African-American women on average need to work for one year and eight months to earn the same yearly wage as white men and July 31 serves as a reminder of that stark piece of trivia. Known as Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, it’s the date into 2017 that African-American women would need to work to earn as much as their white male counterparts if they both started working on Jan. 1, 2016.
Black women are at the intersection of a variety of macro-economic trends that contribute to this pay gap, which amounts to about 67 cents per dollar on average, even when controlling for factors like education and years of experience.
As tennis star Serena Williams, who has also spoken out about her own struggles with pay discrimination, put it in an op-ed in Fortune on Monday: “The cycles of poverty, discrimination, and sexism are much, much harder to break than the record for Grand Slam titles. For every black woman that rises through the ranks to a position of power, there are too many others who are still struggling.”
That’s because for one, the gap between the haves and the have-nots has grown over the past several years and African-American women make up only a small share of top wage earners, said Valerie Wilson, the director of the Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy at the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank focused on labor issues.
In addition, persistent racial and gender pay gaps also plague African-American women. That all means that at the current rate it will take until 2124 for black women to earn the same on average as white men, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. “African-American women get hit three times,” Wilson said, referring to the triple burden of race, gender and general income inequality that saps black women’s earning power.
Still, the gap is about more than broad economic trends. African-American women are more likely to cluster in fields like teaching or health care support. Those sectors are often underpaid when compared to other fields that require similar skills and education, said Ariane Hegewisch, the program director for employment and earnings at IWPR. That’s in part because these fields have been traditionally associated with women in general and, in the case of some types of domestic work, black women specifically. “The care sector and the educational sector we know are undervalued,” Hegewisch said.
But even when black women work in fields that typically pay better, they still make less on average, indicating that discrimination plays a role. African-American women may struggle to earn more because they don’t have access to the same networks of higher paying jobs as white men. The bias can be more pronounced as well; for example, roughly 40% of women of color working in astronomy reported feeling unsafe in the workplace in a recent survey.
There are some widely-discussed policy changes that could make a dent in closing the gulf, according to Hegewisch. Improving access to stable jobs and child care as well as raising the minimum wage, would help women of all races, but in particular, black women, who are more likely to be clustered in low-paying jobs with erratic hours, she said. Black women are also more likely than women of all racial groups to be their family’s breadwinner, which means they often don’t have the economic freedom to take time off to care for a sick child or after having a baby if that time off is unpaid.
“Child care is really important because, if you have to improvise on child care, then you can lose your job, you have to find a new one and it gets you into a really bad cycle,” Hegewisch said.
But the policies go beyond improving the workplace. Making it easier to go to college — both by lowering fees and improving access to child care and other resources — would also be a boon to black women, she said. Nearly half of black women in college are also raising children, meaning they’re likely juggling school, family and work responsibilities simultaneously in the hopes of making economic strides. “Black women are really trying to improve their prospects and the prospects of their families,” she said.