Equal Pay Day | The Race and Gender Wage Gap

Deborah Swerdlow

Someone with their hands full of coins.

In April, celebrities from actress Michelle Williams to U.S. soccer player Alex Morgan marked Equal Pay Day, the symbolic day each calendar year when a woman’s earnings “catch up” to a man’s earnings from the previous year. Because women on average earn 80 cents on the dollar compared to men’s earnings, it takes a woman almost 16 months to earn what a man earns in just 12.

But that 80-cent statistic is an average for all women, compared to men. For many women, Equal Pay Day doesn’t come until much later in the year. Compared to white, non-Hispanic men—who are used as the benchmark because they are the largest group in the workforce—women of color often experience a much larger pay gap. For example:

  • Black women earn 61 cents for every dollar earned by white, non-Hispanic men, which means Black Women’s Equal Pay Day isn’t until August 22.
  • American Indian or Alaska Native women earn 58 cents on the dollar, making Native Women’s Equal Pay Day on September 23.
  • Hispanic or Latina women earn 53 cents on the dollar, making Latina Equal Pay Day on November 20.

The point of marking each of these Equal Pay Days is to draw attention to the various pay gaps and prompt discussion about what’s behind them—and how to end them.

Understanding the gender pay gap

There are many ways to slice and dice the data. But no matter how you cut it, women’s earnings typically lag behind men’s. The American Association of University Women (AAUW) finds a gender pay gap in every state, in every age range, and for women of all educational levels.

There are several factors that contribute to the pay gap. One key cause is occupational segregation: women often work in fields that pay less, such as education and administrative support, while men are more heavily represented in higher-paying fields like science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

Occupational segregation is rooted in gendered perceptions and stereotypes of what men and women are “good” at. It makes a clear divide between “women’s work” vs. “men’s work.” From early years in school, many girls are unconsciously steered into certain fields, and it is unfortunately the case that those fields tend to pay less.

But even within the same occupation, women still tend to earn less than men. After controlling for other factors besides industry that can affect pay, economists still find a smaller but persistent pay gap, which they attribute to discrimination. Although gender discrimination in employment is technically illegal, it still happens, either blatantly or unconsciously, due to implicit bias.

Why women of color experience larger pay gaps

The larger pay gap that women of color experience is a textbook example of example of intersectionality. As women, they face the structural barriers and gender-based discrimination described above. And as people of color, they face additional structural barriers and race-based discrimination, which exacerbates their pay gap.

An intersectional lens, like the one used by the Building Movement Project in its report Race to Lead: Women of Color in the Nonprofit Sector, sheds light on how race and gender interact to produce a larger pay gap and make it harder for women of color to advance to higher-paying jobs. For example, the report survey found that women of color were more likely to work in lower-level roles (which tend to be lower-paying) relative to white women and men of color, even with high levels of education.

“[There is] often an assumption that a person of color is supposed to be working in an administrative role, and so I was automatically dissuaded from applying to managerial positions (despite having a master’s degree),” said one multiracial women who responded to the survey, illustrating that the same stereotypes that drive occupational segregation by gender also segregate women of color into lower-paying fields.

The research also found that women of color reported less access to mentors in their organizations and were less likely to receive regular feedback on their work—two things that can be critical to professional development and advancement.

“When the senior leadership identifies and grooms a colleague they think would be an impactful ‘face’ for this organization, that person is white, male and heterosexual,” said one black woman. “In one instance, I have far more experience and education, yet am not being groomed in this way.”

What you can do

If there are many contributing factors to the larger pay gap for women of color, then there are just as many opportunities to intervene and interrupt the status quo. Even one person can start to shift the culture and break down the barriers that allow the pay gap to persist.

1. Share your salary

One thing you can do right away is share your salary with your peers, especially with women of color in your field. “Ask A Manager” expert Alison Green reminds us that employers can’t legally prevent nonsupervisory employees from talking about their pay with each other.

Sharing your salary can reduce pay gaps. Greater salary transparency allows people discover if they are being underpaid, and gives them the information they need to advocate for fairer compensation.

You can enter your salary anonymously on salary comparison sites, or volunteer the information when asked by a peer. If you’re not comfortable sharing the exact number, you can share a range or share your starting salary in the position.

2. Negotiate your salary, and help others do the same

Studies show that women are less likely than men to negotiate their salaries, which can contribute to the gender pay gap. If you’re a woman reading this post and you have never negotiated your salary, now’s the time to change that. Check out our tips for negotiating your salary and benefits.

If you’re not currently up for a new salary or a raise, read up on the same resources linked to above and then offer to role-play with a friend who’s about to negotiate their salary. Take notes on how they can be more assertive and make a stronger case for their requested salary—and give them the encouragement they need to negotiate confidently!

3. Advocate for change

The Building Movement Project suggests organizational changes that can help reduce pay inequities for women of color, such as anti-bias training and pay transparency. While these are large changes that one person can’t make overnight, you can band together with colleagues and lobby your HR department to take action.

It’s often safer for white employees to initiate these conversations because they don’t have to contend with harmful racial stereotypes like the “angry Black woman”—a theme that came up often in the write-in responses and focus groups that informed the Race to Lead report. Speaking up in these instances is one example of how white people can use their privilege to be an ally in the workplace.

If you want to push for change on a larger scale, find organizations in your area that work to address pay inequities. Advocating for major policy changes at a state or national level—like banning employers from asking job candidates for their salary history—can help to ensure that salaries are based more on merit and equity.

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Deborah Swerdlow

As a nonprofit advocacy professional living in Washington, D.C., Deborah works with groups across the country to educate their communities and lawmakers about public policies that can help low-income residents make ends meet. She is passionate about helping people connect their interests to a cause they believe in and empowering them to take action.

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