Why the pay gap is growing for Black women: 'We are in a state of emergency'

Sept. 21 is Black Women's Equal Pay Day and the latest studies show the pay gap is growing for this group of women.
Sept. 21 is Black Women's Equal Pay Day. Studies show the pay gap is growing for this group of women.

It's Black Women's Equal Pay Day on Sept. 21 and new data shows the pay gap for Black women is widening. Minda Harts is a bestselling author and knows firsthand why the day is so significant.

As CEO of The Memo LLC, a platform created to help women of color advance in the workplace, Harts was hired to speak at a well-known company. However, when the pandemic caused everything to go virtual, the company contacted Harts to say that they no longer had the budget to pay her the amount they had agreed on.

“Something in the pit of my stomach just did not feel right about it,” Harts tells MAKERS. She called a fellow female author who had also been hired by the company to speak at a virtual event and found out that her colleague was being paid her original in-person speaker fee. The only difference, says Harts, was the color of their skin.

“Two women: one white, one Black, who they asked to do the exact same thing, but they wanted me to take a significantly smaller paycheck.” It’s a scenario she says her community faces way too often. “I am a Black woman and I live this experience each and every day. And so, as we talk about working hard or getting your seat at the table, it's really hard to be motivated to work harder when you know that you're not being paid equitably.”

Bestselling author Minda Harts presents her book,
Bestselling author Minda Harts presents her book, "The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table". Harts tells MAKERS that she faces inequalities in the workplace each and every day. (Photo by Marla Aufmuth/Getty Images for Watermark Conference for Women)

The Growing Gap

Black women have fought against workplace inequalities for decades. But like so many things, the pandemic has created setbacks. Black Women’s Equal Pay Day represents how many additional days into the new year that a Black female must work in order to earn what a white, non-Hispanic male made the previous year.

In 2021, that day fell on Aug. 3. But in 2022, it falls on Sept. 21, meaning Black women have to work nearly 50 days longer just to catch up to annual wage of a white man. “One of the reasons why Black Women's Equal Pay Day is in September rather than August is that we wanted to include data that reflected the reality of part-time seasonal and gig workers,” Delia Coleman, deputy director for Equal Rights Advocates (ERA), tells MAKERS. “Many of whom are Black and brown women. Many of whom are essential workers piecing together a patchwork of multiple part-time jobs just to get by.”

The pandemic exacerbated this problem for Black women. Many did not have the luxury of working from home and struggled to find care for their kids when schools and day cares shut down. “Child care disruptions were forcing them to leave their jobs, cut back on hours or give up shifts,” Coleman says. “They're like, ‘OK, you need time off early so that you can pick up your child from school? We can't do that. So don't come back.’”

Coleman says she’s heard countless stories of Black women who could not get their full-time jobs back after the pandemic, so they were forced to take on part-time work. Even now, while some parts of the U.S. labor force have rebounded, the Bureau of Labor Statistics August jobs report shows that unemployment rates among Black women are rising while their participation in the workforce is declining, and they’re the only group that had this happen in August. When you add the fact that Black women earn just 58 cents for every dollar a non-Hispanic white man makes in this country, the situation seems dire. “I know this is gonna sound kind of drastic, but we are in a state of emergency,” says Harts. “We weren't getting paid equitably before, but now we have to work an additional 264 days to reach what a white male made last December!”

The pandemic pushed a lot of Black working mothers out of the workforce.
The pandemic pushed a lot of Black working mothers out of the workforce.

“All of these things combined creates basically a vise grip on the wages of Black women, making it harder for them to provide for their families, making it harder for them to build savings,” says Coleman. “These things are making it more and more difficult for Black women to return to the workforce.”

Harts believes there is another factor contributing to the decline of Black women in the workplace. “They're realizing that they don't have to just make any toxic workplace work, that they don't have to continue being underpaid and undervalued, and that they can find places that celebrate them rather than tolerate them.”

Two women: one white, one Black, who they asked to do the exact same thing, but they wanted me to take a significantly smaller paycheck.”Minda Harts, Author & CEO of The Memo LLC

Action through information

So what should Black women do? Experts say it starts with research. Find out what other companies pay for the work you do by utilizing online resources such as Payscale or Salary.com. Find out what a white male earns in your position to determine how wide the gap really is. That way when salary negotiations take place, you will know your true value. “It's important to talk about pay with your colleagues,” Coleman advises. “It's also helpful to know that there are policies in place that back you up as a worker.” The ERA has created a Policy Hub with an interactive map to help you find out which equal pay laws exist in your state.

Ask your boss if your company has conducted equal pay audits and if so, demand to see those numbers. “Sadly, some employers keep those things secret. And you can't fix what you can't see,” explains Coleman. “Pushing for really high levels of transparency is really, really important.”

Harts suggests keeping track of your wins at work to show how you’ve contributed to the company’s bottom line. “Then when you do make an ask for more, you're not just saying, ‘Hey, I think I need some more money,’ but here's the value that I add. And here's why I ask that.” She says being armed with data can help yield a more productive meeting. “So that when we go to have a conversation with our manager or HR, we're rooting the conversation in fact and not feeling.”

Corporate Responsibility

Beyond the individual worker, Coleman says there is an important role for corporate America and government officials to play in the fight for equal pay. “Most of the burden of this change must come from employers and policymakers,” she states. “Workplaces in the 21st century need to modernize, which means that they have to provide Black women with what Black women need to stay in the workforce: paid family and caregiver leave, pregnancy accommodations and fair and equitable wages.” Coleman says employers also need to provide salary ranges to every worker as well as clear guidance on the steps it takes to move from one level to another.

Vice Media’s chief people officer, Daisy Auger-Domínguez, agrees. “This is about ensuring that we are diminishing the structural and systemic barriers that keep some people from advancing and others from simply allowing them to operate in mediocrity.” She tells MAKERS that it comes down to creating work environments where everyone feels valued. “As different as we are, there is a shared experience of being marginalized in the workplace. We know what it's like. The air gets thick when you're in a place that doesn't see you for who you are. I say this to my 14-year-old daughter all the time, ‘I don't want you to inherit the workplace that I went into.’ This is why I do this work.”

Nicole Reboe is a MAKERS board member and president of Rich Talent Group, where she helps clients build transformative leadership teams through a lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion. “It’s extremely disappointing to see that date [Black Women’s Equal Pay Day] move later into the year,” Reboe tells MAKERS. “Companies must continue to stay focused and consistent in their DE&I [Diversity, Equity and Inclusion] efforts. When executives are building out their leadership teams and boards, they should be looking outside their immediate networks and opening their aperture to ensure they aren’t missing out on diverse talent pools.”

Coleman says despite the many challenges facing Black women in the workplace, she remains hopeful. “These solutions are within our reach. Right now, we have a patchwork of laws, and that patchwork is allowing Black women to fall through the gaps. Employers have to be proactive with their policies to fill those gaps. And for those who aren't going to fill those gaps of their own volition, we need federal laws so that rights don't rely on a person's zip code.”

Unlike the many national days of celebration that fill our calendar, Harts says Sept. 21 is a recognition of things that need to be fixed. “Black Women's Equal Pay Day is not a day of celebration. It should be a day of education for the companies that employ us or future companies that employ us,” she says. “In order for us not to continue to have these days every year, there has to be some activation.”

Remember that virtual speaking event? Harts says she called the company back and told them she wanted to move forward but only if they could meet her original budget. Her self-advocacy worked, and Harts got paid what she was promised.