wage disparities are finally being covered (as well as somewhat disheartened that it took this long), I find most of these conversations to be oversimplified and exclusive. As a liberal arts student who has spent much of her academic career interested in identity politics, the simplistic binary analysis that overwhelms the present coverage of wage disparity studies is not only disappointing, but has its own negative impacts. Just by taking a few minutes to google “wage disparity” (which I strongly suggest you do), you can easily see the lack of full media representation of different forms of wage inequality, especially related to those who are part of more than one minority group. Overwhelmingly, what pops up in the search is information that solely covers gender differences in wage, with the common narratives such as women make “77 cents to each dollar” that men make. This stat in no way equally represent all females.
Intersectionality: asking “the other questions”
By looking at just the male/female dynamic, we see only a small part of the picture, leaving out those who are either marginalized on multiple levels and/or who do not fall into a gender binary. Scholars and activists alike have taken it upon themselves to take a new approach to their analyses – an intersectional approach. Intersectional approaches, as Dara Strolovitch, PhD, explains, “highlight the ways in which social and political forces manipulate the overlapping and intersecting inequalities within marginal groups” (23). Put a bit more concisely by legal scholar Mari Matsuda, intersectional theory is about “asking the other questions” (1991, 1189). If you see the sexism in a situation, ask where layers of racism exist. If you identify heterosexism, look to see in what ways issues of class and wealth are present. Intersectional theory is all about delving deeper into an issue to better understand how different forms of oppression intersect and affect those marginalized on multiple levels.
What is that you ask? What are the other questions when it comes to wage disparity? I thought you would never ask!
As already noted, the conversation around wage disparity has been focused on gender dynamics: How much do women earn versus how much their male counterparts earn? Wage discrimination, though, is not only a gendered issue. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, which highlights several subgroups such as race, educational attainment, age, occupation, and more, starts to build a fuller picture of actual wage disparity, one that goes beyond the simple male/female dichotomy. Other studies, such as the Pew Research Center, highlight data on multiple (though usually just two) levels of marginalization. Let’s take a look at one example of marginalized subgroups by looking at gender, race, and ethnicity in conjunction.