This was supposed to be the year of the woman. And then, “splat!” We were reminded in November that, while cracked, the ceiling is thick and sexism, like racism, is alive, well, and franchised. The one bright spot? The surge of African American women across politics, entertainment, social media, and policy.
Using skills born in church, sharpened in sorority meetings, and fueled by the unfair notion that we must be twice as good to get half as much, Black women have been excelling for years in workforce participation, education, and grassroots activism. But, this year feels different. More than a curated few of us are in the driver’s seat. Not just voting, but being elected; not just participating in movements, but leading them; not just being the on-air talent, but being the Executive Producer. And Freshman Senator Kamala Harris – only the second African American woman Senator in history – seems poised for a White House run. Even the women’s movement – often criticized for its lack of women of color leadership, has seen a marketed shift with African American women and other women of color – like Fatima Goss Graves at the National Women’s Law Center and Mallory, Perez and Sarsour of the Women’s March.
So, what does all of this afford? Well, parity overdue, for one. But it also provides an opportunity for African American women to shape and drive the American agenda. Thus, it is of little surprise that the observance of Black Women’s Equal Pay Day in recent years has become bigger, more inclusive, and more closely aligned to the experiences of African American women than ever before.
The wage gap for Black Women hardly impacts her alone. The wage gap impacts the Black family and community as a whole.
We all know about Equal Pay Day in April (this year, April 4) – the day the average woman’s pay finally catches up to the pay of the average man’s pay from the previous year, but that’s only part of the story. For women of color, the gap is far worse. Equal Pay Day for Black Women isn’t until today, July 31st, which means women, like me, must work an average of 19 months to be paid what the average White, non-Hispanic man is paid in 12 months. That’s seven extra months. Of course, we’ve known that equal pay day hasn’t been one size fits all for years.
What’s exciting about Black Women’s Equal Pay Day now? Well, instead of simply changing the faces on the standard equal pay day flyers, women’s rights advocates are digging deeper to give voice to the distinct workplace equality issues faced by Black women. Black women across the nation are being encouraged to take to social media today to share what equality at work means to them using #blackwomensequalpay.
We know that many of those responses will match those of other women, including White, non-Hispanic women, but some will be distinct, reflecting the complexity of Black women’s experiences in the workplace, where they must deal with race and sex discrimination, which often intersect to become larger than the sum of their parts.
All women can identify with Molly on Insecure’s discovery that she is being paid less than her lackluster male colleague. My cousin – a physician – recently learned by accident that a white, male colleague with less training took home considerably more than her. When she inquired as to why, she was told that he had a family and that pressing for a raise would anger her superiors.
We know that a pay gap between men and women can be found one year out of college, even after controlling for occupation and hours worked. Indeed, Black women with college degrees are paid less on average than white, non-Hispanic men with only a high school diploma. Controlling for race, the wage gap persists, with African American women making only 89% of what African American men make, even though they are more likely to be employed and have a college degree.
Equal pay and women’s economic security matters for black women.
Over the course of a woman’s professional lifetime, this gap grows, costing African American women more than $800,000 nationally and, in areas like Washington, DC, more than $1,000,000. These losses compound each year impacting debt reduction, home ownership, investments, savings, retirement age, and family security. The wage gap for Black Women hardly impacts her alone. The fact that more than 80 percent of Black mothers are breadwinners or co-breadwinners of their family makes it clear that the wage gap impacts the Black family and community as a whole.
In addition to these issues, African American women face workplace issues distinct to them. Millions of Americans were shocked to learn that a school in Massachusetts would attempt to ban hairstyles typically worn by African American girls. But what happened to the Cook family is hardly unique. I and nearly every African American woman I know has a hair-related workplace testimony. These stories range from an outright ban on their natural hair style to an unofficial admonishment that their hairstyle was something less than professional, “distracting” as my law professor-friend’s students shared with her on an evaluation. Hair discrimination: It’s a real thing, as are stereotypes about attitudes, timeliness, and willingness to do clerical work.
Black women – 28 percent of whom are in the service industry – are also most likely to feel the negative effects of a low minimum wage, lack of paid leave, unpredictable work schedules, and limited access to quality, affordable health insurance. Thus, the current suggestion that the Affordable Care Act be allowed to fail and the minimum wage be allowed to stagnate ring especially callous for African American women, especially mothers, giving expanded meaning to our cry that “Black Lives Matter.”
Equal pay and women’s economic security matters for black women. And in our new positions of authority, I look forward to placing it at the top of the American agenda.