Research demonstrates how girls are being socialized early to expect less money for more work. We need to do better.
When my daughter started babysitting as a young teen, I offered what I thought were helpful tips for setting herself apart. Wash the dishes; tidy up after playtime; be extra creative and fun – habits from my own babysitting days, gleaned from a family expectation of strong work ethic. It didn’t occur to me that I might be setting her up for an adulthood of compromised pay expectations until I stumbled across a new book, “The Cost of Being a Girl: Working Teens and the Origins of the Gender Wage Gap,” by Yasemin Besen-Cassino, professor of sociology at Montclair State University.
The first real research to explore the teen gender pay gap, Besen-Cassino’s work examines teens ages 12 to 19 in formal and informal work experiences. She found no pay gap for kids ages 12 to 13, but by ages 14 to 15, it emerges and widens with age. The gap is partially explained by the jobs teens choose — boys tend to move into formal positions while girls remain freelancers — but Besen-Cassino uncovered pay gaps for other reasons, too. In the informal sector, parents had different expectations of female and male babysitters, including expecting girls to do more household tasks and spend more unpaid time in before-and-after conversations with parents. They also paid boys more.
In retail work, teen girls were expected to spend more of their paycheck on the store’s clothing to market the brand during their shift, while teen boys bought clothing when first hired but weren’t expected to keep it up. Girls who didn’t fit the brand’s look — either girls of color or girls who didn’t look middle class — didn’t get hired at all. Overall, Besen-Cassino found, girls land in customer service more than boys and are expected to provide more “care work” (and should want to provide it), whether dealing with tough customers or providing an emotional component to babysitting.
Earning less money over a lifetime has long-lasting effects on women’s wealth, with women of color affected most. Critically, Besen-Cassino’s research demonstrates how girls are being socialized early to expect less money for more work and away from negotiating for better pay. We need to do better, parents and employers both. Here’s what she and other experts suggest:
Talk about money at home. For starters, create a family dialogue around money and share salary information with girls so they know how much jobs pay. “We socialize our boys to care about money, and we don’t do the same for our girls,” says Besen-Cassino. This conversation helps girls develop an understanding of money and job parameters, as well as the expectation they deserve to be paid equally for equal work. Also encourage them to talk with friends about pay. The money conversation benefits your boy, too.
Teach girls to ask for a job description. From the beginning, teach girls to ask what their job duties are, says Chandra Childers, senior research scientist for the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Clear job descriptions help girls see when they’re being asked to provide extra work for no extra pay. That doesn’t mean shirking existing duties. “You want to get the most out of your job that you can and think about how that propels you forward,” Childers says. “Those first jobs are great opportunities to get skills that set you up down the road.” Teens learn valuable soft skills such as conflict resolution, problem solving and workplace accountability, all of which contribute to future employability. Help girls understand the difference between working hard and consistently being asked for undefined extras.
Prepare girls to negotiate. Formal jobs such as fast-food service probably won’t allow room for negotiating, Childers says, but girls should bring up pay to get into the mind-set of asking. In freelance work such as babysitting or pet care, help girls prepare for negotiating and how to respond if they experience pushback. In interviews with girls and parents hiring teens, Besen-Cassino learned that many girls were prepared to negotiate but that parents (usually mothers) weren’t. “The ‘going rate’ concept applied to girls but not to boys,” she says. “Parents negotiating with boys would say, ‘How much do you expect to make?’ “
According to Vicki Shabo, vice president for Workplace Policies and Strategies for the National Partnership for Women & Families, explicit and implicit messages that young and teen girls receive from parents and employers about girls going the extra mile without complaining or asking for compensation can create a troubling lifelong pattern (note to self). “The messaging has long-term implications on young adults’ inclination to negotiate a salary out of school and on their ability to save for the future. That’s something parents of girls need to take quite seriously,” Shabo says. This spring, the National Partnership and MTV created a primer of tips for teen girls.
Teach girls how pay rates are set. Besides knowing what they’ll be paid, girls benefit from asking about the rules that govern raises, Childers says. Understanding how raises are earned shows girls why someone else might have received one and also what is involved in working toward a raise from the beginning. Once employers have laid out the rules on raises, it’s also easier to hold them more accountable.
Teach girls to be aware of their own value. In Besen-Cassino’s work, the girls she spoke with didn’t always recognize the value of the different types of work they did. “They sometimes underreport the labor that goes into babysitting,” she says. “For example, if girls help with homework, they should report it to the parents so parents are aware of all the activities that are part of the job.”
Prepare girls for the possibility of harassment. As much as we don’t want to contemplate our daughters being sexually harassed in the workplace, they need to know it could happen, experts say. The National Partnership, Ms. Foundation and Futures Without Violence commissioned a survey of fast-food workers in 2016 that uncovered reports of pervasive sexual harassment in the fast-food industry. “Girls need to know their rights and join together with other employees in their workplace to make sure they’re not being subjected to illegal or immoral treatment,” Shabo says. “If something does happen, they need to tell a parent or a supervisor.” To avoid scaring your teen, present it as something to be aware of rather than as something that will happen. Shabo also recommends parents of both boys and girls make boys aware of the trend in society and in the workplace.
Hiring a teen? Check your bias. In Besen-Cassino’s study on parents hiring teens, parents didn’t even realize they had biases regarding girls and boys, particularly around negotiating. “It’s important for parents, as well as employers, to understand that when girls negotiate they are more likely to be turned down, and their evaluations suffer as they are seen as ‘not team players’ and not caring about the job because they asked for money,” Besen-Cassino says. “Let girls negotiate.”
Parents should also expect the same work for the same job regardless of gender, Shabo says. Would you ask a boy to clean the kitchen while babysitting? Would you ask a girl to take out the trash? Also, examine hiring assumptions. Would you even hire a male babysitter? Do you consider girls for lawn care? Do you recommend your son or daughter equally to neighbors? “Studies of occupational segregation show that women are in lower-paying fields than men, which some argue is a choice women make,” Childers says. “But really, women are channeled toward female-dominated jobs beginning in childhood. When women violate these norms and try to enter male-dominated fields, they may receive a lot of pushback.”
Teens’ first jobs offer key skill-building for future work, but they’re also the first places girls encounter troubling assumptions and unequal workplace cultures. We need to talk about these issues early.
Joanna Nesbit writes about education, parenting and family travel.