Origins of the Gender Wage Gap: Part-Time Teenage Labor and Gender Inequality

By Yasemin Besen-Cassino

The gender wage gap is among the most persistent problems of labor markets and women’s lives and many scholars have approached this problem from different perspectives. Human capital approach focuses on individual characteristics and explains the gender wage gap through differences such as education, skills, training and job experience.  It mostly focuses on the domestic and maternal duties of women, and argues that women are more likely to take time off for childcare and parental leave, causing interruptions in their resumes resulting in less human capital. In addition, they are less likely to invest in their own human capital resulting in lower pay. Another view the occupational segregation approach, focuses on occupational differences argues that men and women are paid differently, not because of their individual characteristics, but because they work in different sectors, occupations and positions. Occupations that predominantly employ women are considered to be “women’s jobs,” and pay much less as a result. Despite the differences in perspective, nearly every study on the wage gap shares one thing in common: they focus on the adult labor force. However, almost every teenager works sometime throughout their high school years. Therefore, the work experience- and potentially the wage gap- start much before the completion of formal education and onset of full time work.

In my research, I focus on part-time, teenage workers for several important reasons. First, by focusing on teenage labor, I highlight a previously neglected yet substantial portion of our workforce. According to the Department of Labor, in 2015 1.4 million teenagers were employed, but in good economies this number can be as high as 4.1 million (2015). By including this neglected group, I provide a more comprehensive understanding of our work force. Secondly, by focusing on the early work experiences, we can pinpoint the emergence of the gender wage gap and trace its origins. Finally, and most importantly, these early wok experiences function as a social laboratory where we can naturally control for many background factors. Boys and girls at that age are generally not married with children, they have the same education (limited) and job experience (not much). Therefore like a social laboratory, we can control for the commonsense explanations of the wage gap.

Using a mixed methods approach (in-depth qualitative interviews, statistical modeling using NLSY97 as well as experiments), I explore gender inequality in pay among teenage, student workers. Using NLSY97 dataset, I find that 12 and 13-year-olds make the same amount of money, however, by the time they reach 14 and 15-years of age, we see the emergence of the gender wage gap, which widens with age. Statistical modelling shows that controlling for all background factors, the cost of being a girl remains higher than being a boy when it comes to wages. While some individual characteristics such as race and age exacerbate the wage gap, the important factor in explaining the early wage gap is in the concentration of the girls in freelance jobs (such as babysitting) and the concentration of boys in more employee-type jobs. As soon as employee-type jobs are available, boys move into those jobs, while girls remain in the lower paying freelance jobs. Even within freelance type jobs, girls are placed in different positions, often in customer service and not management or controlling money.babysitters

Based on my in-depth interviews with babysitters, I find that many girls get into babysitting because it is available and accessible especially for younger teens and tweens. While personal networks are instrumental in getting babysitting jobs, many babysitters stay much longer, months and years longer than they intended because of their informal networks.

I also find that though caring and making personal connections are important factors in childcare, they are not important factors in thinking about giving a raise. Creating emotional connection to the child is seen as manipulative and female babysitters are less likely to get raises.  Therefore, through personal connections, young women are kept in lower paying yet highly intensive babysitting jobs. It is not much different for young girls in retail either. Many are placed in more intensive and customer service oriented positions that are not managerial positions nor positions that they handle money. In addition, many report having experienced sexual harassment, racial inequality, but very few report these problems because many say “it is not my real job.”

Part-time jobs seem unimportant, but it is something that many teenagers do: therefore both economically and socially, these early part-time jobs are very important for teenagers. It is their first experience of the workforce and they are socialized into the values of the workplace during those early jobs. While we may teach our teenagers about the workforce, they receive conflicting messages in the workplace. By the time they enter the real workforce, they are already socialized into some of the most persistent problems of the workplace such as the gender wage gap.

Yasemin Besen-Cassino is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Montclair State University and is currently serving as the Book Review Editor of Gender&Society. Her upcoming book Cost of Being a Girl: Working Teens and the Origins of the Gender Wage Gap is under contract at Temple University Press.


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