I started working in the service and restaurant industry when I was 15 and went to culinary school in Austin, TX. I loved creating recipes. That was my passion, my outlet. I knew it from the time I was little and helping in the kitchen to when I was around 19 and decided to do it for a living, after my boss and mentor at my first job encouraged me and told me I had a natural talent. I wanted to do it forever. But it’s a very high-risk career. You deal with heavy machinery, sharp knives, and fire. You don’t get benefits, you don’t get paid sick days, you don’t earn paid vacation. And there’s basically no job security. The biggest risk, though, is the pay. During my years in the industry, I witnessed women and minorities who had been in the industry for a decade making $3 to $4 less per hour than white male coworkers who had just been hired to do the exact same job. It didn’t get any better when I moved into a managerial role. Men I worked with — including those with much less experience — were making several dollars more an hour than I was. When I was promoted to head pastry chef, I discovered a man hired to assist me made more than I did. I was so disappointed and outraged. I didn't formally complain because I feared of disciplinary action. At the time, I vented to my friend, who also happened to be a manager and agreed it wasn't fair or representative of the high quality of work I put out. But that didn’t fix the problem. As you can imagine, I became resentful toward the male coworker and upper management. It’s hard to keep up your morale and have that team-player attitude when you know your employer is valuing your less-experienced teammates more than you.
When I was promoted to head pastry chef, I discovered a man hired to assist me made more than I did.
I wanted to fix these problems, but they’re almost impossible to talk about. We were constantly told not to discuss our wages with coworkers. I was sure I would get fired if I said anything and I didn’t want to lose my job. So, I kept my mouth shut. At the time, I didn’t know that what they were doing was illegal. I was frustrated by the income inequality, but while I was in the restaurant industry, I never stopped to consider how much money I was losing. It’s easier to see now: $2 more an hour would have equaled an additional $80 per week. I could have been earning almost $4,000 more a year on that difference alone. And a lot of the raises we got — which were supposed to be annual, not inconsistent — were based on what we’d been paid before. If I ever took a job at a different restaurant, my past hourly wage was the starting point in negotiations. Over time, my earnings would have risen more quickly if I had started at an even level with my white male colleagues. And these problems were worse for my coworkers who spoke English as a second language or who faced discrimination because of their ethnicity or race. I don’t think that’s right. If someone does the same work as me, I want that person to get equal pay, regardless of their race, gender, sexual preference, whatever.
I never stopped to consider how much money I was losing.
These problems are so deeply ingrained in the industry’s culture that I felt like I had no choice but to finally leave. And while it was disappointing for me to give up on my lifelong dream, it’s a bigger loss for the restaurant business. Bright, passionate people can’t and won’t stay in an industry if they can’t make a living. The wage gap between men and women and between white people and people of color affects so many families across the country. As a result, hardworking people bring home less and ultimately put less back into the economy. It also means businesses lose talent and experience every year. When I talk to people about what happened to me, they see themselves in my story. They’ll shake their heads and say, that sounds like my sister, or my brother, or my cousin. This is a problem that affects everyone. If you’re a person who’s never experienced the wage gap personally, take a second look. Ask yourself how much more your spouse could be earning or how much more productive and profitable your company could be if it didn’t lose smart, experienced employees because of frustration, disillusionment, or burnout. Addressing the gender and racial wage gap would make a real difference to everyone, all across the country. Progress toward equal pay for equal work means stronger families and a stronger economy; it means empowered women and minorities. It means building a better workforce and a brighter future for our daughters and sons. I believe in that change can happen and I believe we can make it happen by coming together, speaking up, and demanding it. I’m not a political person, but when confronted with a systemic problem like the wage gap, I can’t help but want to raise awareness and get involved. The only way we’ll be heard is if we all raise our voices together. Anne Taylor is an activist with the Make It Work campaign, which works to advance economic security for women, men, and families across the country. She lives in Des Moines, Iowa.