On July 31st, Americans recognize Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, the date that marks how far into the year 2017 that black women have to work to earn the same amount of money that white men earned during 2016 alone. The date is a jarring reminder of the persistence of racial and gender pay inequity; black women today earn 63 cents for every dollar made by white men.
This 37-cent disparity makes a real difference in the lives of black women and their families. It means that by the time they retire, black women will have made $840,040 less than white men of the same age. It means that a black woman would have to work past age eighty to make the same amount of money that her white male counterparts made by age sixty. If the wage gap was bridged, the eight out of ten black mothers who are bread-winners for their families could afford 43 more months of childcare, 19 more months of mortgage payments, and 11,600 more gallons of gas.
Although the gender pay gap persists across racial groups – the average American woman makes 80 cents for every dollar a man makes — it is substantially wider for black, Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, Native American, and Latina women. According to a study by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), white women earn 76 cents for every dollar made by a white man and Asian women earn ninety cents, while black women earn 63 cents, Hawaiian and Pacific Islander women earn 60 cents, Native American women earn 58 cents, and Latina women earn only 54 cents.
Even after accounting for differing careers and levels of education, race and gender-based wage gaps remain. And as women get older, the gender wage gap tends to widen. On average, women earn 90 percent of what similarly-aged men earn until they reach age 35. But at this point, their paychecks shrink to be 74-82 percent of what similarly-aged men make.
There have been some successes for pay equity legislation on the state level. During the summer of 2015, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker (R) signed into law what is arguably the nation’s strongest equal pay measure, requiring employers to pay men and women the same for comparable work. The law is also the first in the country to ban employers from asking applicants about their salary histories. In addition, the law bans the practice of pay secrecy, wherein employers prevent their employees from discussing each other’s salaries. Similar equal pay legislation has been introduced in forty states.
This past November, voters in Arizona, Colorado, Maine and Washington successfully passed ballot measures to raise their minimum wages in light of Congress’ refusal to touch the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour. Two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women and the raises in those four states are expected to benefit around 2.1 million people. According to POLITICO, state ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage have appeared 20 times in the last 20 years, and have only failed twice, both times in 1996 only three months after a federal minimum wage increase.
But in order to bridge the wage gap, especially for black women, federal action is needed. The battle for gender pay equity has been waged on the federal level for over 60 years now. The first Equal Pay Law was signed by President Kennedy in 1963, making it illegal to pay women less money for doing the same job as men. However, a Supreme Court ruling later limited the amount of time that a woman could file a wage discrimination suit against her employer to within 180 days of the first discriminatory pay check. In 2009, President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, allowing women to file suit for wage discrimination no matter how much time had passed since the discrimination first began.
But in 2014, Senate Republicans unanimously blocked a bill that would have made it illegal for employers to punish employees who discussed their wages. Democrats had hoped the bill would empower women and others to have constructive conversations about their position responsibilities and salaries. Likewise, a rule passed by the Obama administration in an effort to combat wage discrimination by requiring large employers to provide data on their employee’s pay checks broken down by gender, race, and ethnicity is currently being reviewed by the Trump White House’s Office of Management and Budget at the request of a coalition of business associations.
Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Facebook CEO and feminist writer Sheryl Sandberg agree that raising the federal minimum wage, passing pay transparency legislation like the Paycheck Fairness Act, strengthening laws that prohibit wage and employment discrimination, and expanding educational opportunities and affordable job-training programs will help to narrow the wage gap, particularly for black women. 20% of minimum wage jobs are held by black women; were the federal minimum wage raised from $7.25 to $15 an hour, four million black women would experience a rise in income. Pay transparency and anti-discrimination laws would hold employers accountable for paying black women equally. And helping black women access education and job-training would give them the capacity to hold higher-earning jobs.
Media Resources: Bustle 7/31/17; Refinery 29 7/31/17; Feminist Majority Foundation 4/4/17; American Association of University Women Spring 2017; USA Today 4/3/17