By demanding equal pay for equal work, and by practicing #AskForMore, Black women can take action to begin narrowing centuries-old income and wealth deficits.
In an area of study dominated by elite, white men, I am one of a small number of Black female economists in the United States. Black and Women’s History Months in the U.S. present an opportunity to uplift the issues that I am forced to grapple with as a Black woman and that I have chosen to study out of desire for change. Economists often ignore the double gap Black women face when it comes to salaries and wages; this group loses billions of dollars of what I term “involuntarily forfeited” compensation each year due to sexism and racism within the U.S. workplace.
The double gap endures not only due to sexist and racist employment practices, but also because proving this inequity is extremely challenging. While Black women may suspect they’re being underpaid compared to their white and/or male colleagues, it’s extremely difficult for most of us to know for sure, and if we don’t know, we can’t attempt to fix it.
I propose we stop waiting for our leaders to step up and instead flip the script ourselves: In this world of asymmetrical information and lack of national policies around pay transparency, Black women can turn among ourselves and begin to ask for more. I’m not suggesting it’s our problem alone to solve; we didn’t create it. I’m also not suggesting that you stick up your boss, since research shows when Black women assertively negotiate, employers don’t react well. I suggest that, when negotiating, you ask for 10 to 20 percent more than you would have. And keep doing this throughout your career.
I have a personal and professional investment in understanding why so much inequality pervades the economy. In the last few years, I’ve researched the salaries of white men and Black women with similar levels of educational attainment and experience in popular professions, and what I found was sobering.
Black women who’ve managed to overcome odds and rise to management positions face one of the largest salary gaps of all—an average of $66,000 annually to a white male’s $110,000 for the same job. Though both groups have equal education and equal position, just a difference in race and gender leads a white man to earn on average over 60 percent more than a Black woman with the same professional profile. Across all industries, my research estimates Black women workers as a group are collectively underpaid to the tune of $50 billion a year, every year, due to the double gender and racial wage gaps.
In my own career, I found out I was being underpaid compared to my similarly-qualified white and male counterparts. While I constantly took public transportation, my co-workers regularly cabbed it to most places. My discovery of this discrepancy, however, was only one time out of a decades-long career. I discovered it only because I had access to salary information for all employees, since I headed up the organization’s finance department. Most workers don’t have access like that.
Ultimately, policymakers and companies should take responsibility to rectify these inequities that have existed since the end of emancipation (and before) in the U.S., but Black women cannot afford to wait any longer another for this leadership. We’re still in a robust labor market, so Black women should use this leverage to #AskForMore—during salary negotiations, when starting a new job, and when demanding financial parity with their peers.
Doing so would be a wise choice: The Federal Reserve has been raising interest rates and likely will again shortly to cool down a strong job market. Since employees in a tight labor market have more leverage, the Federal Reserve is wary of workers pushing wages higher and feeding into inflation. Given that the economy causes disadvantages for Black women, we have much more to worry about than a temporary surge in prices.
Some progress has happened in normalizing requests for fair compensation: New York recently joined a growing number of states in requiring that salary ranges be posted in job listings. Current laws about salary transparency do not solve everything, because companies can still exploit loopholes in them by posting confusingly wide ranges. Yet, these laws signal a movement in the right direction when, for years, all we’ve seen is stagnation.
Resolving the inequity Black women face in the labor market requires structural change. We are funneled into low-wage occupations, in part due to the kinds of occupations that were historically open to us. These limitations on mobility influence the magnitude of our wage gaps, which the pandemic has already exacerbated. As outlined in a paper by the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls, in which I was a contributing writer:
“Between February and April 2020, there was an employment drop in the three occupations with the largest share of Black women: office and administrative support … healthcare support … and sales and related.”
Those employment losses cast a long shadow on joblessness among Black women post-pandemic, a group that hasn’t fared as well as nearly all other groups with respect to re-entering the workforce.
We need systemic change to truly solve these inequities. This particularly includes enacting federal—not just state or local—laws to ensure wage transparency and laws to prevent employers from reviewing job applicants’ previous salaries, which research shows disadvantages women and people of color. Corporations also need to step up to enforce pay parity along gender, racial and ethnic lines by conducting internal pay parity audits and committing to appropriate course corrections.
Black women have the highest labor force participation among all women, yet they are consistently pushed to the margins of our economy. It is not up to Black women to fix a system designed to work against them, but by demanding equal pay for equal work, and by practicing #AskForMore, we can take action to begin narrowing centuries-old income and wealth deficits.
This year during Women’s History Month, let’s move from rhetoric to revolution, first acknowledging mainstream economists’ disregard of this issue and then working together to solve this pernicious, unjust practice in our society.
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