Discriminatory penalties at the intersection of race and gender in the United States

Tuesday, August 7, 2018
Washington Center for Equitable Growth

Race and gender disparities in wages are a relentless and troubling feature of U.S. labor markets. Economists have investigated the gender wage gap and racial wage gap for more than half a century, yet most empirical research still considers these two types of wage gaps in relative isolation, treating race and gender wage gaps separately. Examining these two wage gaps through the lens of intersectional theory, however, enables researchers to understand how workers with multiple socially salient identities such as race and gender are affected in ways that are qualitatively different from the mere sum of the effects of each identity taken separately on outcomes in U.S. labor markets.1

Intriguingly, the intersectionality of race and gender and the comparative advantage or disadvantage for individuals holding multiple identities are topics that are increasingly more common in the press.2 A recent article in the Washington Post on the gender pay gap observed that “women of color get hit twice: they suffer the effects of the gender wage gap plus those of the racial wage gap.” Others emphasize how focusing on one socially salient identity such as gender alone overlooks the importance of holding multiple identities. In The Atlantic, for example, Adia Harvey Wingfield challenges the “now famous” statistic that women make 79 cents on the dollar vis-á-vis men, arguing that “it obscures even wider gaps faced by women of color.” And a recent op-ed in the New York Times acknowledges that penalties or privileges associated with certain identities depend on the bundle of identities that the individual holds, noting that “the racial pay gap is narrower among women” in comparison to men.

A new working paper made possible with the generous support of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, “Returns in the Labor Market: A Nuanced View of Penalties at the Intersection of Race and Gender,” seeks to quantify some of the insights from intersectional theory and critical race theory in order to more thoroughly examine what many in the press already understand intuitively. Specifically, we investigate whether the magnitude of the gender and racial wage gaps varies across group identity. Do blacks and whites face different gender wage gaps? Do men and women face different racial wage gaps? We then present evidence that holding multiple identities cannot readily be disaggregated in an additive fashion, but rather the penalties associated with holding a combination of two or more socially marginalized identities interact in more quantitatively nuanced ways.

Our work provides a robust illustration of why economists should take intersectionality theory seriously in their analyses of labor market discrimination moving forward. We seek to deepen the understanding of how the possession of one socially salient identity such as being a woman or being black may oversimplify the effects of the complex of social identities that interact in ways which researchers still need to identify.

Read the full article here