April 4th marked Equal Pay Day, a symbolic measure of how far into 2017 women had to work to earn what a man did in 2016. But that date doesn’t really apply to black women. For us and many other women of color, the pay gap in America is a lot wider. While white women make an average of 75 cents for every dollar a white man does, black women make about 63 cents. That makes our Equal Pay Day July 31st, more than 6 months into the new year. In even starker terms: over a 40-year career, black women will lose $840,000 due to the wage gap. Despite that devastating figure, black women’s groups haven’t traditionally led the fight to close the wage gap. Why aren’t we playing a larger role in speaking out when pay inequity hits us so much harder?
Maybe it’s because achieving equal pay feels like just another uphill battle, and black women are already too familiar with those. We pursue higher education relentlessly--with ever-increasing enrollment rates in America’s colleges--and we’re breadwinners more often than not, with over 70 percent of black mothers reporting that they bring home most of the earnings. Still we’re confronted with systematic inequities that, like the wage gap, are often linked to both our race and our gender.
But as Tamika Mallory, co-chair of the massively successful Women’s March, recently said, “We have to prioritize us when the rest of the world will not. If no one is showing up for us, we must show up for ourselves.” Make no question about it, black women show up when it comes to the issues impacting our communities and our loved ones. Now it’s time for us to show up alongside our sisters in the struggle: women of all races and from all walks of life with whom we can share strength in similarities and give support where we differ. If the Women’s March in January showed us anything, it’s that we who support gender equity must work together if there’s any hope of achieving meaningful change.
The push for equal pay is a great place to start. It impacts all women, and it’s a cause we can all come together around. Women in the workplace are often dealt a ‘motherhood penalty’ for having a child (research shows they’re seen as having lower competence and commitment, which directly impacts their chances of being paid well), while men are more likely to see a bump in their earnings after becoming a father. Other contributing factors include the disproportionate representation of women (and women of color) in lower-paying jobs, the way women approach and are perceived during salary negotiations, and plain-old gender discrimination.
But we can combat the wage gap, and women’s advocacy groups are already leading the way. In Illinois, where my organization Women Employed is based, we have spearheaded legislation that would ban employers from asking job applicants about their previous wages. For a black mother who took time off work to care for her newborn child, that law could mean the difference between an unfair salary following her into a new job, or a fair wage based on her qualifications. The ‘No Salary History’ bill has already passed in Illinois, we’re just waiting for the governor to sign it into law. It’s a good start to addressing a multi-faceted issue.
The best way to ensure any strategy to close the wage gap works for all women is to have different women’s experiences included in the conversation. Though historically the feminist movement has not always been a space where women of color were made to feel welcome, it should be clear to every woman that continuing to be divided will doom us all. Women’s issues are also black women’s issues. So, let’s take our seat at the table.