So many of us cheered loudly when Simone Manuel became the first Black woman to win a gold medal in an individual swimming event in the Olympics this month. But the San Jose Mercury News headline reported: “Olympics: Michael Phelps shares historic night with African-American.” They have since apologized for devaluing Manuel by not naming her, but it’s just one example of how Black women do not get the credit they deserve for their hard work and achievements. That’s why we acknowledge today, August 23, as African American Women’s Equal Pay Day. It’s that dubious day of the year that Black women must work until in order to make what White men did in the previous year. In other words, Black women have to work an additional seven months – 19 months total – to earn what a White man earns in a year.
Like climate change, the gender pay gap has some fervent deniers. But it does indeed exist, and most people know that – like climate change – it is a very real issue that needs to be addressed. The problem is that the most common statistic we hear about the pay gap – that women are paid 79 cents for every dollar paid to men – represents the pay disparity women on average face. For Black women, as is far too often the case, the problem is much worse. For every dollar paid to a White man, Black women are paid just 60 cents.
For a long time, public officials have downplayed the reality the same way they’ve downplayed the reality of the pay gap for women generally, by focusing on women’s “career choices.” But this is a smokescreen. The truth is that work done by women is valued less than work done by men, and work done by women of color is devalued even further. For instance, women of color comprise a disproportionate number of the child care workforce. Child care is more often than not a low-wage, hourly job with no benefits. In fact, child care workers, including nannies, daycare center employees, and preschool employees, make almost 40 percent less than all other workers. This means that the people who take care of children most likely cannot afford child care themselves.
Fields dominated by Black women pay less, and Black women are paid less than White men – and, frequently, White women – even when they do the exact same job.
At some point, you have to stop talking in circles and just get real. Racism and sexism exist, and where they intersect, the impact is devastating. A recent article came to a startling conclusion: if current trends persist, it will take the average Black family 228 years to accumulate as much wealth as White households own today. That extra seven months adds up – every single year – and has been adding to the wealth gap for centuries.
This is an outrage, and it needs to change – today.
The good news is there are absolutely straightforward, smart, and simple solutions to these complicated problems.
The first is pay transparency. You can’t adequately fight for equal pay unless you know you’re being underpaid in the first place. For the 63% of women of color who work above the minimum wage but are likely paid less than their White coworkers, pay transparency is crucial to identifying and fighting the internal disparities on the job. It’s important for employers, too – while companies aren’t likely to motivate themselves to determine whether there is a pay gap, once they’ve identified one, they’re much more likely to fix it.
We also need to raise the minimum wage. Women make up two-thirds of the workforce in minimum wage jobs, and women of color make up 23%, meaning nearly one in every four people in a minimum wage job is a woman of color. Every time the minimum wage goes up, 37% of working women of color get a raise. Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would shrink the gender pay gap by at least five percent. That’s a big deal. That money would go straight back to grocery stores for more food for kids and families, into funds for college, and into safe, affordable child care so parents can go to work worry-free. Trickle-down economics have proven to be an unqualified failure, but the old adage remains the truest: a rising tide lifts all boats.
Despite being one of the most economically disadvantaged groups in the country, Black women have become one of the most powerful voting blocs. In 2008 and 2012, Black women voted at higher rates than any other subgroup, with 74% of eligible Black women going to the polls four years ago. What’s clear from the 2016 primaries and these recent presidential elections is that Black women are now a critical factor in any electoral process and will help determine the next president this November.
Our voices matter and our priorities should be front and center. We are a force to be reckoned with, our political power is only growing stronger, and we demand equal pay for equal work.