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Yasemin Besen-Cassino’s Teen-Age Salary Hell


There is a very cool new book out: Yasemin Besen-Cassino’s Cost of Being a Girl: Working Teens and the Origins of the Gender Wage Gap. (Temple University Press, if you want to know the publisher.) The book sets out to explain why women are paid less than men by looking at the money teenagers and college kids get paid in their starter “youth” jobs.

You get the headline story by the time you get to Page 2. Girls get paid less than boys even when they are thirteen years old. Want the grim statistics? Look on page 33 where there is national statistical data that shows the gender pay gap for teenagers very clearly.

Never mind the fact that this is bad news if you are a high school girl. This is also bad news if you are a sociologist or economist who studies gendered pay gaps. Nearly every theory we have of gendered pay inequality discusses things that primarily apply to adults.

Women are paid less because they drop out of the labor force to have children? This does not apply to most high school students. The girls getting underpaid in this study are plain ordinary teenaged girls, not unwed mothers.

Women are paid less because they have less education and experience? No one has education or experience when they are high school sophomores.

Women are paid less because employer discrimination keeps them out of great male occupations? The jobs high school boys get stink. Working the hamburger grill at a Jack in the Box is not such a wonderful experience for teenaged boys that teenaged girls ought to envy them for having the opportunity. Girls do not cry into their pillows at night because they are kept from stocking shelves at the local Food Lion just like the boys.

Teenaged girls get paid less because they don’t value money as much as the boys? Come on! (And if you are going to make a stink about this point, Besen-Cassino has you beat. She has strong discrediting evidence both for adults and juveniles.)

So how do we explain the gap?

Spoiler Alert: Besen-Cassino doesn’t know the whole story. (Neither does anybody else). But she has a cool new idea that explains a good part of the gap.

Her main idea is a very tight argument called the “Negotiation Trap” tucked between pages 136 and 139. There is a foreshadowing of the argument for a few pages in the babysitting chapter. But that leaves her with the rest of a book to fill.

She fills it with reams of ethnographic evidence of how awful it is for a girl to work as a babysitter, or a retail clerk. She has pages and pages and pages of this material. It is all convincing and it is all depressing as hell. I will let you, the reader, read these details on your own time. It will make you go out and give your own babysitter a 100% raise.

Let’s go to the denouement on page 136: why teenaged girls get paid less than teenaged boys.

Girls get paid less than boys because they are in jobs where it is hard to negotiate for higher wages.

Exhibit A is Babysitting. Babysitting is nurturing work where part of the product is being a loving caretaker who loves the children as much as the real mother does. Negotiating for pay undercuts that whole “bighearted” image. If you are a cold calloused babysitter who asks for more money, you are viewed as mercenary and you lose the job. But if you are a warm affectionate caretaker who then asks for more money, you are viewed as manipulative. The loving gestures were just a show to line your own pockets. Either way, asking for a raise either loses you your job or creates hostility between you and your employers. Girls who ask for raises get “punished” and learn not to do that again.

A mechanism that reinforces the don’t-ask-for-pay rule is that babysitters are dependent on past employers for references. In the old pre-union days, workers who tried to organize other workers were blacklisted and could not get any other work in town. Nowadays, adults have an easier time getting a job despite an adverse experience with a previous employer. This is harder for babysitters. A parent tells another second parent that a babysitter is no good, and the second parent will be reluctant to leave the babysitter with their child.

Does this explain the entire gendered pay gap among teens? Of course not. Teenagers work all sorts of jobs – many of which are not babysitting. When they go to work in grocery stores or malls or in fast food or later on in college work-study, they face more formal bureaucratic employers who have more structured responses to the question of pay raises. Large chain stores will have human resources offices and standard policies for who moves up and who does not.

This does not mean the big employers are generous. Companies hire teenagers because they are cheap. If a teenager squawks too much, they can be let go in favor of a new cheaper labor market entrant. Plus, teen work is filled with humiliating displays of status subordination. Abrasive supervisors and customers constantly remind young workers that they are expendable. Besen-Cassino’s book is filled with stories of teen-aged employees who are treated wretchedly. Asking for a raise makes them particularly vulnerable.

So, I suspect there is a gendered pay gap that applies outside the world of babysitting.

However, Besen-Cassino is on to one great big, gigantic point.  A lot of women’s work involves responsibilities for carework and nurturing. Even as adults, women have to dramaturgically take the role of someone who selflessly cares about the welfare of her client, regardless of how much or how little she is paid. A particular case in point is nurses. If there is a culture that if you are a caregiver, asking for more money will make you a bad caregiver; so professionals learn not to ask for money.

Plus, even if you aren’t in a caring profession now, but you used to be a babysitter when you were a girl, having asked for money and having become a bad worker because you did so, makes you reluctant to repeat the experiment later in life.

Social phenomena are caused by many things. The major patterns of social life are like salads. They are made up of many, very dissimilar ingredients. Besen-Cassino’s book lists in its early chapters a number of standard explanations of women’s lower wages relative to men. Those standard explanations are still good.

Besen-Cassino has added two new and very important ingredients to the mix.

Although we knew a lot about gendered differences in pay, Besen-Cassino has pointed out that we must start with earlier factors.  Girls have already absorbed the lesson that negotiating for more money has negative effects, and this is a big deal.

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