Black Women’s Equal Pay Day is on August 3rd this year, and means Black women must work an additional 214 days to catch up to what white, non-Hispanic men made in 2020 alone. Black women are typically paid only 63 cents for every dollar paid to white men, and the wage gap persists regardless of industry. This adds up to a loss of $2,009 each month, and $964,400 over the course of a 40-year career, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
There are many reasons why the pay gap still exists, from unconscious bias, to the racial wealth gap, to Black women being the most likely to be strapped by student loans, to shouldering the majority of both work and caregiving duties for their families.
In addition, there are many cultural forces impacting Black women’s experience in the workplace that may be keeping them from feeling like they truly belong and getting the pay they deserve. Melva LaJoy Legrand, founder and CEO of LaJoy Plans, a national event planning firm, shares that she has felt like she has had to “shrink” herself throughout her career. “Some of the elders in my community have given me a lot of advice based on what they themselves experienced,” says Legrand. “I was told to straighten my hair, to speak (and I hate this phrase) ‘white,’ to be more feminine, to be assertive but not too aggressive. Generationally, these lessons are being passed on that limit our ability to advocate for ourselves.”
It’s not only individual advice, but also societal cues and discrimination having a big impact. “Why do we need a law such as the Crown Act that says it’s okay for Black people to wear their hair naturally in the workplace?” says Legrand. “My hair does not come out of my head bone straight, and there is nothing wrong with that. There are so many examples right now sending the message it’s not okay to be human, such as the criticism Simon Biles experienced for opting out of the Olympics to take time to heal. It is hard for a Black human to figure out how they can take up space and be successful in a Westernized world. You can’t be yourself, and it’s exhausting to try to be someone else in order to live up to this notion of what we’re told success looks like.”
Raising awareness is important, because we can’t solve a problem that we’re not recognizing exists. Equally important is taking action steps that will help close the gap for good. I spoke to a number of leaders on what needs to happen—both on the company and the individual level—to create more pay equity for Black women.
What companies can do:
Ensure equitable pathways to advancement. When it comes to closing the pay gap, an obvious place for companies to start is to do a pay equity study to look at pay ranges and compensation across the board, identify any gaps, and then close them. Also key is to make sure everyone in your organization has an equal opportunity to advance into leadership positions, which also comes with higher salaries.
“We’re seeing more companies emphasizing diverse hires, but as we start moving into middle management and top leadership roles, the amount of diversity tends to dwindle,” says Kimberly B. Cummings, leadership coach and author of the new book Next Move, Best Move: Transitioning Into a Career You'll Love. “Companies have to do a deep dive into why people may be leaving as their career progresses, and what’s happening during the transition from manager to director by comparing different dimensions of identity across the board, such as gender and race. Make sure you’re doing exit interviews and, once you figure out what the problem is, then you're able to create an action plan to rectify differences and truly change the culture of the company.”
Don’t base compensation on salary history. “It’s really harmful for Black women, and for anybody who is likely to be paid less than their peers in the same job, when employers base your compensation on your salary history,” says Emily Martin, Vice President of Education & Workplace Justice at the National Women’s Law Center. “The pay discrimination follows you from job to job and actually compounds over time. It can mean that moments like the pandemic—where people are out of work for a while and folks in low-wage jobs were particularly likely to lose their jobs—lead these workers to experiencing a real penalty when pay in a new job is based on their salary history.”
Subsidize childcare. Mothers working full time are paid 75 cents for every dollar fathers make. The gap widens for Black mothers, who are are paid just 52 cents on the dollar. “We could make a very long list of policies that would make a difference in closing the racial and gender wage gap, but making childcare universally available and affordable is important for lots of reasons,” says Martin. “One reason is that it enables women to work and it disproportionately enables women of color and Black women to work. We recently did an analysis that found if high-quality, affordable childcare were universally available, it would result in a lifetime net increase in income of more than $100,000 for the average Black mother. That's building wealth and helping close the wealth gap for Black women in a significant way. It has benefits for entire families.”
Don’t return to “business as normal.” Covid’s effects on the economy particularly hit the low-paid service jobs where women in general are overrepresented, and where Black women are specifically overrepresented. “We saw lots of job loss in these sectors that definitely impacted Black women, and they still have much higher unemployment rates than they did before the pandemic,” says Martin. “We’re seeing a real worker demand for employers to rethink the nature of work in those jobs. There’s a demand not to go back to business as usual, and that reaches everything from higher wages to more stable schedules.”
What individuals can do:
Negotiate your value, and know when to walk away. Cummings says her biggest negotiation tip is to look at the facts in terms of what the industry should be paying for this job, and then speak to the impact, value and level of experience that you're bringing to the job so you can advocate for what you believe is right and equitable.
“It's important for companies to do their part, but also for the individuals to negotiate. There have been many times I've seen people who are underpaid and they simply didn't counter,” says Cummings. “I'm not putting it on that individual, because the company should be offering something equitable, period. But also employees need to ask for what we’re worth. When you counter, it is never because you feel like you need this. It's because of the research you've done and the impact and value that you're bringing. It’s going to raise emotions, but this is also a value-based conversation. You have to be confident in knowing it's okay to walk away if you're not being—or will not be—compensated fairly for your experience.”
Draw your boundaries. “Your employer is paying for your skills. They are not paying for all of you. No one owns all of you,” says Legrand. “The responsibility of the employee is to communicate upfront what their boundaries are in their negotiation of the work commitment, such as working from home or the need for a company cell phone if their employer wants them to be available for business texts.” Legrand shares an example of how one of her fellow business colleagues had a client who was paying upwards of seven figures for a contract with her, and why she walked away because of a violation of boundaries. “This particular client felt entitled to overstep and act very disrespectfully based on the large sum of money they were paying. My colleague decided to quit the client and returned everything every single penny. Not all money is good money, period.”
Article originally published in Forbes.