In the 1940’s, my grandmother organized parents to address the pay disparities between black and white teachers in the Jim Crow south. After years of ignoring their concerns, the Wilson, N.C. Superintendent finally met with them. He explained that white teachers needed to earn more than black teachers because they had to hire people to cook and clean in their homes since they were working. It wasn’t lost on my grandmother that black teachers were paid so poorly, they often worked for the same white teachers after school let out.
Jim Crow’s been gone for decades but the pay disparities persist.
August 23rd is Black Women’s Equal Pay Day – the date that signifies how long black women must work in 2016 to earn what white men made on average in 2015. And we are losing ground. In 2014, black women earned 64 cents to the white male dollar. This year it’s 63 cents. And despite recent movements to improve the pay gap, we still only earn 77 cents to the white woman’s dollar. The wage gap persists for many reasons, often related to structural racism and sexism in hiring and promotions. It also continues because we’re not talking about it enough.
The Equal Pay Act that was signed into law by President Kennedy 53 years ago should have addressed pay disparities, at least where men and women do the same jobs. Many women don’t even know they are being paid less because it’s perfectly legal for workplaces to prohibit discussion about compensation. This pay secrecy makes it nearly impossible to fight for equal pay on the job.
Those wage differences impact a woman’s earnings from day one on the job until retirement – and they add up. According to a White House Report on equal pay, women earning $5,000 less than men on average at age 25 will be shortchanged $385,000 by the age of 65. Consider the recent claims of both the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team and members of the Women’s National Basketball Association. These are highly competitive athletes with winning teams, and they have the same skill sets as their male colleagues, but earn much less.
Work also remains highly gendered – most women and men don’t do the same jobs, and the jobs women do are disproportionately and historically underpaid. Why do we pay the people who care for young children less than those who work on cars? The answer is, because the child care workers do for a living what women historically have done in their families for no pay. We can’t solve that problem until we remove gender and race as criteria in compensation and root out the legacy of past discrimination.
More women in leadership positions would help.
Before opening Popcorn Heaven in Waterloo Iowa, ReShonda Young became the manager of her family business – a transportation and maintenance concern. She took over the payroll and recalls: “[T]hat’s when I realized there was a huge difference – men with no skill were starting off at $10.00 per hour while skilled women with years on the job earned far less”. After a discussion with her dad, ReShonda addressed the pay issues, improving the morale and ending the disparities. As owner of Popcorn Heaven, ReShonda said, “Wages are based on skill and performance, it doesn’t make sense to base it on gender or anything else.” We should all have ReShonda in charge of payroll.
The fifty-year attack on the labor movement hasn’t helped either. Unions actually make a difference in closing the wage gap. According to a report by the Center for Economic Policy Research, the gender wage gap for women is half the size for non-union women, improving wage parity for black women overall. Think about it: unions raise wages for lower to middle earners – bringing everyone up; they negotiate increases in a transparent way; and in most cases, the wage levels are published – no secrets. The fact that black people, especially women, are more likely to sign a union card suggests their understanding of the union advantage as a key economic equalizer.
As much as we’d like to celebrate our roles as mothers and caregivers, the price we pay for that status is punishingly high. Women carry a disproportionate share of caregiving responsibility in the home. The tax on caregivers is well documented: fewer job opportunities, less pay or benefits, no benefits for part-time work, the list is long. It’s horrible that anyone is financially penalized for having children, taking time off to care for elderly parents and providing the invisible partnership of free labor that keeps our economic engine moving. This is especially problematic for black women who are more likely than other women to earn minimum wage, and be the sole earners in a household. They are also less likely to have paid family leave or paid sick days both necessary policies for caregivers.
Some employers figure it out, like ReShonda. But most don’t.
Here are some solutions for addressing the pay gap. Pass the Paycheck Fairness Act which amends the Equal Pay Act to among other things prohibit pay secrecy, and permit civil action for violators who break the law. Increase the minimum wage – @fightfor$15. Support unionization across the country as a tool for reducing pay inequalities and building worker power. Build a culture that values caregiving as an important part of our economy and that has zero tolerance for inequality. It would also help to end racism and sexism in our society.