The double whammy of gender and racial bias hits black women particularly hard. Today—more than seven months into 2018—is Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, which highlights that a black woman on average is just now earning what her white male counterpart earned in 2017. A body of research by the Economic Policy Institute shows that black women are consistently paid less than their white male counterparts, regardless of educational level, skill set, or occupation. And the pay gap between black women and white women is the fastest growing income disparity overall. The consequences of the pay gap go well beyond bank accounts, affecting the health, wealth potential, and motherhood experiences of both the women and their families.
“We in public health are pretty clear that income, and more importantly wealth, is a key determinant of health. How much money we have impacts our ability to buy food that is healthy, safe housing, and opportunities for education advancement, and participate in physical activity—whether it be signing up at your local fitness center or a city’s bike-share program,” says Dr. Aletha Maybank, director of New York City’s Center for Health Equity and deputy commissioner of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. “The lower one’s income, the more likely they are to have worse health and early death.”
This trend is particularly disastrous for black children and their working mothers, who play an especially important role in the economic structure and financial viability of their families. More than 67 percent of black working moms are single moms, compared with 29 percent of white working mothers. The wage gap means black women have to work more hours or take additional jobs to achieve the income they need, leaving less time for family. According to EPI, in 2015, married black women with children worked more than 200 hours more per year than married white or Hispanic women with children and 339 hours more than black single mothers.
When black mothers earn less and have to work more hours or have more jobs to earn a living, having time to mother becomes a privilege. Years of research on low-income families shows that maternal income affects a child’s cognitive, behavioral, and health outcomes. When black mothers are stressed out from having to work more hours, the quality of their mother-child interactions and their own mental health suffer.
Earning less money in the U.S., where there is no federal paid leave policy, means many black mothers can’t afford to take unpaid leave and must return to work soon after childbirth, which affects skyrocketing black infant mortality rates. It also has an impact on a black woman’s ability to breastfeed for any meaningful duration and contributes to the ongoing racial disparities in breastfeeding rates. Earning less inhibits your access to affordable high-quality child care and can mean having to deal with the less predictable work scheduling of low-wage work and missing out on other family friendly policies, such as flex time.
It’s easy to see how these become intergenerational disparities. When black women earn less, they have less money saved for retirement or emergencies or to pay down debt, including college loans and credit cards. These factors influence black women’s credit profiles and affect their ability to purchase homes—one of the most significant factors in generating wealth and breaking cycles of negative net worth in the black community. Recent research by the Urban Institute shows that black home ownership rates, which have been increasing for every other group, have been declining for 15 years and are now at levels similar to before housing discrimination laws were passed in 1968.
And this pay gap hurts more than black women’s pocketbooks. Black women have a higher frequency of hypertension and heart disease than white women. While others may look at these issues as a matter of individual choices about diet and exercise, for many black women, the time to exercise and the expense of a gym membership are unaffordable luxuries.
So why are black women’s wages so low?
The role of unconscious bias in hiring and promotion has been well-documented. In one 2004 study, researchers sent résumés in response to real job ads in Boston and Chicago with the exact same credentials, but with white-sounding names, such as Emily or Greg, on some and with black-sounding names, such as Lakisha or Jamal, on others. The white-sounding names received 50 percent more callbacks for interviews. The researchers also found that as they increased the quality of the résumés with white-sounding names, the callbacks went up by 30 percent, but when they did the same for résumés with black names, there was a negligible impact on callbacks. Even with higher qualifications and credentials, the black-sounding applicants did not receive more callbacks.
Even when black women work harder, get degrees, or learn other skills, these advances do not necessarily result in higher wages. Research shows that even as black workers increase their skill sets, their employability does not rise in relative proportion as it does for white workers, says Shawn Rochester, author of The Black Tax: The Cost of Being Black in America and CEO of Good Steward LLC, a financial education and advisory service.
All this shows that black mothers can’t single-handedly lift themselves up by their boot straps. Real change is going to come through institutional changes, not individual hard work. “It is imperative, as institutions, to acknowledge that structural racism such as pay inequity is linked to inequities in health. We have to be courageous and self-examine own practices and culture around pay that create and exacerbate racial inequities as well as hold leadership accountable at all levels to transforming our institution into an anti-racist multicultural organization,” Maybank notes. “This means implementing trainings for staff to better understand the impact of racism, power, and privilege on choices we make in the workplace as a start.”
A few years after graduating from New York University, I was hired as a reporter by a large multimedia conglomerate in New York City. I was offered and accepted a salary that was higher than my previous job and was presented as the standard first-year wage. About a year later, I received a call from a union representative who said that I was being severely underpaid the minimum salary for my position. The union took up my case. And while I was grateful for the retroactive check, the incident highlights how assumptions about who deserves what have an impact on salary offers and how being underpaid early in your career can set you up for a lifetime of decreased earnings.
Black Women’s Equal Pay Day is more than just a chance to acknowledge how long it takes black women to achieve pay equity. The cycle of income inequality and the corollary impacts on black women and children won’t end until we address the bias and racism in hiring practices, promotion, and allocating raises. Black working moms are the hardest working women in this country, and they deserve better.