Wage gap real, needs work

Wage gap real, needs work

Anyone who has met me can tell you that there are a few things I love more than my home city and state of Woonsocket, R.I. It’s a state that welcomed my family as refugees in 1981 after they escaped the war-torn country of Laos. It’s a state where I was born and raised, and discovered and developed my passion for social justice and public service. Last August, however, I made the painful decision to leave the Ocean State for a job in Washington, DC.

I left R.I. because I got tired of being overlooked and undervalued in a sector dominated by white people and by “leaders” who made decisions on behalf of my community, but failed to represent my community. For about 10 years, I have worked in the nonprofit sector and took on roles with increasing responsibility. I loved every job that I have had, and I was good at each one. Yet, somehow, my experience and credentials were never enough to qualify me for executive positions. Given that 87 percent of nonprofit “leaders” in R.I. are white, I realized that I had reached my bamboo ceiling.

So, it’s no surprise to me that R.I. ranks as one of the top 10 worst states for AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) women’s lifetime losses due to the wage gap. I watched so many women in my life – from my mother to my aunties – struggle to make a living wage growing up. Throughout my childhood my mother worked 60+ hour weeks at a factory making minimum wage, without paid family leave, sick days, or affordable health care. In order for her sacrifices to pay off, I had to leave R.I. to still do what I love, make a salary I deserve, and put my unique skills to use.

The AAPI wage gap isn’t unique to R.I.; it’s a trend we’ve seen throughout the entire country. The AAPI community is big and economically diverse. When we look at different ethnic groups more closely it shows that Bhutanese women make 38 cents, and that Southeast Asian women make on average just 60 cents for every dollar a white man makes.

Using broad generalizations and stereotypes of the AAPIs not only fails to capture the unique experiences of AAPIs in the US, they also render people like my mother invisible and excluded from the economic justice conversation.

I had the choice to leave and continue furthering my public service career, but many people, especially Southeast Asian women, don’t have this opportunity.

Some of their only choices are low wages, long hours, and poor workplace treatment.

That’s why I’m fighting for a world where all AAPI women and women of color can make a living wage with paid sick days and family leave; where all women can gain access affordable health care regardless of their immigration status; where all women have control over their bodies and the choice to choose if, when, and how they want to start a family.

Trust us, and let us lead.

Vimala Phongsavanh

Washington, D.C.

Phongsavanh is the Policy Director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF). She served on the Woonsocket School Committee.