Consume This! The Cost of Being a Girl

As we enter a new year with growing pubic concern over economic and gender inequality, Yasemin Besen-Cassino reminds us that the low-paid retail and service sector is fueled by teenage workers, boys and girls who are equally likely to participate in the labor force as tweens.  Don’t let the appearance of equal participation hide how gender inequalities emerge and shape the workplace experiences of young people, as Besen-Cassino traces the early beginnings of the wage and status gap.

– Ashley Mears

The Cost of Being a Girl

By Yasemin Besen-Cassino

Kiara is a 20-year-old college student at a large state school where she is a full-time student. In her time left after school work, athletic practices and her applications to graduate school in social work, she juggles two jobs: one at a sporting goods store and another as a receptionist at a medical center for children. She has had a string of service and retail jobs, but her past year has been spent juggling these two part-time jobs. She is not happy with either job, but she cannot get enough hours at either one on its own, so for the time-being she pieces together shifts at the two positions. Some days her schedule gets so tight, she changes in her car in the parking lot from her professional office attire of formal pants, shirt, jacket and high heels to the athletic leisure look of the sporting goods store.

Kiara has to maintain two wardrobes and changes her self-presentation and demeanor to fit the aesthetic labor demands of each setting. She is not happy in either place: at the sporting goods store, she had a shoebox thrown at her because the store would not accept coupons, and at the medical center she gets yelled at by parents because of high co-pays and complicated health insurance procedures. Despite the demands of her jobs and the high costs of maintaining the look requirements of both, her hourly pay remains unchanged and neither place is giving her enough hours.

Emily, too, has been working as a babysitter since she was 12. Today, she is a 21-year-old college student, planning to become a teacher. When she started, it was for the neighbor’s newborn baby. She would go over to their house on Friday nights when the parents went out for a couple of hours. Since then, she kept babysitting but her job description changed considerably and now includes babysitting and afterschool care for up to 4 children of various ages, coordinating playdates, homework and afterschool activities. Despite the vast difference in her job description, her paycheck is essentially the same.

Kiara and Emily are two examples of many youth who work part-time while still in school. According to the US Department of Labor’s Report on the Youth Labor Force, work starts early for many American youth. While the effects of young people’s part-time work have been studied extensively, especially in terms of educational outcomes, future job prospects and emotional and psychological development, the gendered effects of this work have received little attention. The youth labor force has been characterized as a gender utopia partially because boys’ and girls’ labor force participation is approximately similar. Yet, my research shows that while boys and girls are equally likely to participate in the labor force, the youth labor force is far from gender neutral.

Besen Cassino cover

In my new book, The Cost of Being a Girl: Working Teens and the Origins of the Gender Wage Gap (Temple University Press, 2017), I focus on this substantial yet understudied portion of our workforce. Using a mixed methods approach (in-depth qualitative interviews, statistical modelling using National Longitudinal Study of Youth97 as well as experiments), I explore gender inequality in pay among teenage, student workers. Using the NLSY97 dataset, I find that at age 12 and 13, girls and boys make the same amount of money; however, by the time they reach 14 and 15-years of age, we see the emergence of the gender wage gap, which widens with age. Statistical modelling shows that controlling for all background factors, the cost of being a girl remains higher than being a boy when it comes to wages. While some individual characteristics such as race and age exacerbate the wage gap, the important factor in explaining the early wage gap is the concentration of girls in freelance jobs (such as babysitting) and the concentration of boys in more employee-type jobs. As soon as employee-type jobs are available, boys move into those jobs, while girls remain in the lower paying freelance jobs. Even within employee-type jobs, girls are placed in different positions, often in customer service and not management or controlling money.

These gender differences in pay are not limited to the teenage years, but have long-term effects. Using the National Longitudinal Study of Youth, it’s clear that working as a teenager has positive effects on later income for men and not for women. Women not only make approximately $2000 less per year, they also report feeling overweight and having negative body images if they worked in the apparel sector.

Part-time jobs may seem unimportant, but it is something that many teenagers do: therefore both economically and socially, these early part-time jobs are very important for teenagers. It is their first experience of the workforce and they are socialized into the values of the workplace during those early jobs. While we may teach our teenagers about the workforce, they receive conflicting messages in the workplace. At home and at school, teenage girls receive positive messages about the workplace, but they have conflicting experiences. By the time they enter the adult workforce, they are already socialized into some of the most persistent problems of the workplace, such as the gender wage gap.


Yasemin Besen-Cassino is a Professor of Sociology at Montclair State University and is the Book Review Editor of Gender & Society. Her new book The Cost of Being a Girl: Working Teens and the Origins of the Gender Wage Gap came out from Temple University Press in December 2017.

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