Cher Weixia Chen of George Mason University: “Raise awareness of the gender wage gap particularly among women workers”

Raise awareness of the gender wage gap particularly among women workers. Equip them with skills to negotiate salary and help them understand and assist them in the process of filing a grievance within the workplace and in court; As part of my series about “the five things we need to do to close the gender wage […]

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Raise awareness of the gender wage gap particularly among women workers. Equip them with skills to negotiate salary and help them understand and assist them in the process of filing a grievance within the workplace and in court;

As part of my series about “the five things we need to do to close the gender wage gap,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Cher Weixia Chen.

Dr. Cher Weixia Chen is an Associate Professor in the School of Integrative Studies, a Research Fellow at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being, and a Faculty Fellow of the Institute for a Sustainable Earth at GMU. Dr. Chen’s scholarship focuses on the issues of human rights (particularly the rights of marginalized groups such as women’s rights and indigenous rights) and international and comparative legal studies. Dr. Chen published a book on the gender wage gap titled, Compliance and Compromise: The Jurisprudence of Gender Pay Equity.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” that brought you to this career path?

I went to law school and found out that I didn’t want to be a lawyer. So, I went to graduate school, a compromise that my Asian parents and I made (you know, they prefer you to become a lawyer, a doctor or a professor☺). In graduate school, for some reason, I always navigated towards female professors. One of my favorite professors, Alison Renteln, a human rights scholar, became my mentor, partly because I really liked her as a person, partly because I got intrigued by her expertise: human rights. That was how I started the pursuit of becoming a human rights scholar.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this career?

I am a petite Asian American woman. For some, I don’t look like a typical college professor (older, white male). One semester, on the first day of school, I went to my office and saw one student wander around the floor where my office was located. I asked him, “Can I help you?” He said, “I’m looking for a professor.” I said, “Yes, talk to me.” He was a bit confused, saying “No, no, no, I’m looking for a professor. Thank you…bye.” Then he left and found someone (a graduate student) to talk to. That afternoon, I went to teach and saw him in my class. He was genuinely shocked to see me. That class was titled (Narratives of Identities) examining class, gender, race and nationality in various genres of literature. What an interesting teaching moment about stereotypes!

Can you share a story about the funniest or most interesting mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

A doctoral student emailed me saying she was looking for a faculty member to serve on her dissertation committee and would like to talk to me. So, we set up an appointment to meet. That day, she knocked on my door and both of us were shocked when we looked at each other. She was probably in her 60s and she didn’t expect me to look this young. I made a mistake assuming she would be a conventional student. Lessons learned: 1) Never assume anything; 2) I was truly inspired by her curiosity and drive to learn. After two careers, she still likes to learn something new and pursue a different career. It is never too late to make your dream come true (her dream was to get a Ph.D.). Age doesn’t matter, life-long learning is admirable.

Ok let’s jump to the main focus of our interview. Even in 2020, women still earn about 81 cents for every dollar a man makes. Can you explain three of the main factors that are causing the wage gap?

One important economic factor is that jobs that are commonly held by women or seen as traditionally female roles tend to be devalued. For example, women tend to occupy secretarial jobs with lower salaries. There is also a “mommy penalty.” Employers may assume working mothers would need to take care of their children and therefore won’t be able to work the hours demanded by the job, which may impact how they are treated at the workplace. This problem, inherent in employment, has a profound effect on women’s wages.

Legal Factor: the legal system in the United States has not been particularly friendly to women workers in addressing wage discrimination. If you file a lawsuit at the court, you are up against a company that almost always has better resources. It can also be difficult to gather evidence and some judges are not sympathetic towards women workers.

Structural factors: the biggest factor contributing to unequal pay is a structural and historical one. Those female-dominated jobs, such as child care, have historically been undervalued compared to jobs performed predominantly by men. Ultimately, it is about how skills and jobs associated with women are not considered high-value. So, this societal attitude towards women and their jobs is still the key hurdle to achieve gender pay equity.

Can you share with our readers what your work is doing to help close the gender wage gap?

I consider myself an educator activist. In particular, in terms of the gender wage gap, I tried to raise awareness of the issue through my teaching and research. Here are some examples:

I have published on this area including a book on gender pay equity in which I examined how the global principle of gender pay equity has been internalized into domestic settings and found that it has gone a long way from “equal pay for equal work,” to “equal pay for similar work,” and to “equal pay for work of comparable worth.” Right now, most countries are in the stage of implementing “equal pay for equal work,” a basic equality/no discrimination principle. Countries like Canada are reforming its job evaluation system and go towards “equal pay for work of comparable worth.” This means, not only ensuring a man and a woman in the exact same position receive commensurate pay, but that we cease to devalue the work of traditionally “female” industries such as child care, education, and nursing. In doing so, we would adopt a system that rewards hard work that is valuable to society and not just conformity to traditionally male standards of employment.

I incorporated the topic of gender pay equity into several of my courses, such as “law and justice,” “social justice and human rights,” and “international women workers’ rights, law and policy.”

I have also designed some training modules on the issue of gender pay equity.

Can you recommend 5 things that need to be done on a broader societal level to close the gender wage gap. Please share a story or example for each.

We should adopt a comprehensive approach that involves all levels of law and institutions. Under this approach we should:

Reform law and make it easier to address wage discrimination;

Raise awareness of the gender wage gap particularly among women workers. Equip them with skills to negotiate salary and help them understand and assist them in the process of filing a grievance within the workplace and in court;

Include women during policy-making processes related to wage;

Incorporate gender pay equity into corporate codes of conduct;

Rethink as a society what counts as “pay” and how to establish a more objective appraisal of jobs that fairly evaluate those skills traditionally associated with women.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

One time, I went to a conference and sat right next to an activist. We chatted during the break and she said, “activism is lonely.” That sentence just struck me. So, one of my immediate career goals is to help establish a Transnational Activist Network. A transnational activist network includes these advocates/activists who are bound together by shared values, a common discourse, and dense exchanges of information and services. This network could build links among advocates/activists in civil societies, states and international organizations, multiply the opportunities for dialogue and communication and make resources available to people in political and social struggles. I’d like to collaborate with anyone who is interested including scholars, student organizations, activist communities, local, national, and international social justice and human rights organizations to create a transnational activist network. This would become a community for activists where they could share their experiences and practices and discuss the well-being of others and themselves. Activists are the agents of social change. If we could help take care of their well-being, we may be able to indirectly contribute to global well-being.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I was intrigued by Oscar Wilde’s famous quote: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” But when I examined myself, there were certain aspects of myself I wasn’t fully satisfied with and wanted to improve. So, I like the quote “Be your better self!” more. This has become a motivating theme in my life, teaching, and research. When we’re complacent, we fall behind. I think this quote could also serve a community/society well. We should always strive to be better.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Kimberly Crenshaw, her groundbreaking idea of “intersectionality” is truly inspiring and carries theoretical and practice significance.

Amanda N. Nguyen, a social entrepreneur, civil rights activist, and the CEO and founder of Rise. She is one of the leading new-generation activists.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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