Women serve on the Supreme Court, run Fortune 500 companies, and wield political power in the halls of Congress. However, despite these incredible public gains, women still continue to lag behind their male counterparts in some very basic aspects of life: in the workplace. In fact, in 2014 American women still make just 77 cents to a man’s dollar—and this often-touted figure does not account for the race of the women receiving the lower wage. When race is factored in, the statistics are even more troubling.
Black women, for example, earn just 64 cents for every White non-Hispanic man’s dollar. That is, Black women who work full-time make just 64% of what White non-Hispanic males make—less than both White non-Hispanic women and Black men. Across the country, women of color, particularly African American women and Latinas, have suffered larger wage gaps than white and Asian women since the 1970s. So while the wage gap is an important issue for all women, it is a major concern for historically marginalized women who continue to overwhelmingly bear the double burden of racism and sexism.
A recent study conducted by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) highlights the disturbing implications of this decades-long trend for Black women. Their analysis mined Census data and unearthed troubling conclusions. Louisiana has the unfortunate distinction of having the worst wage gap for Black women in the nation. Washington DC, which typically has the smallest wage gap in the country overall, fares little better. When you break down the statistics by race, DC’s wage gap is the second worst wage gap in the country for Black women. In DC, the “Chocolate City” that boasts some of the most affluent African American communities, women of color make about half of what white men make.
Kate Gallagher Robbins, Senior Policy Analyst at NWLC, notes that this wide wage gap is one of the reasons why we see higher rates of poverty and economic insecurity among Black women. Earning less means saving less too. Thus, the wage gap has repercussions for women all across their lives, making both Black women’s working years and retirement precarious.
It’s clear that we have a long way to go before pay is equalized and women receive fair wages. So what can we do to make this frustrating problem better in the meantime?
Some, such as Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg have argued that women need to “lean in” rather than shy away from taking a stand on their worth at the workplace. Such advice calls for women to do things such as renegotiate salaries or find out if you’re being paid the same as coworkers. However, while some of these actions may make a difference on an individual level, they do not necessarily account for the structural issues that make the yawning pay gap a reality for Black women. They also don’t account for the real vulnerabilities that many Black women face on the job that makes speaking out not only risky but downright dangerous. Robbins suggests that the pay gap is such a large structural problem that it will take more than individual action to get rid of it. She warns that “leaning in can only get you so far—and it might not get you far along at all.” This is a large-scale problem that women can’t solve alone.
Instead, Robbins and others suggest that advocating for more structural change is the way to go, rather than insisting that women simply fight discriminatory practices on the job on an individual basis. Structural change that can combat the pay gap includes raising the minimum wage and advocating for better laws, such as the Paycheck Fairness Act. The Paycheck Fairness Act, for example, would provide better transparency and protection around important workplace pay issues. The law would prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who share their salary information with one other. The Paycheck Fairness Act would also require the Department of Labor collect data from employers about wages, broken down by race and gender. Employers would likewise be required to explain pay differences between men and women in the same positions are for a reason other than gender. Such legislation would then take the burden off women in the workplace and place the onus on the federal government and employers.
As Robbins points out the gender pay gap for Black women is not only, “a women’s issue, but it’s also a family issue. [Fixing the pay gap] is not only going to help women, but their children, parents, and their spouse. It affects entire families. It’s not just about women versus men.” Ultimately, as she suggests, “Everybody wins when women are paid fairly.”