Advanced education is often viewed as the gateway to economic stability. But for Black women, data from the National Women’s Law Center shows this is far from the truth. Today, women account for more than half of America’s college-educated labor force, with Black women’s educational attainment steadily increasing over the years. The NWLC reports that Black women receiving a bachelor’s degree increased by four times in 2020 compared to 44 years ago. But despite these educational gains, Black women still face a steep wage gap.
Currently, Black women working part-time make $0.64 for every dollar paid to White men and those working full-time make $0.67 for every dollar. Over the course of a 40-year career, this disparity equals $907,680 in lost wages, reports the NWLC.
Black women with a bachelor's degree earn $2,821 less than the average White man without a college degree.National Women's Law Center
“That is life-changing money for Black women,” says Gaylynn Burroughs, NWLC’s Director of Workplace Equality, Senior Counsel. “That is money Black women could be using to invest in a home or to build for retirement.” What’s worse, Burroughs says, is that the above pay gap numbers don’t fully explain how even when Black women reach the highest levels of educational attainment, they still are underpaid.
According to the NWLC, Black women working with a bachelor’s degree earn $2,821 less than the average White man who has no college degree. And for Black women with a doctorate degree? The pay gap doesn’t decrease at all compared to their White male counterparts, leading to more than $2.1 million in lost career earnings.
Black women with a doctorate degree lose more than $2.1 million in career earnings due to the wage gap.National Women's Law Center
“We're getting the degrees and we have huge educational gains, but we still have to work twice as hard to get the same pay as someone who has less education than we do,” says Burroughs. “It’s like we're making the same investments in ourselves that other people are making, but our return on our investment is burdened by structural racism and sexism.”
To fix this, Burroughs, along with Chief Members Naomi Wheeless, Global Head of Customer Success at Square, and Wanda Jackson-Davis, VP at McKesson, explain how bringing awareness to this gender and racial wage gap is only the beginning to solving this problem. Below they outline five steps leaders can take to not only ensure that Black women are paid fairly, but to also ensure they are promoted and supported equally at work.
“We know that there is a negotiation penalty felt by all women, but Black women in particular can be perceived as being too aggressive, which sometimes prevents them from even negotiating their salary,” says Burroughs. To fix this, she says that pay transparency is critical. At the government level, she says that compensation transparency should be implemented nation-wide, and not just on a state-by-state basis. And at the company level, she says that leaders should publicly share pay ranges that are within a reasonable range of each other so that disparities don’t continue to exist.
“Most compensation bands are quite large so [leaders should] also be clear about what the clear drivers are for the higher percentiles,” says Jackson-Davis. “All Black women executive hires should be at a minimum the same compensation as the person who was in the role prior.”
Jackson-Davis says that hiring managers should also “stop asking for current compensation as this unduly penalizes Black women and has nothing to do with the new role.” Today, 21 states have implemented laws that prohibit employers from asking about a candidate’s salary history.
Jackson-Davis explains that as an executive, she has personally thrived in environments where “leaders of the organization took extraordinary steps to ensure that everyone understood the business model, the rules of the game, and how to win.” This includes leaders clearly communicating business goals, organizational changes, promotion requirements, and department expectations.
“When Black women know what success looks like and how to win, then they can compete with the best of them,” she says. “So, business model transparency is foundational and integral.”
Hiring and paying Black women fairly isn’t nearly enough if they’re operating in a workplace where they don’t feel like they belong. To ensure that all employees are in an environment where they can focus on the work, and not on the microaggressions, Wheeless says that companies should implement regular employee engagement surveys to get a real sense of how employees are feeling about their experience. Doing this will help with retention so that Black women remain in the pipeline for promotions and leadership opportunities.
At Square, Wheeless says that they “analyze the survey results to spot any gaps in scores along age, gender, and race/ethnicity (all self-reported by employees). And we use statistical modeling to compare turnover rates and identify long-term retention trends among different demographic groups.”
Sponsorship is a critical piece to growing and advancing at work, yet according to McKinsey & Company, Black and Asian women are less likely than White women to say senior colleagues have taken sponsorship actions on their behalf. This includes praising their skills or advocating for a pay increase for them. To fix this, Jackson-Davis suggests more companies create formalized sponsorship programs that are closely monitored and measured.
“The top leaders of the company (C-Suite and their direct reports) should be required to work with HR to sponsor Black women in the talent pipeline,” she says. “HR should create match-making programs to facilitate the sponsorship efficacy and leaders should be measured for the performance outcomes as a critical portion of their incentive package.”
In addition to sponsorship, Wheeless says it’s also important for leaders to invest in their talent pipeline by ensuring that managers are providing all of their direct reports with constructive and fair feedback. Currently, research shows that Black and Latinx employees are more likely to receive feedback about their personality than the actual quality of their job performance, therefore impacting their ability to tactically improve and grow at work.
At Square, Wheeless says that they provide “prompts to help managers consider their full bench of talent, a checklist to reduce the influence of bias, and an audit for evidence of bias before decisions are finalized.”
Once Black women make it to the executive level, continued investments in their growth and potential is key to keeping them there. That’s why, Jackson-Davis says she wishes she received more executive training support that was geared towards Black women considering the unique challenges and barriers they face at work. She suggests Black Women’s Executive Pathway as a great resource for any leader looking to invest in their Black women executives or any Black woman who is looking to invest in herself.
“People are working to build security and opportunities for their families,” says Burroughs. “And everyone is thinking about what their legacy is going to be. How are they going to make it better for the people who come after them? And this wage gap really hinders that. So I think it’s important to address it in terms of building generational opportunities for growth and advancement.”
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