My remarks on wage discrimination for Women's Equality Day
Hello, I’m Laura Mui and I am chinese american, a mother to an incredible young person, partner, sister, spouse, daughter, therapist, teacher, friend, colleague, and a human being. Before I say a few words about my personal experience with wage discrimination, I’d like to express my sadness and pain for Michael Brown, his family, the Ferguson community and for our entire nation. I believe the system that allows anyone, the police included, to kill our young people, especially our young people of color without due justice, is the same system of inequality that turns their cheek to the unequal treatment and violence towards women. As I am both a person of color and a woman, I have many experiences with discrimination by both individuals and by our system of policies and laws that value white people and men, especially white men, over people of color and women, but I only have time today, on Women’s Equality Day, two days from the 51st anniversary of the March on Washington, to share one. Thank you Representative Nancy Pelosi/Jackie Speier for inviting me to share my story, to my family and friends for their never-ending love and support and to you all who have made time in your busy lives to be a part of the change that is so necessary for the well-being of all our nation’s people.
I was born and raised in America, right over the bridge in Oakland, and I was taught that “all men are created equal,” naively thinking that “men” is synonymous with “human.” And I knew from firsthand experiences and witnessing with the women in my life, on tv, books, and in history class that we also live in the “uneven playing field” of a white male dominated society. So, I worked (and continue to work) really hard, pulling “all- nighters” for exams and papers while working 2-3 jobs at a time to be able to afford and attend prestigious universities, “you know pulling myself up from my “bootstraps.” All that pulling and hard work got me a BA from UC Berkeley and a masters from Columbia University, again, naively thinking my degrees would help “level out the playing field.”
While wage discrimination based on gender and let’s just face it, race/ethnicity too, is often very difficult for women and people of color to prove; I was in a unique position to find out. The person who was earning more than me for doing the same job was my then partner and now husband! You see, we met 9 years ago as graduate students at Columbia University's Masters in counseling psychology program. We graduated together with the EXACT same degree. Two years later when we became employed by the same agency for the EXACT same position we were dumbfounded by the difference in our salary offers.
As his first job within the field of mental health, straight out of grad school, he was offered $41,000/yr while I was offered $35,700/yr, a whopping 13% less! We were shocked because we both expected that I would actually earn more than him for several straightforward reasons: 1) Prior to graduate school, I worked in the field of mental health for 5 years, I had outstanding references from respected individuals in the field and I held a California school counselor credential, all of which substantially "beefed" up my resume in comparison to my husband's. And yet, my starting salary offer was more than $5,000 less. The only reasons that we could possibly think of to account for this difference were two other "straightforward" reasons: I am female and Chinese American. My husband? white and male.
Working in the field of mental health as a psychotherapist, I thought that this would be the one profession that would not and COULD not allow this kind of injustice. I thought this because as clinicians and educators we see and hear the impact of discrimination and systemic -isms on people; on their psychological, physical, social, emotional and spiritual well being. The accumulation of these injustices over a person’s lifetime have a traumatic effect leading to chronic stress and symptoms of depression, anxiety, rage, chronic pain, low self-esteem, drug use, high blood pressure, the list goes on. So, when it happened to me so blatantly within the very profession that seeks to mitigate its impact, I also began to acutely experience low self-esteem, rage, anxiety, depression and self-doubt.
Everyday at work, as I provided therapeutic services to underserved youth and their families—often children with impoverished single mothers of color, this knowledge burned my very being. I felt demeaned, disrespected, DEVALUED, LESS THAN A MAN, and by extension, LESS THAN HUMAN. It also affected my relationship with my husband. At times, it was difficult to be around him knowing that I worked every bit as hard as him, had more experience, better credentials, often asking ME for help with challenges he faced on the job, yet I was the one earning less money. My husband struggled as well. Although he did not doubt that the gap in our wages was gender and race-based, he was faced with the hard and painful task of looking at the ways he has unfairly benefited from our system, questioned the merit of his achievements and the ways he unconsciously devalues and disrespects women and people of color. I am blessed to be with a white man who is doing this internal work. The kind of work that can actually change our system.
We attempted to fix, and give the agency the benefit of the doubt, by asking them why there was such a remarkable difference in our pay. However, we were given the runaround. Emails, phone calls and letters were left unanswered. The one response I did receive was that I didn’t have to take the offer at all—in short, accept the pay or we’ll give the job to someone else who will. In other words, accept that I am WORTH LESS, yeah, sounds a lot like “worthless.” In the end we, like so many other women and their families, had to accept the situation, we were in a recession, I was “lucky” to even have a job. In the 2 years I was there I made over $10,000 less than my husband which equates to more than $400/month. That disparity in pay impacted not only my income at the time, but future earnings at other organizations, social security benefits, and even more importantly my feelings of self-worth.
My story is just one of many stories. Millions of women across the country are getting paid less than their male co-workers but have no idea because of the secrecy surrounding employee salaries in most workplaces.
My heart is heavy today. And, I don’t believe that I am here just to be living “proof” that wage discrimination, just one of thousands of expressions of systemic inequality exists. Because as I stand here today after telling my experience with unequal pay just because I am a woman, there are young black men and people of color who are not only being stripped of their equal rights to equal pay, they are being over-policed, undervalued, under-protected and killed. They (we) are being viewed and treated as if we are “worthless.” I have struggled with the psychological damage of not being paid my “worth,” I am also struggling with knowing that I am alive today to even tell my story and perhaps like many of you, an important question burns my soul: How many stories, how many lives, just what is it going to take for America to dismantle the structures and systems that excuses the gender wage gap and allows for yet another young black man, to be killed without any justice. How many? And for those reasons, I am using this honor and privilege to be with you all to demand equal pay for equal work and equal treatment and valuing of people of color, especially our children, because not only does America succeed when women succeed, America can only be free when all our people are free. Threats in one area of our rights as human beings, threatens all our rights as human beings. We are all worth it.
So let us all get in touch with our shared humanity and stand as women, as mothers, fathers, parents, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, grandparents, as humans beings with our differences to extend our understanding and compassion to the people in Ferguson and ask our public officials to stop criminalizing these behaviors, stop pointing guns at people who are clearly suffering, turn the military tanks around. We are not the enemy. And let us instead take the next crucial steps towards true equality and get on with the healing of our shared traumatic history and traumatic present by 1) taking responsibility for our actions against one another, 2) repair our relationships and wounds to forgive ourselves and one another, so that we can 3) build a more just, trusting, mutually respecting and safer nation for us all. Let us all work together toward making equality for everyone, everyday.
Thank you so much for you time and attention.