Women's March protest
Credit: Mobilis in Mobili/Flickr

Speaking at the 2016 Republican National Convention, Ivanka Trump won plaudits for pledging to work with her father, now President Donald Trump, to combat the gender pay gap. Women, she explained, make up 46 percent of the labor force but still earn only 83 cents for every dollar earned by men. She disputed that gender discrimination was the root of this inequality. Instead, she said, “[a]s researchers have noted, gender is no longer a factor creating the greatest wage discrepancy—motherhood is.” Her speech earned nodding approval from liberal outlets. Vox, for example, cited Columbia professor Jane Waldfogel’s seminal 1998 article arguing that “the greatest barrier to economic equality is children.”

The Cost of Being a Girl:
Working Teens and the
Origins of the Gender Wage Gap
by Yasemin Besen-Cassino
Temple University Press, 238 pp. Credit:

As with many attempts to explain the stubbornly persistent pay gap, the motherhood theory suffers from a few flaws—such as the fact that when men have children, their pay goes up. But it also falls into a long line of academic research that blames women for their lesser earnings while ignoring the very real effects of simple discrimination.

Since the passage of the 1963 Equal Pay Act, academics have devised a variety of theories to explain the gender gap, such as the suggestion that women lack the same experience and training as men. But since women have outnumbered men on college campuses since the late 1970s—reaching 55 percent of undergraduates in 2014—that argument is largely moot. Another claim is that women simply self-select into lesser-paying jobs. Data show that this gets it exactly backward: in fact, when women move into a male-dominated field in large numbers, salaries plummet. (Conversely, when men move into a female-dominated field, such as nursing, salaries rise.) Moreover, a woman’s “decision” to avoid a certain field might not be a choice at all. In the tech and science worlds, for example, many women have been effectively harassed out of jobs by men.

Some gender pay gap skeptics offer up an even more dubious theory: We’re paid less because we want to be! Women, the argument goes, would rather have a nice working environment and flexible hours and are more interested in nurturing others and socializing than in raking in the big bucks. We leave the workforce by choice to care for children and aging parents. Or maybe we’re just bad at asking for raises; if only more of us would embrace “Getting to Yes,” we could simply negotiate our way to a more equitable salary.

Montclair State University sociology professor Yasemin Besen-Cassino apparently found these explanations as insulting as I do. Her new book, The Cost of Being a Girl, offers new empirical evidence that blows up decades of research about the origins of the gender pay gap and shows why blaming women’s “choices” for wage inequality is so wrong.

Besen-Cassino found the perfect control group with which to test her theories: teenagers. As a cohort, teen boys and girls aren’t saddled with confounding factors such as inexperience, education, or parenthood obligations. Theoretically, they should be paid the same amount of money for similar work. What Besen-Cassino found, however, is that the gender pay gap starts early and runs deep. Using the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, she plumbed twenty years’ worth of data about babysitting, snow shoveling, yard work, and other freelance-type jobs young people hold. She found that when kids were twelve or thirteen, girls earned slightly more than boys ($125 a year for girls, versus $120 for boys), a finding Besen-Cassino flags as important because it’s the first and possibly only instance of gender pay parity in the U.S. labor market. But by age fourteen and fifteen, boys out-earned their female counterparts in similar jobs. By nineteen, boys in the study were making $200 more a year than girls, for a total of $950.

These differences can’t be dismissed for the reasons often given for the adult pay gap. Besen-Cassino looked at survey data on youth values as well, and found that there was no difference between boys and girls in what they wanted out of a job or why they worked. After controlling for the number of hours worked per week, the types of jobs performed, and other factors, Besen-Cassino found that “girls can expect to earn about $93 less per year solely by virtue of their gender,” or about 13 percent less than boys. She pegs this as the start of a lifetime pay gap that will cost the average woman more than $400,000 (and more than $700,000 for college-educated women).

Besen-Cassino also conducted dozens of qualitative interviews with young women working as babysitters or in customer service jobs, along with a handful of boys in the same jobs. Ethics rules prevented her from interviewing younger kids, so she interviewed young people eighteen and older. Even so, the interviews helped to explain how wage divergence takes root. Babysitting, for example, the classic first job for young girls, can be a trap that has long-lasting effects on how women navigate the workplace as adults.

The young women in the study described how informal, occasional babysitting arrangements, often started when they were preteens, gradually morphed into extensive child care duties as the girls got older and went to college. They described employers making demands for housework, cooking, and chauffeuring, but without more pay. Parents expected the women to stay long after their shift to chat about the children’s day—again without extra pay. Male babysitters, on the other hand, who were often hired for their sporting abilities, were not expected to cook, clean, or stay late to chat.

The young women Besen-Cassino interviewed described having great difficulty in extracting themselves from such arrangements, in part because the initial jobs came through family or neighbors, and in part because they often faced enormous pressure by the families to stay. The girls remained trapped in child care jobs for many more years than they’d expected, while boys headed off into the formal economy, where they typically made more money.

When female babysitters asked for raises, parents often refused. Besen-Cassino found that employers viewed young women babysitters asking for raises as manipulative and less likeable, whereas boys asking for raises were seen as more competent. These early experiences have long-term effects, she argues: “[W]omen seem to internalize learned helplessness: by the time they enter the adult labor force, they have already asked for raises, been turned down, and experienced the negative effects of negotiation firsthand.” This is not a situation that Sheryl Sandberg’s exhortation to Lean In can solve.

Girls working in the customer service and retail sector as teens didn’t fare much better. Besen-Cassino found that companies often treated girls—and paid them—as if they were only working for employee discounts and to hang out with their friends, an attitude not attributed to boys. Girls in retail were expected to use the products they sold and to keep up appearances to further the brand. That pressure frequently left girls heavily in debt, usually in the form of a company credit card, by the time they exited the business. Besen-Cassino found that the longer girls worked in customer service jobs like clothing stores or restaurants, the more likely they were to suffer long-term body image problems, including eating disorders, and the less they earned as adults. None of this happened to boys in the same jobs.

Besen-Cassino doesn’t get too far into policy remedies for the gender pay gap, but she is critical of exhortations (as in Lean In) that young women try to assume more management roles, and of programs to get girls into STEM fields. She says such attempts are too little, too late.

[A]ll of these efforts target the workers and seem to ignore the workplace. Women do not start working after finishing their education: work is an important part of young people’s lives, but is markedly absent from policy initiatives. . . . No matter what young people are told at school or by their parents about gender in the workplace, they are learning about gender at work by working, and unless we change the workplace, these initiatives are doomed to fail.

The lesson here may be: “Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be babysitters—or Forever 21 clerks.” But as with the gender pay gap generally, addressing the problem one girl at a time is doomed to be ineffective. It seems clear from Besen-Cassino’s research that gender pay equality will never be achieved so long as the burden for correcting it falls entirely on women in salary negotiations. Given how much employers punish women, young and old, simply for asking for money, any solution will require a more systemic approach to changing the workplace.

During his tenure, President Obama created a rule that would have required large corporations to report pay data by race and gender. This might have been a good first step toward eradicating the pay gap, by at least quantifying it accurately. The rule would have taken effect next year, but Donald Trump blocked it in September, calling it “enormously burdensome” to corporations. Ivanka Trump supported the move. Despite the lip service Ivanka has paid in support of wage parity, her actions, and those of her father, are leading the country in the opposite direction.

Stephanie Mencimer

Stephanie Mencimer is a senior reporter at Mother Jones and a Washington Monthly contributing editor.