Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

To end the gender wage gap, we must look at race, too

In the last week, Black women in the U.S. finally caught up to what the typical White man made in 2014. That is, a Black woman in the middle of the income spectrum has to work full-time for nearly 19 months to bring home what a White man can make in 12 months. Latina women will have to keep toiling away until November – for 22 months – to hit that mark. For White women, it “only” takes a little over 15 months.Salary chart - white men vs. women of color

Many factors contribute to the wage gap, including differences in occupation and time out of the workforce for family care. But discrimination continues to play a role. The compounding effects of race and gender hit women of color the hardest.

Multiple studies have documented a “motherhood penalty”, with women losing approximately 5% of wages per child when other factors are held constant. Employers tend to evaluate mothers (but not fathers) and people of color more harshly, and are less likely to interview job applicants with “ethnic”- sounding names.

Routine employment practices institutionalize and perpetuate the gender and race wage gaps, even when employers believe they are operating in an unbiased manner. Among the culprits is asking job candidates how much they made at their last job or what their salary “requirements” are, rather than providing a standard wage range for each position. Managers are given considerable discretion in job assignments and promotions, without necessarily getting training in overcoming cultural biases, so that White men more often get the plum jobs.

Some companies have become models of fair labor practices and work-life balance, reaping the benefits of higher morale and employee loyalty. Many more acknowledge that gender and racial diversity in a company’s workforce and leadership is advantageous in an increasingly multicultural marketplace. But at the current rate of progress, researchers estimate it will be 2058 before the gender wage gap closes – and women of color will have to wait even longer.

Race, gender, and income inequality are intertwined in American society. No single strategy will overcome them, but some will provide greater opportunity for all women and their children, while chipping away at the barriers that disproportionately block progress for women of color. The Washington Women’s Economic Security agenda is a good starting point. It includes:

  • Equal Pay Opportunity Act, which would allow workers to discuss pay without fear of retaliation so at least they know if others are getting paid more for the same work, and require employers to have job-related reasons for differences in pay and career opportunities.
  • Paid Sick and Safe Leave, which would assure workers the ability to earn paid leave for their own illness and health needs of their families, and to deal with the consequences of sexual assault or domestic violence. Lower income workers – disproportionately women – and their families would be among the chief beneficiaries, with better health and greater income and job security.
  • Family and Medical Leave Insurance, which would provide both women and men with income when they need extended leaves from work to care for a new child, a seriously ill family member, or their own serious health condition. Not only are health outcomes for moms and babies better, but women are more likely to be working a year following childbirth and at higher wages in the five states with programs in place than in the states, including Washington, without. African American mothers and their infants were among the biggest beneficiaries when California added family leave to disability insurance in 2004. Their average maternity leaves increased from 1 to 7 weeks compared to an increase of from 4 to 7 weeks for White mothers.

Multiple other policies and strategies will also be necessary to end the gender wage gap, including more affordable, quality childcare – and better wages for childcare teachers; more predictable scheduling and greater access to full-time jobs; and better access to nontraditional careers. And until we root out the causes of disparate outcomes based on race in our schools, criminal justice system, and other structures, Black and Latina women will continue to face bigger hurdles in the workforce than their White sisters.

We really can do better. When city council members, state legislators, and members of Congress pass the policies that allow Black and Latina women to succeed, then all of us will prosper. It’s time to demand action.

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