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If Not Now, Then When? Stepping Up for Black Women in the Workforce

August 13 marks Black Women’s Equal Pay Day. This is not a celebration. Instead, it represents the date that Black women must work into the new year to catch up to what White non-Hispanic men made at the end of the previous year. That’s an extra 226 days of work for Black women, who make just 62 cents for every dollar earned by non-Hispanic White men. This translates to corporate leaders attributing Black women’s worth as roughly three-fifths of the value of White men.

This pay gap has a devastating impact. It means that Black women can expect to lose about $941,600 over the course of a 40-year career if the gap remains. This is close to a million dollars that Black women miss out on as they look to invest in wealth-building opportunities for families like homeownership, higher education, and entrepreneurship.

How is it that our society has normalized pay inequality for Black women? While unjust, it’s not surprising given our nation’s history. After all, up until 155 years ago it was legal to both own and sexually assault Black women. This foundation has fueled the pervasive and intersecting racism and sexism that have negatively impacted the experiences of Black women in the workforce and across society. Added to this, Black women are faced with relentless judgment about characteristics assigned at birth like names, hair texture, and complexion, which can interfere with success in the workplace.

Such injustices don’t come close to reflecting the experiences of Black women. But they do serve as a reminder that the Black women pay gap problem extends far beyond unconscious bias, with roots in a social structure that perpetuates discrimination against this population and other people of color.

Choosing Humanity Over Oppression

Misdeeds of the past may be reflected in our culture today, but breathing life into these wrongdoings is a choice. Many corporate leaders have released statements about the Black Lives Matter movement expressing support for racial equity, thus suggesting that they do not want to contribute to a system of oppression. These individuals have the authority to close the pay gap that Black women experience while leading their workforce in a direction that advances an inclusive and humane culture.

Here’s a snapshot of what I’m expecting to see in companies that demonstrate follow-through on racial equity commitments to specifically address Black women:

  1. Increased education on the Black women pay gap. Leaders who influence compensation decisions but lack understanding of Black women pay gaps weaken efforts to solve the problem. Leaders should draw on research such as that presented by SHRMLeanIn, and the Economic Policy Institute to help address information gaps.
  2. Aggressive action to close pay gaps. Pay inequality cannot be overlooked. Companies must conduct compensation reviews and make salary adjustments as needed. This should involve leading conversations about salary based on the value of a position and refraining from inquiries about pay history or salary expectations, which are heavily biased.
  3. Provisions to reduce preferential treatment for the highly privileged. Highly qualified and talented Black women are often overlooked in order to make space for the highly privileged. This contributes to a lack of representation throughout organizations — from corporate boards to executive leadership to the general workforce. Companies should take proactive measures to ensure that Black women are not overlooked due to preferential treatment extended to individuals with more privilege when filling these roles. In doing so, it’s important not to tokenize Black women to meet quotas and to be intentional about engaging new talent rather than relying on the same Black woman.
  4. Broader pathways for Black women to enter the workforce. Black women often face barriers to entry in tech and other industries. To address this, companies should expand pathways into their organizations through internship programs, recruiting sources, referral network programs, apprenticeships, and other avenues to better meet the needs and interests of Black women. They should also support Black women who are guiding underrepresented talent into their organization, like Sherrell Dorsey of The Plug, Jumoke Dada of the HUE Tech Summit, and Deena McKay of Black Tech Unplugged.
  5. Enhanced understanding of the experiences of Black women in the workforce. Most leaders just don’t understand the barriers that Black women face when navigating professional spaces. They can learn more by making use of feedback from town hall meetings and engagement surveys, and use this information to inform their approach to leadership. They can also expand their knowledge base by reading books authored by Black women about navigating business settings, like Susanne Tedrick’s Women of Color in Tech, Minda Hart’s The Memo, Elaine Welteroth’s More Than Enough, and Arlan Hamilton’s It’s About Damn Time.
  6. Space for Black women’s voices to be given objective consideration. Many Black women are ignored or dismissed as “angry,” when sharing their perspective. Leaders should set the example to value rather than villainize Black women. They can do this by acknowledging and encouraging their perspectives both publicly and behind closed doors.
  7. Increased allyship and sponsorship. Compassion, which involves feelings, is often mistaken for allyship, which involves action. Leaders must create a culture of allyship that empowers employees to act on their conscience and take action when they witness bias against Black women and other underrepresented populations. Leaders should take this a step farther by engaging in purposeful sponsorship for Black women when discussing stretch projects, bonuses, and promotions.
  8. Attention to intersecting identities. Many Black women have additional intersecting identities and are faced with unique workplace experiences. Leaders must ensure that Black women who are trans, immigrant, living with a disability, or have other intersecting identities are afforded the support and protections needed to be successful in the workplace.
  9. More supplier contracts awarded to businesses owned by Black women. Black women business owners are often overlooked for high-value supplier contracts. Leaders should conduct audits, reassess their approach to awarding supplier contracts, create provisions to engage Black women business owners in this process, and implement accountability measures to ensure that businesses owned by Black women are among those that are awarded substantive contracts.
  10. Innovative leadership that extends to Black women. This list of expectations consists of the bare basics. We’re counting on leaders who believe in racial equity that includes Black women to apply their problem-solving framework that has made them successful in other business areas to ensure that Black women are afforded the same opportunities as the most privileged. Including this in your OKRs or other performance measures will keep you on track toward achieving and maintaining equality in your organization.

Black Women’s Equal Pay Day is not just about drawing attention to the fact that Black women are underpaid. It’s also about leadership. It’s about accepting responsibility for one’s role in workforce inequality. And it’s about taking action to remove barriers in the workplace so that Black women have the opportunity to succeed.

Up until 155 years ago, assigning an individual with three-fifths of the value as the most privileged person was law. Today, it’s a choice. In 2020, Black women must work until August 13 to earn what a White non-Hispanic male with the same education level earned at the end of 2019. It’s up to corporate leaders to put action behind their commitments to racial equity so that we can all celebrate Black Women’s Equal Pay Day on December 31 in years to come.