Today is Black Women’s Equal Pay day, a date marking the pay gap between black women and white men in the US by representing how far into the next year a typical black woman has to work to earn as much as a typical white man earned in one year. It comes considerably later in the calendar than Equal Pay Day, which is observed in early April and symbolizes the gender pay gap irrespective of race; this illustrates the greater degree to which black women are disadvantaged in the American workplace than their white peers. McKenna Moore at Fortune highlights the salient statistics:
Women earn 80 cents for every dollar that men make, but black women make 63 cents for every dollar white, non-Hispanic men make. This means that black women also make 38% less than white men and 21% less than white women, according to a study published by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. And the gap is only widening for women, both black and white. Extended over a 40-year career, the wage gap has black women earning $850,000 less than men’s median annual earnings, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
Studies show that the pay gap starts early. An data analysis of BusyKid’s app’s 10,000 users shows that parents pay boys a weekly allowance twice the size that they pay girls. By 16, black women are earning less than white men and the gap only widens as they age. As black women have families of their own, the gap means less money for their families, which is particularly harmful because more than 80% of black mothers are the main breadwinners for their households, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families.
The disadvantage lying at the intersection of racial marginalization and gender inequality is not limited to black women, either: Native American women don’t get their Equal Pay Day until late September, earning only 57 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men. Latina women suffer the greatest pay disparity at 54 cents to the white, male dollar; their Equal Pay Day doesn’t arrive until November.
In 2016, a US appeals court ruled against the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in a suit the agency had brought on behalf of Chastity Jones, a black woman who had been denied employment at the Mobile, Alabama insurance claims processing company Catastrophe Management Solutions after she refused to cut her dreadlocks in compliance with the company’s grooming policy. Absent an explicit racial dimension to the policy, the court ruled, CMS was within its rights to ban dreadlocks in general as part of its dress code.
The EEOC chose not to pursue the case further, but the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund sought to appeal the ruling in the Supreme Court. Last week, however, the high court said it would not take the case. The court’s refusal to hear this case is a blow to advocates who see workplace hairstyle policies like these as discriminatory in effect if not intent, as they place greater constraints on the choices black people, and particularly black women, than other employees and often penalize black employees for wearing natural hairstyles. Implicit bias against black women’s naturally textured hair is a well-documented phenomenon in American society, which causes many black women to experience pressure to artificially straighten their hair or wear hairpieces.
CMS’s dress code did not explicitly mention dreadlocks, but rather mandated grooming that reflected a “professional image” and barred “excessive hairstyles.” This suggests to Rewire’s senior legal analyst Imani Gandy that such policies as applied are not as race-neutral as they appear on paper:
First, CMS’s purported race-neutral grooming policy is anything but—since it excludes Black women’s natural hairstyles based on stereotypes that natural hairstyles are unprofessional, messy, not neat, political, radical, too eye-catching, or excessive.
According to a recent study by the Perception Institute, one in five black women feel social pressure to straighten their hair for work, and though all women worry about about how their hair is perceived, black women are much more likely to feel anxiety over the issue than white women are. That anxiety is apparently warranted: the Perception Institute also found that, irrespective of race, the majority of the more than 4,000 people who participated in the study demonstrated an implicit bias against black women’s (naturally) textured hair, rating it less professional than smoother hair. As the study concludes, be it overall perceptions of professionalism, first impressions during an interview, or general ideas about health and beauty, “attitudes toward black women’s hair can shape opportunities in these contexts, and innumerable others.”
Bias against black women’s textured hair can play out in a number of ways in the workplace, from everyday cultural slights and comments regarding these women’s hairstyles, to more concrete challenges such as misguided hiring decisions. And while banter in the break room surrounding a black colleague’s new hairstyle may seem like an otherwise innocuous conversation point, it may actually contribute to, or be a symptom of, a workplace culture in which black women are professionally judged over their hair.
In the US, where long legacies of sexism and racism continue to hold back women and people of color in the workplace, black women face challenges that are greater than the sum of those faced by white women and black men. The pay gap for black women is more severe, they are passed over for promotions at an even greater rate than white women, and diversity and inclusion initiatives that focus on racial diversity and gender equality separately don’t always address the issues black women have to deal with at the intersection of these two axes of discrimination.
One consequence of these unique challenges is that while corporate America has made some progress in recent years at increasing the representation of women in leadership, the women who make it into these senior roles are overwhelmingly white, while women of color have a much harder time getting into the C-suite. Since Ursula Burns departed her position as CEO of Xerox last year, there are currently no black women at the helm of Fortune 500 companies, and Fortune‘s latest list of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Business contains just one black woman: Ann-Marie Campbell, EVP for US stores at Home Depot.
In a new magazine feature, Fortune writer Ellen McGirt takes a close look at what she calls the “black ceiling,” a phenomenon “composed of several complex socioeconomic factors” that holds African-American women back in corporate America. Through a series of interviews with Burns and other black women leaders working to create more space for their peers in the business world, McGirt diagnoses the problem and explores some of the solutions these women are working on:
Black women are at a disadvantage in trying to bridge the familiarity gap with white men in positions of power, because in the words of talent management research firm Catalyst, they are “double outsiders”: They’re neither white, nor men. As a result they’re often shut out from the informal networks that help other people find jobs, mentors, and sponsors.