Extensive research shows that even when controlling for factors like education, skill, and experience, women routinely earn less than men employed in the same professions. Often, this argument is accompanied by the now-famous statistic that women earn about 79 cents for every dollar men make at work. This is an important data point, but focusing on that figure alone masks the role race can play in perpetuating these disparities.
For instance, it is important to ask: Which women? The 79-cents statistic is an average that includes all women, but it obscures the even wider gaps faced by women of color. For black women, the number is closer to 65 cents, while for Latinas it is even lower, at 54 cents. This data draws attention to the fact that while women as a group aren’t paid as much as men, women of color see even more pronounced earnings gaps.
What is at the root of these disparities? In the late 1980s, the legal scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw argued that when it came to anti-discrimination law, looking at categories like race or gender in isolation obscured the ways gender and race intersected to create a specific, unique disadvantage for black women. This omission rendered them an overlooked, unprotected group whose particular experiences with discrimination had little legal recourse. Crenshaw introduced the theory of intersectionality, the idea that when it comes to thinking about how inequalities persist, categories like gender, race, and class are best understood as overlapping and mutually constitutive rather than isolated and distinct.