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The Gender Pay Gap Actually Starts When We’re 14

In her book, "The Cost of Being a Girl," Yasemin Besen-Cassino illustrates how pay inequality begins when we first enter the workforce.
Photos via Stocksy. 

When I was 14, I earned money by babysitting at my church. For two nights a week, I watched anywhere between two to eight kids in the nursery while their parents attended worship service. I probably worked four to five hours a week, though it never really felt like “work.” It was a pretty good gig: the pastor’s wife paid me $100 a month to basically play with really cute kids.

As I got older, $100 wasn’t enough to cover my growing teenage shopping addiction. I got a part-time job at a fast food restaurant that paid a little more than minimum wage, but kept Wednesday and Sunday nights open to babysit at church. At some point, the pastor’s wife—my boss—asked if I could start coming to church on Friday nights as well to babysit during the weekly prayer meeting. I asked, quite boldly it seems, if she was planning to pay me more for the additional hours. We had a little trouble communicating because of a language barrier, but her response spoke volumes: She laughed.


I quit babysitting not long after that.

I hadn’t thought of that experience in years, but it’s the first thing that came to mind when I started reading Yasemin Besen-Cassino’s book The Cost of Being a Girl: Working Teens and the Origins of the Gender Wage Gap. In it, Besen-Cassino, a professor of sociology at Montclair State University, argues that the gender wage gap actually begins during our teenage working years.

Studying pay equity in the teenage workforce is like “the perfect social laboratory,” Besen-Cassino says. Most of the common explanations for why women earn less money than men—such as leaving the workforce to become mothers and raise children, for example—don’t apply to this demographic. “If you look at very early teens, they don’t have kids, they don’t do housework—they have the exact same experience, the exact same education,” she explains. She conducted a series of quantitative and qualitative studies to figure out when gender inequality emerges in the workplace, what factors contribute to these disparities, and what these lived experiences really look like.

In one analysis of data (taken from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, which included 8,984 respondents born between 1980 and 1984), Besen-Cassino found that adolescents earn about the same amount of money when they’re 12 and 13 years old—$120 to $125 a year. That’s because the only type of work they can do at this age is freelance type work, such as babysitting, tutoring, shoveling snow, and mowing lawns. At 14 and 15, boys start to make more because they start getting into more employment type gigs, while girls continue to freelance; boys make an average of $400 a year compared to girls’ $266. The wage gap continues to grow from there: 16- to 19-year-old girls made about $200 less than their male counterparts.


Besen-Cassino says one of the reasons why girls stay in freelance work longer is because of their informal networks. “Those little networks make it easier for [girls] to find the jobs, but they also make it harder for them to move out of those jobs. They’re told, ‘We need you, the child needs you, stay a little bit longer.’ And those networks also make it hard to ask for money and negotiate pay.”

To supplement her analysis, Besen-Cassino also interviewed 38 babysitters (35 female and three male). Through these conversations, she found that gender stereotypes appear to impact the work young caretakers do. “I noticed the parents treated [the male babysitters] very differently,” she says. “Their time was valued more, they got paid more, and they weren’t asked to do other stuff, like light housework or cooking. They went there, they got paid, and when their shift was over, they went home.”

One interview subject in particular really stuck with Besen-Cassino: The woman, Emily, started babysitting for a family when she was 12 years old, tasked with watching one kid. By the time Besen-Cassino spoke to her, she was a college undergrad and the family had grown to four kids. “Her job description went from babysitting for a couple of hours on a Friday night and basically watching TV and doing her homework to full-time care of four kids at the same time,” she says. “But her pay was unchanged, and at the end of working for that family, she also had a lot of unpaid hours.”


"As we’re socializing teenagers into the workforce, one unintended consequence is that we’re socializing them into the problems of the workforce"

“At the end,” Besen-Cassino continues, “what she was socialized into was not asking for money, having a lot of out-of-pocket expenses, and she was taken advantage of. I think her spirit was broken. As we’re socializing teenagers into the workforce, one unintended consequence is that we’re socializing them into the problems of the workforce. We teach them that there is gender inequality when you negotiate and you don’t get [what you’re asking for], when you have a lot of unpaid hours.”

Of course, she adds, race and class position also play a huge role in the teen workforce, as it does in the adult workforce. “While affluent white [young] women are sought after,” Besen-Cassino writes in her book, “lower-income women of color have a much harder time finding jobs, take longer to find jobs, are often shut out of the workforce, and often settle for lower-paying fast-food jobs, resulting in a wider wage gap.” A wider gap, in fact, continues well into adulthood between white women and women of color: Black women earn about 63 percent of what white men make, compared to the 80 percent that white women take home.

Besen-Cassino also found that these early jobs have serious long-term effects on girls. She analyzed a longitudinal data set that followed teens into adulthood, where most often they’d taken jobs unrelated to the work they did as adolescents, and concluded that women who worked part-time as teens actually make less than their male counterparts as adults—about $2,000 a year less.

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Work is such a central part of young people’s lives, she says. That’s why it’s so important to have more public discussions about the pay gap and more transparency into earnings so that girls are better equipped to ask for what they deserve.

“When you talk to some young people,” Besen-Cassino continues, “they see the pay gap as something that will happen down the line, that it’s not their immediate problem. But in fact, it is their immediate problem.”