The 3 Things I’m Worried Are Dragging Down My Earning Potential

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As a personal finance nerd, I spend a lot of time playing with numbers. After I paid off my student loans last year, I started focusing on ways to increase my income. In my career, I’ve never made over $35,000 annually. I’ve done a lot of research on how to get to the bigger numbers: negotiation tactics, industries that begin paying you with higher wages, and numbers for average salaries in different states. I’ve applied for hundreds of jobs over the years, since graduation.

My earnings have remained low, and I’ve struggled to find full-time work. Fairly recently, I pulled my head out of the sand and realized that I don’t live in a bubble. I live in a flawed society, where certain aspects of my identity could be working against me on the job front. Here are the three things that I’m worried are affecting my earning potential.

1. My last name.

My last name is Perez. My father was born and raised in the Dominican Republic, and though I look damn white, I’m 50% Dominican.

When you meet me in person, you would never guess that I’m a Latina. My white “passing privilege” (pale skin and light eyes) means that, when I’m face to face with people, they define me as white. Race in the US tends to operate on a binary — you’re either white or “other.” This binary is hugely problematic for many, many reasons; one of the biggest problems, for me personally, is that people with non-white-sounding names face workplace discrimination.

A lot of studies have proved this phenomenon. One study found that Latinos are discriminated against 20% of the time in the job application process. Another study found white-sounding names received 50% more callbacks than black-sounding names. José Zamora found that, by applying as “Joe” Zamora, he went from zero application responses to a full inbox. Forbes even wrote an article called “Have a Foreign Sounding Name? Change it to Get a Job” that talks about how the race bias is not exclusive to the US; it’s found abroad in countries like France, too.

Now, I can’t be sure that I’ve been discriminated against. I can only tell you that I graduated from a prestigious college, have a solid resume, I interview really well, and my written work can be found all over the internet. In the five years since graduation, I have never been offered full-time employment. I’ve sent out a LOT of applications, in different cities across the US, in different industries. No one has ever extended the hallowed full-time job offer to me.

I worry that my last name is something that people hold against me. I worry that it is a hurdle that I will never get over, while Mary Smith never has to think about it.

2. My history of low income.

Last year was the first time my income broke the 30K barrier. The whole part-time-employed life I’ve been living is also a low-income life. With study after study out there claiming that your twenties set the tone for your earning potential for the rest of your career, I’m worried that I’ll be a low-income earner forever. The data says that after 40, salaries don’t go up by much, unless you’re already a very high earner.

I’m good with my money, and I’m interested in living a long-term frugal life. But that doesn’t mean that a serious boost to my finances is something I’m not interested in! One goal of mine is to significantly increase my earnings over the next two years and thereby ensure that I am making enough to secure my financial future.

3. My gender.

Women make less money than men in the US. That’s a fact. With my non-white last name and a low-income history, I’m worried that my gender is the cherry on top of the discrimination sundae. With white women earning 78% of what men earn, and Latina women earning only 54%, my stats do not look good as a mixed-race lady.

It infuriates me that my gender is a barrier to my financial earnings, especially because workplace gender discrimination is talked about so much. Yes, women need to ask for more money in salary negotiations, and yes, we need women in higher-earning fields to reset social precedents. We also need hirers to stop discriminating against women, and we need to crack down on sexist behavior that pushes women out of jobs in STEM professions and discourages girls from pursuing hard science and math degrees.

When I’m deep in the grips of a 20-something anxiety spiral about my money and my future, these are the three barriers that always come to mind. But, when this happens, I remind myself that continuing to hustle, create the best work I can, and give opportunities to my fellow ladies in the grind are things that I can control. So, I work to do those things every day.

Kara Perez is a freelance finance writer who blogs about living the good life for less at From Frugal To Free. After conquering her student loan debt, she’s striving to save more and live debt free forever. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter.

Image via Flickr

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  • Bri

    I think this is definitely something to consider & take a hard look at, I’m glad you shared it with us here at TFD. I have the privilege of not ever having to think about #1 because my last name is very “white-sounding” & even though my dad was Native American I definitely pass as white.

    • Kara

      It definitely comes to mind when I get another rejection email. I’m doing ok, but man, I could really use another 10K a year!

  • alyjarrett

    I’ve noticed that you’re based in Austin, which might also be a contributing factor. Austin has a booming economy, but I’ve experienced first-hand, at least in the tech industry, that people outside Silicon Valley get paid a whole lot less. There’s no way I’d be making six figures in marketing if I didn’t work in San Francisco.

    Also, if you want to combat this issue, delay parenthood as long as possible. Here’s a stat from Full Frontal Feminism by Jessica Valenti: “For every year a woman in her twenties waits to have children, her lifetime earnings increase by 10 percent.”

    Just food for thought. Good luck!

    • Kara

      CoL is lower in Austin than elsewhere in the US, so wages are adjusted for that. (However, I can live comfortably off $1,300 a month here, which I definitely couldn’t do someplace like SF!) Your point about kids is a great one, and well taken!

      • Erin Williams

        That can work both ways though–when I was coming out of school I found that I had to stay in the top 3 cities (NY, SF, LA) to make my student loan payments. Jobs in even second-tier cities offered significantly lower salaries, citing the lower cost of living, but with student loans as my #1 expense at the time, that wasn’t my primary concern.

  • Discrimination is real but I think you’re overlooking the two biggest things holding you back, which have nothing to do with it: the year you graduated and your industry. Most people in your age cohort (regardless of gender or ethnic identity) have the same problem. I’m assuming, based on your byline, that you are a freelance writer and have no training and/or have not sought employment in fields with higher starting salaries (stem, healthcare, construction, accounting etc). Your location might also play a factor. If you make less than other freelance writers in Austin who graduated in 2011, then maybe those discriminatory factors come into play, but it sounds like you are discrimination when it might just be bad economic luck (hello recession) and an over-saturated industry and/or market. Not saying it’s your fault or that discrimination doesn’t exist, but let’s not ignore the obvious

    • Kara

      Hey Emma!
      Those points are definitely true. I’m now a freelance writer, but I worked in more traditional fields previously. The recession has definitely played a huge part in my career, and it’s impact has been 100% negative. Like I say above, I can’t be sure that I’ve faced discrimination, but since we do live in a sexist and racist world, I also can’t rule it out.

    • Charlene

      This article is about the author’s personal worries, not an inventory of all possible causes that may be holding her career back. This is so off-putting to me as a woman of colour because I experience this sort of whitesplaining when I talk to my colleagues about my misgivings about my identity at work. Even if you’re a WoC/PoC, it’s not your place to tell the author or anyone else that they’re “overlooking” other factors that you deem to be a greater concern, especially during conversations about one’s thoughts or experiences.

      • Rebecca Foresman

        Hi Charlene – thank you for writing in. I would really like to hear your stories about working as a WoC/PoC. Please feel free to write to me via our submissions page – I hope we can find a home for your perspective here! 🙂 http://thefinancialdiet.com/submissions/

  • disqus_XIxHJslPUz

    Totally with you there, and you’re right, it’s happening in many countries. In France where I’m from (I’m white and my name reflects that), it’s been shown that people with names that don’t sound “originally French” (often children of migrants, second or third generation, from North Africa) have more difficulties getting a job or even finding accommodation. It’s sad and I can’t imagine how it feels.
    I don’t know if my name holds me back now that I don’t live in France anymore and have moved to the UK. In my case, I find that not having a straightforward CV and having non-UK degrees is probably what plays against me. I have a decent salary but certainly nothing crazy. And in my current company I know they pay me more than they’d pay me elsewhere so I can’t even really leave the company, unless I re-train and do something different than what I do. Which I don’t really want to do because I like my job.

    Violaine

  • grover

    The one thing life will give me in abundance is the ability to make excuses and opt out of playing the game for fear that the other players won’t play nice or fairly. It is my responsibility to myself, to the people who have helped me get where I am and to the little girls of color who will look up to me, to storm into that game and kick ass regardless of if I have to knock on a thousand doors before one opens up to me.

    I don’t care about how much men earn or how much white women earn or how much having a foreign last name (and first, for that matter) might influence my life. I have no control over those things. What I do have control over, are my skills, the networks I cultivate, the career(s) I choose, the place I choose to live, and the role models I choose to learn from.

    • Rebecca Foresman

      Hi Grover – thank you for sharing your experience. If you ever want to write about the tools and mentality you’ve developed to overcome workplace discrimination, we’d love to hear from you on our submissions page: http://thefinancialdiet.com/submissions/

    • Rebecca Foresman

      Hi Grover – thank you for opening up to us about your experience. If you ever want to write about the tools and mentality you’ve developed to combat discrimination, I would love to hear from you on our submissions page: http://thefinancialdiet.com/submissions/

  • Jackie Onorato

    I worked as an intern in HR for a couple of summers and one of the things I noticed while I was sorting documents were people with Spanish/Latin American names listing more English/American names as their preferred name. It was my first exposure to the lengths certain people have to go through to assimilate or “fit in” to get a job, not something I understood very well at age 20. It was very disheartening.

    • Rebecca Foresman

      Hi Jackie – thank you for telling us about this experience – a wake-up call, indeed. If you ever want to write about your experiences with discrimination (and the ways that you – or applicants – have found to combat discrimination), I would love to hear from you on our submissions page: http://thefinancialdiet.com/submissions/

  • George @ 20 something lawyer

    The case is the same here in Asia as well. But the situation is hushed because of workplace policies requiring employees to keep salaries confidential.

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