Black Women and Their Labor Are Still Underpaid and Undervalued

A participant in the 2017 Women’s March. (Johnny Silvercloud / Flickr)

If there’s one thing women in the workforce can count on, it’s unequal pay. The gender wage gap is as stubborn as a filibustering senator. On average, women make 83 cents for every dollar a man makes. If you’re a Black woman, it is even worse: For every dollar a white man makes, a Black woman earns 63 cents. Black Women’s Equal Pay Day represents how much more time Black women have to work to earn what white men make in a year. This year, the day falls on Sept. 21—nearly 10 additional months.

Along with severe wage inequality, Black women continue to be disproportionately overrepresented in low-paying, service-oriented jobs. More than one-third of the essential workers—many of them the people who have powered our country throughout the pandemic—are Black women. Among that group are Black women in the healthcare industry, nurses, home care workers and other caregivers we depend on to support us and our loved ones who are ill, aging and in need of additional care, or disabled. And though caregiving is extremely vital work, it continues to be work where people are undervalued and extremely underpaid.

Caregivers underpaid is because caregiving is seen as women’s work. Caregiving is also devalued because, historically, it was an unpaid responsibility assigned to enslaved Black women. Both racial and gender biases play a role in the low wages caregivers earn today. Black women continue to be more likely than other women to work in the caregiving sector, where there’s a higher risk of injury, for facilities to be understaffed or lack adequate resources, and, more importantly, for workers to be severely underpaid. Home healthcare workers, for example, on average make less than $15 per hour. Low-paying jobs, of course, tend to be filled by immigrants, who are more likely to be exploited in the workplace, experiencing abuses such as unsafe working conditions and wage theft.

And these numbers don’t account for the unpaid caregiving labor Black women do. Even though they’re underpaid, Black women are more likely to be the sole or main breadwinner in their families, meaning their salaries are essential for providing necessities like food and childcare. It also means that, should they or a family member become ill, they can’t necessarily afford to take days off of work because there’s no federal paid leave policy in the U.S.

As a remote caregiver for my mother and other family members, I have an acute, firsthand understanding of constantly having to negotiate and balance work and caring for loved ones. 

COVID-19, inflation and stagnant wages have laid bare how necessary it is for our elected representatives to act by voting to increase the minimum wage and creating a robust paid family and medical leave package accessible to all. Despite this reality, many politicians continue to ignore the needs of their constituents by not supporting legislation that would ensure a better livelihood where U.S. workers are paid not just adequate, but equal wages, regardless of gender or race.

As executive director of Family Values @ Work, I work tirelessly with the organizations in our network to ensure that the most vulnerable among us are paid equitably for our labor and that we vote for representatives who will fight for our causes, like paid leave. It’s my hope that, sooner rather than later, Black Women’s Equal Pay Day is no longer observed because Black women are being paid equitably and equally for their labor—and that our elected representatives protect that human right.

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.

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Josephine Kalipeni is the executive director of Family Values @ Work. Family Values @ Work is a movement network of grassroots coalitions in more than two dozen states working to win paid family and medical leave, earned sick and safe days, and affordable, high-quality childcare at the state and national levels.