Equal Pay for Women Must Address the Disability Pay Gap Too

Intersectionality and the Gender Wage Gap

The gender wage gap remains a salient issue for the feminist movement and a symbol of how we have yet to achieve gender equality. It is also an intersectional issue, and it’s critical that we take into account the different aspects of a woman’s identity that can contribute to her experiences with oppression.

For example, while American women on average make 80 cents to a white man’s dollar, women of color experience wider pay disparities because of the various effects of racism and discrimination against different racial groups. For example, black women make 61 cents to the dollar, and Hispanic/Latina women make 53 cents. To truly remedy the gender wage gap, we need to address systemic racism in addition to sexism. Likewise, we need to combat other types of marginalization based on ability, gender identity and sexual orientation, religion, immigration status, etc. to thoroughly eliminate the gender wage gap and the other ways in which women face discrimination. 

People with disabilities continue to experience marginalization in many areas of life, including in employment. 

The Disability Pay Gap

Another major marginalized group that experiences pay gaps is people with disabilities. While the disability rights movement has had major triumphs in the U.S., such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, people with disabilities continue to experience marginalization in many areas of life, including in employment. 

For example, in the United States, it is legal to pay someone with a disability below the minimum wage through the Fair Labor Standards Act. This exception to the minimum wage is intended for people with disabilities to have job opportunities, but in reality can be exploited by employers to underpay their employees. In order to pay a subminimum wage, an employer must submit a form to the Department of Labor calculating how long it takes a worker with a disability to  complete a given task compared to how long it takes a worker without a disability, and the subminimum wage is determined based on the difference in productivity. However, employers can report inaccurate information or use measures of productivity that aren’t realistic over a sustained amount of time. Further, the majority of disabled workers making subminimum wage are employed by sheltered workshops that segregate them from society rather than help integrate them.

We need to combat other types of marginalization based on ability, gender identity and sexual orientation, religion, immigration status, etc. to thoroughly eliminate the gender wage gap and the other ways in which women face discrimination. 

People with disabilities also face implicit bias during the job search and hiring process. In a field experiment by researchers at Rutgers University, job applications were sent to over 6,000 open accounting positions. A third of the applications disclosed a spinal cord injury, a third disclosed Asperger syndrome, and a third did not mention a disability. The job applications disclosing a disability received 26 percent fewer employer responses, even though those two specific disabilities wouldn’t affect productivity in accounting. Even fictional disabled applicants with significant work experience and qualifications received fewer responses than the fictional non-disabled applicants with less experience but no disability. Employers remain prejudiced against workers with disabilities, contributing significantly to the disability pay gap.

Women with disabilities are almost half as likely than men with disabilities to have jobs and work full-time.

The employment rate of people with disabilities who are working has been declining for decades. People with disabilities earn on average 37 percent less than non-disabled people, and the pay gap increases with higher education levels. The disability pay gap among workers with a high school diploma is around $6,500, but it is nearly $21,000 among workers with master’s degrees.

Women with Disabilities and the Gender Wage Gap

Addressing these barriers in employment for people with disabilities should be a major concern for feminists because disabilities affect millions of women worldwide. In the United States, people with disabilities are more than a fourth of the population, making them the largest minority group in the country, and one out of every four women in the U.S. has a disability. 

Women with disabilities are almost half as likely than men with disabilities to have jobs and work full-time. According to the National Women’s Law Center, they make 83 percent of what men with disabilities make. Globally, they have less access to vocational training and rehabilitation programs compared to their male counterparts. A paper from the United Nations’ International Labour Office notes that the double discrimination faced by women with disabilities is “often ignored or goes unnoticed because persons with disabilities are sometimes treated as though they are genderless human beings.” 

In the United States, people with disabilities are more than a fourth of the population, making them the largest minority group in the country, and one out of every four women in the U.S. has a disability. 

When discussing the gender wage gap and other ways in which women are marginalized in employment, feminists need to explicitly include disability in the conversation. The fight against ableism is as central to closing the gender pay gap as combating sexism, and a feminist movement isn’t truly feminist until it centers disability in the conversation.

Ways to Combat the Pay Gap for Women with Disabilities

Employers can implement inclusive hiring: Inclusive hiring is good for business, since companies that practice inclusive hiring practices are more profitable than companies that do not. People with disabilities are a large part of the population (one in four), and companies that don’t hire workers with disabilities are missing out on the talents of a significant portion of the workforce. Further, contrary to popular belief, accommodations for workers with disabilities aren’t expensive: Two-thirds cost less than $500, and nearly a quarter don’t cost anything. Employers who want to want to hire from a wider pool of skills and perspectives should follow inclusive hiring practices in order to recruit and retain professionals with disabilities.

The fight against ableism is as central to closing the gender pay gap as combating sexism, and a feminist movement isn’t truly feminist until it centers disability in the conversation.

Support legislation to eliminate the subminimum wage: The Transformation to Competitive Employment Act would remove the legal loophole that allows employers to underpay workers with disabilities, and help transition workers in sheltered workshops to working in the general community (known as competitive integrated employment). Contact your elected officials and urge them to support this bill and other efforts to combat subminimum wage.


Melissa Young is a writer and former copy editor from the San Francisco Bay Area who is passionate about social justice, feminism, and the Oxford comma. Her current work as a legal writer finds her drafting visa petitions that enable people to immigrate to the USA. She sustains herself by making music, drinking boba milk tea, and having existential conversations.


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