July 31, 2017 — Can Black women’s earnings ever catch up to the earnings of white men and women? It’s an unbelievable question to still be asking in 2017 and, most appropriately, on Black Women’s Equal Pay Day (July 31). Even more, it’s remarkable to be questioning the state of Black women’s earnings given their educational achievements in recent decades: the number of Black women in the United States attaining bachelor’s degrees increased sharply in the 1990s and continues to increase each year.
The National Women’s Law Center calculates that, in the United States, Black women working full-time earn $0.63 for every dollar earned by white men (not including Latinos). Nationally, women of all races working full-time, year-round are paid an average of $0.80 for every $1 earned by white men. This unfortunate reality shows that all women are impacted by the gender wage gap. And any pay gap based on gender, race, ethnicity, or age is wrong.
If lack of experiences, qualifications, or comparable skills aren’t to blame, what is? According to Catalyst, one of the most trusted resources for knowledge on the progress of women at work for more than 50 years, the gender pay gap is partly a result of systemic barriers and biases—not because of skills and qualifications.
Here’s what else I’ve learned from Catalyst about Black women in the workplace:
Black women deal with some of the workplace’s most entrenched hurdles and daunting roadblocks, not least other people’s beliefs, attitudes, and experiences—resulting in undue burdens and feelings of constantly being “on guard.”
Women hit a glass ceiling, but Black women hit a concrete one—very few advance to executive leadership positions. The exclusivity of work environments for Black women (e.g., the difficulty in finding mentors and sponsors, and the lack of informal networks) creates a dense, harder-to-shatter barrier to advancement.
Black women face death by a thousand cuts—scores of daily micro-aggressions that send the message that they don’t belong. Dozens of small, hurtful things add up to a culture of exclusion that may cause many Black women to check out or give up.
An “emotional tax” is levied on Black women that leaves them psychologically burdened, feeling like they have to outwork and outperform to compensate for potential discrimination or bias and be seen as equals.
Black women at the top remain underrepresented: women of color make up just 3.8% of all Fortune 500 board directors. Black women occupy 11.1% of board seats held by women, and just 2.2% of all board seats.
The research is troubling, but it affirms my own experiences as a Black woman in the workplace. The challenges I’ve faced were not all made up in my head or socialized conspiracy theories. They are reflected in the research—real data and facts. They are also supported in the stories from some of my friends and colleagues—a large network of remarkable, professional Black women—who encounter bias every day.
And what surprised me the most about the research, even with almost 25 years of work experience, including as a small business owner? The invisibility of Black women still exists, despite the harm it does to everyone—including to business. It is damaging in two ways: it sets organizations back from making real progress, and it prevents women from earning equitable pay.
While it’s true that the needle just isn’t moving fast enough to close the gender pay gap, business leaders and organizations have an urgent responsibility to do more for Black women (and other women of color) who have suffered from invisibility in the workplace.
We know from research that unconscious biases can influence perceptions, judgments, and actions. Unconscious biases are unintentionally exclusionary and can lead to double standards and stalled advancement—all of which can keep Black women from being recognized as the strong contributors that they are. Organizations must educate their managers on recognizing and interrupting unconscious bias, and must hold all employees accountable for the equitable treatment of everyone within their workforce.
For business leaders and organizations interested in doing more, these are a few specific ways to help ensure pay equity:
Conduct internal pay equity studies and analyses to make sure the organization does not have a gender wage gap.
Implement a “no negotiations” policy to level the playing field.
Support pay transparency.
Evaluate recruitment, promotion, and talent development systems for gender bias.
As noted American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic James Baldwin once stated so eloquently, “To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger.” In this case, the danger is to the pay gap. If business leaders and organizations take a public stand for fairness and pledge to take action, Black women will be justly rewarded for their talent—and the pay gap can become a thing of the past.