Black Women’s Equal Pay Day Highlights the Racial Dimension of the Pay Gap

Black Women’s Equal Pay Day Highlights the Racial Dimension of the Pay Gap

While women in the US are making some progress at narrowing the gender pay gap, the average discrepancy in earnings between women and men remains significant at around 83 cents to the dollar. Accordingly, advocates of pay equity observed Equal Pay Day on April 4 to mark how far into the next year women have to work to earn as much as men do in one year. Between black women and white men, however, the gap is even wider, at 63-67 cents to the dollar (different sources have slightly different calculations), so African American Women’s Equal Pay Day was not observed this year until Monday, July 31.

Fortune’s Ellen McGirt highlighted the occasion by expressing hope that it would be “a day of conversation, both online and in real life, which surfaces some difficult truths about the barriers black women face”:

Exceptional black women are reminded on a daily basis that we may be “pretty for a black girl,” but not leadership material. Or that while the bar has been lowered to accommodate us, we’re seen as too pushy. And unlike professional black men and white women, whose identities intersect in at least one fundamental way with the majority of (white male) managers, black women end up feeling excluded in ways that are impossible to remedy on their own.

Many difficult truths are in play before we enter the workforce. It is a unique burden to be a black woman (or the parent of a black girl) in a world that sees black girls as older and less innocent than they are. Black girls are disproportionately more likely to be suspended or disciplined from school than their white girl peers. And yet, while these perceptions translate into a uniquely perilous path within the education system, black women have been enrolling in college and earning degrees at an increasing rate over the last eight years.

Tennis champion and entrepreneur Serena Williams contributed an essay to Fortune on Monday, in which she encouraged black women to speak up fearlessly about unfair pay. Williams, who recently joined the board of directors at SurveyMonkey, also highlighted the findings of some recent polling the survey software company conducted on Americans’ knowledge and opinions of the pay gap:

In celebration of Equal Pay Day for Black Women, I partnered with SurveyMonkey to find out Americans’ opinions on the pay gap. The response was powerful. Here are the key findings:

  • Sixty-nine percent of black women perceive a pay gap, while just 44% of white men recognize the issue.
  • Nearly two-thirds of black women say that major obstacles remain for women in the workplace.
  • In addition to gender, black women see obstacles to racial equality: three-quarters of black women workers say there are still significant hurdles holding back minorities.
  • Still, some black women remain optimistic: more than 43% of black millennial women believe men and women have equal opportunities for promotion.

While a majority of those surveyed believe that the pay gap is real for both women and minorities, not everyone understands that black workers—specifically women—see more obstacles to racial equality and barriers in the workplace. Data doesn’t lie. It just gives a number to the gap women feel every day. 
It is my hope that I can give a voice to those who aren’t heard in Silicon Valley, and the workforce as a whole.

While racial and gender pay gaps may have contributing factors other than overt discrimination, critics of pay equity initiatives often overstate the degree to which these gaps are “natural” or the result of women’s choices. With that in mind, the Economic Policy Institute’s Valerie Wilson, Janelle Jones, Kayla Blado, and Elise Gould take a close look at the data and do some myth-busting about the origins of the pay gap for black women:

Myth #1: If black women worked harder, they’d get the pay they deserve.

The truth: Black women work more hours than white women. They have increased work hours 18.4 percent since 1979, yet the wage gap relative to white men has grown.

Over the last several decades, both black and white workers have increased their number of annual hours in response to slow wage growth. While men typically work more hours than women, the data reveal that growth in work hours, for both whites and blacks, was heavily driven by the growth of work hours among women. The increase in annual hours is particularly striking for workers in the bottom 40 percent of the wage distribution, where it has been driven almost entirely by women.

Among lower paid workers, the growth in annual hours is larger for black women than for white women and men. This trend is particularly striking for the lowest wage workers. In the bottom fifth, annual hours for black women grew 30.1 percent (from 1,162 hours/year to 1,511 hours/year) between 1979 and 2015 compared to a 27.6 percent increase (from 1,086 hours/year to 1,386 hours/year) for white women and a 3.2 percent increase (from 1,553 hours/year to 1,602 hours/year) for white men.