August 3 is Black Women’s Equal Pay Day. That’s the day in 2021 when Black women in the U.S. who have worked full-time since the start of 2020 catch up to what the typical white man was paid by the end of December. In other words, African American women are paid just 63 cents to a white man’s dollar and have to work seven extra months.
In Washington state, according to an analysis by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, the typical Black woman working full-time makes $25,000 less each year than the typical white man. Over the course of their careers, that translates to $1 million less in earnings.
Paycheck fairness isn’t just a problem for women; it also hurts their families and communities. According to The National Partnership for Women and Children, the wage gap for Black women is the equivalent of three years of food for her family or 22 months of rent. Lost wages mean families have less for child care, less to spend on goods and services, less to save for education or emergency repairs, less in future retirement income.
The gender and racial pay gaps persist across every education level and almost every occupation. Women of Color face a double whammy of stereotypes and biases that undermine Black women’s ability to get a job in the first place, get equal pay for equal work, or win a promotion. White workers are often given the benefit of the doubt by their supervisors, while Black workers report being treated with distrust. Women who speak up are perceived as troublemakers, while men who do are seen as natural leaders. Women often find their careers derailed when they have children, while fatherhood can give men’s careers a boost.
Our whole society tends to devalue jobs associated with women and particularly with women of Color. This is particularly evident in caregiving work. Child care and home care are among the lowest-paid jobs out there. They also are historically jobs performed by women, especially by Black, Brown, and immigrant women. Yet they are jobs that both require special skills and are vital to the health of our children and elders and the functioning of our whole economy.
We’ve made some policy strides here in Washington that help address the wage gap. We have a relatively high minimum wage that goes up annually with inflation, so low-wage workers don’t keep falling further behind. We’ve passed laws requiring employers to provide paid sick leave and providing all workers access to paid family and medical leave, so people don’t have to quit their jobs or lose needed income to take care of health and family needs. We’ve passed the Equal Pay and Opportunities Act, so people have the right to ask about and discuss wages and career opportunities, making blatant discrimination more difficult.
But we’ll have to do a lot more to close the wage gap. In Washington state, we could ensure all people’s jobs are protected when they take paid family and medical leave so that employers’ biases and stereotypes are less of a factor. We could expand the Equal Pay and Opportunities Act to provide better protection against racial as well as gender discrimination. We could enact and speed up policies and increase public funding to provide child care workers with living wages and health care coverage. And we could e ensure that girls and young women have full access to STEM education and careers without the hazing, sexual harassment, and bullying that they so often face in male-dominated settings.
Congress also needs to act, in part by passing national standards and laws that follow Washington’s lead by raising the minimum wage (and eliminating the tip credit that leaves so many workers in other states literally working for pocket change), requiring all employers to provide paid sick days, establishing a federal paid family and medical leave program, and passing the national Paycheck Fairness Act. We also need permanent large infusions of federal money to support caregiving work with living wages and benefits, while making child care and home care affordable and accessible to families.
These are all steps that are part of a larger journey to address and overcome the racism and gender bias so deeply ingrained in American culture and institutions. All of us will be healthier and more secure as a result.
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