My grandmother was brilliant. She knew a little bit about everything and worked hard her entire life. She began cleaning houses when she was just ten years old and moved onto handling contracts on military bases as an adult. Years later, when she reached retirement age, she had a three years’ worth of sick leave and vacation time saved up. This is a small testament to how much my grandmother worked, the little time she took for herself, and her efforts to care for others. I gain strength from knowing that she worked so that I could live comfortably and be fairly compensated in a career that I love.
Despite my grandmother’s sacrifices, though, I am still at a disadvantage. Not because I am less qualified, have fewer degrees, work fewer hours, don’t negotiate my salary, or even because I may want to have children someday. The statistics make it clear: I am at risk of being paid less throughout my career simply because I am both Black and a woman.
Although I can write a list of reasons why my grandmother was among the most special people I’ve ever known, she is not unlike many other Black women. Black women are the unsung heroes. But too seldom is their work properly recognized and valued. History has not treated them well, and neither has the U.S. economy.
Not really that long ago, Black women were slaves and forced to work inside of the homes of white landowners and in the fields without any pay at all. Black women not only had to care for their own families, but also tended to white families by cooking, cleaning and caring for them. Later, in 1967 just three years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited race discrimination in employment, Black women typically made 43 cents for every dollar paid to white men. In 2015, nearly 50 years later, this wage gap remained enormous. Black women who worked full-time, year round were typically paid only 63 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men. Over a 40-year career, this amounts to $840,040 in lost income.
Black women are still on the quest to close the gap that originated when the first slave ship arrived on American shores.
This is not due to a lack of trying.
In fact, Black women experience a wage gap at every education level. Black women have pursued higher education in large numbers, but that has not been enough to achieve equal pay. In 2015, 34 percent of Black women ages 18-24 were enrolled in a postsecondary program, just five percentage points shy of the enrollment of white men in the same age group. Black women with a bachelor’s degree or higher are typically paid about $1,000 less than white, non-Hispanic men who have some college but lack a degree. But even Black women with a Master’s degree are paid only 64 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men with the same credential. It is then not surprising that 57 percent of Black women who are repaying their loans are having difficulty doing so, compared to just 22 percent of white men.
The wage gap for Black women exists across occupations. In other words, it isn’t just that Black women are choosing the wrong types of jobs. For example, Black women who are teachers make 80 cents for every dollar a white non-Hispanic man makes. Black women working as physicians and surgeons make 54 cents for every dollar paid to a white man.
Black women are the most likely group of women to be union members—and union membership makes a big difference for their paychecks. Black women who are in a union make 30 percent more than Black women who are not in a union. However, union membership is not always an option. Six out of 10 of the ten worst states for Black women’s wage inequality, are right to work states.
Black women of today and yesterday are resilient, and have exhibited astounding leadership and optimism despite the shackling of their potential. Black women are the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs. Black women vote at higher rates than their peers. And over eight out of ten Black mothers are breadwinners. Yet, in all but two states, the typical cost of child care exceeds 20 percent of Black women’s typical earnings.
Although data indicate that Black women are slowly chipping away at the wage gap with blood, sweat, and tears, there is still a lot of work to be done. Black women have contributed to every American success, work hard every day, and put everything on the line: it’s past time we were treated – and paid – fairly.