It wasn’t until Chandra Thomas Whitfield heard other Black women’s stories on her podcast about being underpaid and undervalued that she began to look back on her own career and realize that she’d been in similar situations. During her years as a multimedia journalist, she felt as though she was being overlooked for promotion opportunities, second-guessed on her decisions, and unacknowledged for her contributions.Through it all, Whitfield couldn’t be sure whether she was being paid less than she deserved.
She was inspired to create her podcast, In the Gap, after hearing different statistics surrounding the workplace discrimination Black women experience and how pay disparities fall along race and gender lines. In the 12-episode series, she talked to experts and working women to spread awareness about the pay inequities Black women face.
Whitfield found that regardless of profession, the women all had at least one thing in common: they were underpaid.
“I talked to retail workers, lawyers, engineers—people who worked in a variety of industries—[and] we all have the same experience of being overworked, underpaid, and ultimately undervalued,” she said.
In the U.S., Black women are paid 63 cents for every dollar that white men are paid, according to the latest report conducted by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Falling this year on August 3, Black Women Equal Pay Day marks the approximate date into a new calendar year that Black women must work until their earnings catch up to what a white man would have earned by the last day of the prior year. The pay gap causes Black women to lose $24,110 a year, resulting in $964,400 over the course of a 40-year career, according to a recent report from the National Women’s Law Center.
“It’s very disappointing to think that, [as] a Black woman, I would lose that amount of money really just because of discrimination,” Whitfield told Prism.
Persistent discrimination and low compensation have consequences that ripple far beyond Black women’s individual careers.
“[Black Women Equal Pay Day] means Black women are losing all this extra money that they’ve been having to work to earn,” Chandra Childers, a study director with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, told Prism. “What it means is that Black women are more likely to be in poverty. What it means is less opportunity to build wealth. What it means is less ability to prepare for their retirement so that when they are 65 they can retire and live a somewhat dignified life. What it means is fewer resources for their children.”
With three in every four Black mothers being the breadwinners for their families, the issue of low pay is especially urgent.
“When you don’t pay women, you affect the entire Black family and the Black community,” Whitfield said.
While there are many causes for the pay gap, Childers argues one reason that does not get enough attention is the consistent undervaluation of industries and job roles heavily populated by Black women workers. In particular, positions like cashiers, personal care aides, and nurses are commonly filled by Black women and are paid low wages.
“They’re jobs that people tend to think of as women’s work anyway,” she said. “This is work that goes back [and] reflects our historical record of racial inequality, of racial oppression, and so this is work that Black women did during slavery with no pay at all.”
One women-led organization, based in Chicago, Illinois, that has been actively working to eliminate the gender pay gap is Women Employed. Since 1973, the organization has played a critical role in closing the gender pay gap in Illinois.
One of their most recent accomplishments is their work on the Illinois No Salary History Bill, passed in 2019, which prevents employers from asking prospective employees how much they were paid in previous jobs. Women Employed helped State Representative Anna Mueller draft the bill, lobbied for it, and after it was signed into law, published the No Salary History and Pay Equity toolkit to inform job seekers about their new rights and employers about their new responsibilities.
Currently, Women Employed is advocating for paid sick days, paid leave, and the elimination of the subminimum wage, which is a wage rate below the statutory minimum to prevent the loss of employment opportunities for certain groups, including disabled people and full-time students. The group also regularly runs public awareness campaigns to ensure workers understand what their rights are.
Cherita Ellens, CEO of Women Employed, said that the biggest challenges in the fight to close the pay gap are that people don’t realize it’s not a single-solution issue, and many assume it’s not a significant problem.
“I think that there are a lot of challenges that we face, but none of them are so large that we can’t overcome them,” she said. “There are things that we can do that will make a systemic change to a lot of people really fast, and there are others that we just have to continue to work and push, but we just can’t let up.”
While Black women can take individual steps to close the gap, they can’t do it alone. According to Childers, Black women have already been doing everything they’re told will make them successful, such as obtaining higher education degrees, maintaining high labor force participation rates, and trying to negotiate their salaries, but it’s still not enough.
“We hear how Black women are out there saving the world, yet they’re not getting elected to those offices, and they’re not … getting the promotions. They’re not gaining access to the best paying jobs and that wage gap remains there,” said Childers.
According to Ellens, the burden to close the gap should be shared among lawmakers, employers, and Black women themselves.
“I just want to make sure that when we have these conversations, we don’t feel yet again that we have to be the one to save everything and to fix everything, and that the onus is put back on the systems and the structures that continue to perpetuate the gap,” Ellens said. “We didn’t create this issue, so why should we have to solve it?”