Black women are lowballed and overlooked at work. It’s time to pay us what we’re worth

Aja intended to go for a light lunch with a co-worker, instead, things turned out real heavy.

Over sandwiches and sodas her white male co-worker casually mentioned his salary. The figure happened to be about $40,000 more than what she was making.

I am reminded of Aja’s story today, equal pay day for Black women, the day Black women have finally earned the same amount of pay that white men earned in 2020. That’s right: Black women in the United States must work 19 months to earn what white men earn in a year.

Aja did her best to feign indifference and kept the conversation going, but beneath the surface she was a hot mess. Not only was he earning $40,000 more than her salary at the time, she’d worked for the company longer than he had and had more work experience in the industry.

Hearing how she’d been lowballed by the hiring team felt like a gut punch. She struggled through the rest of the meal and the ensuing months on that job. Demoralized, eventually she found it nearly impossible to focus on her work or to complete the same tasks that she had previously mastered effortlessly. She could never bring herself to admit her low salary to the co-worker and friend.

It all became too much. So much so that the married mother of one ended up resigning and taking a lower-paying part-time gig. She also took over full-time care of her son, who was a toddler at the time, while she attempted to rebuild her self-esteem.

I tried to just kind of put a smile on my face behind all this pain,” she tearfully recalled. “Because I’m like, ‘how in the world am I getting paid a significant amount less than him?’”

Stories like Aja’s weighed on my mind last year when, after more than two decades as a journalist, I began producing my first podcast as a Leonard C Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting Fellow for In These Times, a Chicago-based progressive publication. In the Gap explored the gender pay gap, documenting Black women’s heart-wrenching accounts of maltreatment and the gender, racial, pregnancy and parenting discrimination they endured while trying to earn an honest living.

The picture is bleak:

Painstakingly producing 12 episodes mostly from home with the support of two women editors, who like me were novices in podcasting and also working remotely in the midst of quarantine, provided me with new insight into the struggles my Black sisters face. While struggling with pandemic paranoia and juggling the demands of homeschooling my own two elementary-age children, I first considered that, I too, may have been – or still am – underpaid in my media career. I realized the iciness I’d sometimes faced from supervisors was probably the motherhood penalty.

Soon, I found myself fighting back tears during my interviews listening to heart-crushing accounts: Brandyn, whose high-risk pregnancy was treated like an illegal drug addiction at the small non-profit where she worked (the death of her co-worker’s dog got more sympathy – and a greeting card – from co-workers than her emergency hospital stays); Jay, whose manager offered her new white male co-worker at a popular retail chain, a part-timer no less, a management position right in front of her after she’d trained the newbie just weeks before. Then there was Tam, the award-winning hospitality industry veteran whose clout and value at work seemed to dissipate almost instantly when she could no longer cover double and triple shifts after hours, once she started to care for her newborn daughter solo.

As I talked to these women, my mind drifted back to the often uncomfortable and all-too-brief salary negotiations of which I had been a part over the years. And to the many times I was told there was no more money in the budget, as I churned out award-winning work. I thought back to moments when my accomplishments were overlooked and when supervisors were given the cold shoulder by other employees for merely mentioning my well-documented contributions.

Here’s the bottom line. The gender pay gap is wrong. It’s illegal, unjust, rampant and downright oppressive and, as my interviews and research consistently seemed to corroborate, serves as yet another example of how American society often explicitly communicates to Black women – and the families that we disproportionately support despite our economic challenges – that we are not valuable and that we don’t matter.

The data is important, and my podcast advisers and I agreed that it needed to be the foundation of the project. But even better than spouting off startling statistics, I am most proud that In the Gap managed to convey what doesn’t always get as much recognition: the pain and trauma that we Black women often carry and hide – including from ourselves – from the negative experiences we face at work. The hurt that Aja so eloquently expressed comes with being lowballed, second-guessed, overlooked, “othered” or dismissed as “an angry Black woman” or “not a team player” for biased reasons.

So, as we navigate this post-Covid (hopefully), post-George Floyd and, dare I say, aspiringly more “woke” America, finally reckoning with its sordid racial history, I charge you to be a voice of change within your own sphere of influence. Those of you who have raised your voice in support of the “Black Lives Matter” mantra in 2020, I ask you to add something more to that growing chorus this year and onward: Black women’s livelihoods matter too.

As much as this is a problem for Black women, it is really about all of us, regardless of race, creed, economic status, gender and so on. We all deserve to be paid equitably for the work that we do. All of us can do our part to help make that happen. For example, if you’re in a leadership position at your job, or if you are a concerned employee, lead the charge for a pay audit. And don’t stop there. Create a plan to address any significant pay gaps that are discovered between employees with similar roles and experience but who differ in race, gender, or other demographic factors.

From there, assess the diverse representation, or lack thereof, on your own work team, especially among leadership. Then, create a space, ideally led by employees who represent the most underrepresented groups, to explore ways to provide more opportunities for hiring and advancement, through efforts like mentoring, training and allyship in the workplace. Create a safe space for the least represented to share concerns and feedback.

My work on In The Gap has inspired me to advocate for myself for better pay in my own career and continue working toward healing from the after-effects of my own traumatic experiences in the workplace. I know now that it starts with me, valuing myself and believing in my heart that I matter. Trust me, it’s time that my fellow Black sisters are treated like they do too.

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