In honor of Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, regular Race and Beyond columnist Sam Fulwood III invited interns Gabrielle Bozarth and Naomi Kellogg to reflect on the intersecting barriers of gender, race, and age in the U.S. workforce.
Tomorrow marks Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, which observes the amount of time it takes the average black woman to earn the same pay that the average white man earns in one calendar year. Because black women earn 60 percent of what their white male counterparts do—a rate much lower than the 79 percent national pay gap for all women—it takes approximately eight additional months for them to reach pay parity with white men. Years of advocacy and progress have resulted in black women working across all fields and reaching high levels of academic achievement, with more than half of all black women between the ages of 18 and 24 enrolled in college. While black women have made notable professional contributions and become the most educated group in the nation, these advancements have not shown a considerable effect on wage disparities.
Black women’s pay disparity is especially concerning for Millennials—the nation’s most diverse generation ever—who now make up the majority of workers. In May 2015, Millennials surpassed Generation Xers as the largest generation in the U.S. labor force, and in April 2016, Millennials surpassed Baby Boomers as the largest living generation. As the youngest Millennials get older, graduate college, and begin looking for jobs, many are faced with two specific barriers: their race and gender. As young black women of the Millennial generation, we shoulder both the struggles and the hopes of our mothers and grandmothers: to be more, build more, and catapult our families to new heights—and new tax brackets. In this legacy, wage equality is our principle concern.
In the current U.S. economy, securing a first job out of college can be difficult, especially for black Americans. Regardless of educational achievement, black American unemployment rates are similar to or higher than those of less-educated white Americans. For example, the unemployment rate for black Americans with bachelor’s degrees or higher is nearly double that of their white counterparts: 4.1 percent and 2.4 percent, respectively.
Even if we ace the interview and land the job, as black women, we are likely to be underpaid. This is a frightening prospect as we wrap up our undergraduate college careers and look to build a life and a future of financial success. Men make more than women in all but five occupations, and even in those occupations, women of color are paid the lowest on average.
Black women in the workplace face a number of struggles: from stereotypes about women’s roles and harsh critiques of women’s leadership to lack of informational and mentoring networks in many fields. Black women experience unique obstacles that are a result of our compounded identities. Income inequality presents many barriers, as black women may also have to work multiple jobs or longer hours and do not have the time to network and develop the relationships with their coworkers and superiors that are key to career advancement.
Black women who are pregnant face even greater barriers to success in the workplace. While many pregnant women are able to work through pregnancy without difficulty, some women need temporary job modifications in order to continue working safely. A 2008 report noted that women of color and immigrant women are disproportionately likely to work in physically demanding and low-wage jobs and thus are highly likely to need accommodations during pregnancy—similar to those defined in, but not enforced by, the Americans with Disabilities Act. Employers often refuse to make these adjustments for pregnant women, forcing young black women, like us, to make an impossible choice between keeping our jobs and advancing our careers or protecting our health. Our struggle as young black Millennial women is multifaceted, and making 60 cents to the dollar of our white male counterparts further exacerbates these issues.
The unfortunate reality of the wage gap is that black women are set up to fail; the 40 cents we miss out on accumulates and limits us from fully participating in the U.S. economy. This money could help us pay off student loan debt, buy our first home, or purchase a car. It could help us pay for quality care for our children or put healthy food on the table. On average, black women earn $19,399 less than white men every year, and in 2013 dollars, this would be enough to pay for: feeding a household of four for two years with more than $4,000 to spare, the median cost of rent and utilities for one year, full-time child care for a four-year-old for two years, student loan payments for four years, or more than 300 tanks of gas with $1,000 to spare.
But earning less does not just affect our present, it affects our future. Being underpaid for equal work contributes to an increasing wealth gap and inheritance gap, infringing on prospects of upward mobility for future generations. Black women head 68 percent of black households, and black families have 13 times less wealth than white families, holding only $11,000 in comparison to the $141,900 in wealth white families possess. A lack of wealth and savings also means black families have less to pass down to their children, widening the inheritance gap.
Lack of inheritance coupled with lower earnings for equal work inherently limit the upward social mobility of black women and their children. Half of black children who are born poor remain poor, and 70 percent of black children born in middle-class families end up worse off than their parents.
Under current public policy, total wage equality for all women will not be reached in the United States until 2059; this means that in some states, our grandchildren may be the first to earn an equitable wage at the start of their careers. This inequality is not only of concern for us and our families but also for the nation’s future. Given the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission Supreme Court ruling and globalization of markets, money has become inextricably tied to power.
As we end our undergraduate careers and begin to enter the workforce, it is troubling to note that our starting salaries may be too low, our upward mobility too slow, our purchasing power too weak, and our investments too small to become this nation’s leaders. Economic repression of black women is a strategy for maintaining the status quo—and so far, it is working.
Gabrielle Bozarth is a rising senior at Dartmouth College, studying government and women, gender, and sexuality studies. Naomi Kellogg is a rising junior at Indiana University, studying nonprofit management and education policy. Both served as Progress 2050 interns at the Center for American Progress during the summer of 2016.