The Pay Gap for Latinas is Real. I Know. I Experienced It. And We Can Do Better.

by Ximena Leyte Escalante, Marketing and Engagement Coordinator at Women Employed

Ximena Leyte Escalante

There’s a common fallacy around the pay gap that causes many women to believe a systemic issue such as pay inequity doesn’t translate to a personal one. I know this because I am one of those women. One of my first jobs was working at a retail store as a sales associate. I enjoyed the work, primarily because the clientele was predominantly Spanish speaking, allowing me to use my bilingualism to drive up sales and provide a pleasant experience for our Spanish speaking customers. I was making minimum wage, which at the time in Colorado was $7.78 an hour. About a year later I received exciting news that I was being promoted as a temporary sales lead while one of our sales leads was getting ready to take her maternity leave. The promotion came with a $1 pay increase and a path to becoming a sales lead permanently. Maybe even a manager one day! As now a sophomore in college, this was a very exciting opportunity. I accepted it, learned the ins and outs of leading the team, and excelled.

Less than two months in I was told they no longer needed a temporary sales lead, even though the sales lead I was stepping in for was not yet back from maternity leave. My pay was immediately brought back down to minimum wage. I figured I was still young and inexperienced, so I didn’t make much of it at first. But when my responsibilities as a sales lead stayed the same, despite having my pay decreased, I knew this wasn’t right and that I was being taken advantage of. I worked up the courage to ask for a raise. “We’re a little strapped on money right now,” my supervisor told me, “the best I can do is 10 cents.” Of course, I took it. But I was not comfortable with the outcome.

Around this same time, I was becoming good friends with a coworker — a girl in her early 20s, like me, who started working at the store a couple of months before I did. I shared with her my unpleasant experience with our workplace and our manager. When she learned how much I was making, she was shocked. She had recently taken some time off from working at the store and when she returned, she was welcomed with a pay of $10.50 an hour. While I didn’t say it out loud, the first question I asked myself as I tried to make sense of the disparity was, “Is it because she’s white?” Maybe. I will never truly know. I left the store a couple of weeks later, feeling both discouraged and exploited.

Until recently, I’d never made the connection between my experience and the much larger issue of pay inequity for women. This is likely because I was being paid less than another woman, not a man, at least from what I know. But my experience is not unique, given that on average Latinas make just $.55 for every dollar paid to non-Hispanic white men, a wider gap than white women — who make $.79 to a white man’s dollar — experience. The disbelief my friend/coworker experienced when she learned how much more she was making is not unique to her either. Only 34 percent of white women think that women of color are paid less than white women for doing similar work, according to a 2019 Moring Consult/ASCEND poll. This is significantly lower than the 66 percent of white women who think that women are paid less than men for similar work. So, in short, white women recognize that a gender pay gap exists, but not a racial pay gap among women. This is exactly why marking Latina Equal Pay Day, and all preceding equal pay days, is so important.

Latina Equal Pay Day represents the day in the “new” year when Latina pay catches up to that of white, non-Hispanic men from the previous year. This year Latina Equal Pay day is being observed on October 29th and is the last Equal Pay day of the year, meaning Latina women have to work 22 months to earn what white men earn in 12. These losses amount to more than a million dollars over a 40-year career! They also place women, specifically women of color, at a dangerous disadvantage when crises like the COVID-19 pandemic occur. Without a financial cushion, women have a harder time meeting our basic needs, let alone building generational wealth. This impacts the communities we not only nurture but sustain. Latina women are more likely to be the head of household and the primary caretakers at home. We need to stop thinking of pay inequity as a woman’s issue when it harms communities at large.

The pay gap is an ideal example of what civil rights advocate and leading scholar of critical race theory, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, coined intersectionality. It describes how our individual characteristics, such as race, class, gender, ability status, and more, “intersect” with one another to craft our experience in society. According to intersectionality theory, when we address the issues experienced by the most marginalized groups in society, we are simultaneously addressing the issues faced by more privileged groups. By closing the wage gap between non-Hispanic white men and Latinas, the group with the largest gap, all women win pay equity.

In fact, we need to go even further and examine how other factors affect the pay gap such as ability, immigration status, nationality, and more. For example, some Latinas experience substantially wider wage gaps than the wage gap for Latinas overall. Honduran women typically make 41.7 percent of what white, non-Hispanic men make, making it the steepest wage gap among Latinas living in the United States. Guatemalan women and Salvadoran women also typically make less than half — 45.0 percent and 46.7 percent, approximately– of what white, non-Hispanic men make. The highest paid Latinas are Argentinian, typically making 83.3 cents on the dollar. While little to no research has explored why these differences among Latinas exist, I would argue these gaps are a product of racism. Honduran, Guatemalan, and Salvadoran women tend to be Black or brown, while women from Argentina are predominantly white.

Despite experiencing pay discrimination when I first entered the workforce, I too reap benefits from my white skin, education level, citizenship, and socio-economic status. I should not be the Latina at the core of proposed policy solutions to the pay gap. If we want true pay equity, we must center our advocacy on the experiences of women living at the intersection of all our isms. This means centering the experiences of Black, trans, undocumented, and differently abled women.

Achieving pay equity also means going beyond the legislative process and interrogating how our cultural norms allow the gender and racial wage gap to manifest. By continuing to undervalue care work, women–who are made responsible for a majority of caregiving–will never be paid an equitable wage. This not only means changing our work culture, but the culture we nurture in our homes too.

For the last four years I’ve been caring for my mother as she fearlessly battles cancer. Most, if not all, of her care has fallen to me–the daughter. My loved ones–and even her doctors–have often wondered why I didn’t leave school or delayed entering the workforce to fully care for my mom. I wish they’d understand that doing so would be detrimental to my career and my earnings over a lifetime. The average cost to women who leave the workforce for five years to care for someone can result in a 19 percent reduction in earnings over a lifetime. Instead, taking time off to care for a loved one has been an ongoing expectation for me and one that the 865,000 women who left the workforce in September know too well. My mother is also aware of these consequences. And if she weren’t motivating me to keep going no matter how tired I am, I probably would leave the workforce too.

The coronavirus pandemic is giving us an opportunity to rebuild a more equitable and just society, one where care work is valued as an essential piece of our economy. We’ve seen what the roles and expectations for women have done to our physical and mental health, our careers, economic opportunities, and overall wellbeing. We must collectively address the sexist and racist structures that allow pay inequity and wealth disparities to exist, not only in our laws and institutions, but within ourselves.

My experience is not unique, and many Latinas are experiencing much worse — especially in this time of COVID, which is widening these disparities. Watch this video of another Latina — a hotel housekeeper — tell her story of being laid off and told to re-apply for the same job…at lower pay.

To find out how to help Gabi and other workers like her, please fill out the following form for more information from our partners at Unite HERE: https://forms.gle/N2wrjz15gzdkVf7d6

WE relentlessly pursue equity for women in the workforce by effecting policy change, expanding access to education, & advocating for fair, inclusive workplaces.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store