What Black Women’s Equal Pay Day Means to Me

On April 2, 2019, many across the country rallied their communities to highlight Equal Pay Day, the symbolic day that marks the point in the year at which women’s earnings will finally “catch up” to what white men earned in the previous year. Instagram was full of meaningful quotations about gender discrimination at work; news outlets and researchers released reports on women in work; and event spaces across America were filled with women sharing strategies on how to advocate for themselves, negotiate their salaries, and whatever else they felt could move the needle closer, even just a little, towards getting what they deserved. Like many others, I watched and participated on the day, but with reservation, fearing that the galvanization to solve the gender pay gap would dwindle to a soft simmer until the following April. With all that enthusiasm and energy on hold, opportunities would be missed to center the experiences of women of color in work. Yet again.

On average, women are paid 80 cents for every dollar a white man makes in the same role. That 80 cents is far greater than the 61 cents, 58 cents and 53 cents black, native and Latinx women are paid. Taken in the context of these numbers, the Equal Pay Day in April masks the racial gender pay gap — the even wider pay gap most women of color face in their careers. Much fewer people know that the 2019 Black Women’s Equal Pay Day is today, August 22nd, more than four months after the Equal Pay Day posters have been taken down. Native and indigenous women will not reach their equal pay day this year until September 23rd, and Latinx women, not until November 20th. 

“On average, women are paid 80 cents for every dollar a white man makes in the same role. That 80 cents is far greater than the 61 cents, 58 cents, and 53 cents black, native, and Latinx women are paid.”

As I think through reflections on my own professional experiences and the latest statistics and findings on black women in work, I find myself needing to pause often as I pen this piece. To be honest, I am struggling. Each page of research I scroll through unearths a painful personal memory or story shared by another woman of color. It quickens the erosion of my sense of autonomy and control over the path of my own career. This is not just data and figures or your everyday fodder on gender inequities. This is my life. 

Knowledge is power, they say. But what we do with that power or what the power does to us, for better or for worse, is harder to capture in such a pithy phrase. When I walk into a job interview, performance review or project team meeting, there is not a single study I have ever read that could provide any statistical reassurance that I would be seen, valued or treated like my white peers (which is not to say fairly, as I have seen some rewarded and promoted despite a crippling level of mediocrity). Before I can even open my mouth, share my resume or explain an idea, the cards have already been stacked against me:

Despite asking for promotions at the same rate as other women, seeking more leadership opportunities to advance as well as becoming the most educated group in the United States and the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs, the compounding impacts of racism and sexism continue to stymie the advancement of black women in work at all levels. How do black women show up every day to their professional lives with the weight of that on the shoulders? As Melissa Harris-Perry once described, “It can be hard to stand up straight in a crooked room.” But perhaps that crooked room can shift if we aren’t standing alone.

“As Melissa Harris-Perry once described, ‘It can be hard to stand up straight in a crooked room.’ But perhaps that crooked room can shift if we aren’t standing alone.”

To win the fight for equity of opportunity for all women in work, including and beyond equal pay, collective commitment and concerted action that centers on the experiences of women of color is the only way. For Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, The Riveter is hosting local powerhouse black women across our locations to continue to amplify dynamic and intentional communities of women of color who can feel safe and seen as they thrive. 

Here are some stories and advice from our esteemed Black Women’s Equal Pay Day speakers. In them, I hope black women and other women of color find solace that you are not alone — we are not alone, with what we are experiencing at work. And even as we face gargantuan barriers of racism and sex discrimination, there are tools for us to lift as we climb: Says Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty: “We’re at a time where the leadership of African American women is finally being recognized in the city. We’ve only just now got African American women holding the positions of Fire Chief, Police Chief, Parks & Recreation Director, and City Commissioner – there’s room for lots more.” In these stories, I also hope white women and our other allies find the tools they need for their own work, as they carry the heaviest burden to make equity of opportunity for all women a reality in our lifetimes. Carry the inspiration and knowledge of these speakers off the page and into your workplaces today.

Heard at The Riveter: 

What advice would you give black women as they navigate the workplace?

Self-care is essential to successfully navigating the workplace.  To paraphrase a quote from the leading black woman poet and essayist Audre Lorde, caring for yourself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.

Janice Jackson-Haley, The Riveter: Capitol Hill

Aggressive self care must be a priority for all black women — especially if you work in an unsupportive or challenging work environment. It is self care that allows you to deal with microaggressions and other machinations that can manifest. I also advocate for black women to seek out and or create supportive, inclusive work environments that are in line with their talents and passions. Think about this: Black women are the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs. There is a reason for that. We are creating places and spaces that feel safe, honor our values, and don’t add to the stress of simply existing.  

— Seena Hodges, The Woke Coach, The Riveter: Minneapolis

Black women must find their “girls” to survive the workplace. We need a network of women who have our back and allow us to vent about how exhausting it is to be a black woman in the workplace. And these women can totally relate to the experiences. The affirmation of the madness is just enough to return to work more confident and supported. 

T’Wina Nobles, The Riveter: Capitol Hill

Learn to navigate the noise. Often times women of color are inundated with passive-aggressive, unsolicited feedback and criticism. It’s easy to shrug it off as bias or the plight of the black woman. However, I encourage women to consider if there is any validity in the feedback. For instance, I’ll often call out the off-color comment and follow-up with, “Do you really feel I could improve at X? I want to make sure that I’m not losing your feedback in your joke”. Your ability to decode the “noise” is imperative as you continue to progress throughout your career. 

Royce Evans, The Riveter: Capitol Hill

I started my work diminishing my own “shine” (e.g., knowledge, ideas, etc.) to make myself more palatable to others. If I have any regret, it is that. Our culture is one of survival, innovation, strength, and love. Without being boisterous, don’t settle into the back. Separately, documentation is so important! (Date, time, who involved) – keep a notebook of occurrences. A “difficult” conversation, or comment, etc. made that stuck out to you – it may be a lifesaver for your later when you need to defend yourself; Data changes things! 

— Dr. LM Alaiyo Foster, The Riveter: Portland

You are in control of yourself, you decide how you show up and how you exit. You are valuable and worthy beyond any circumstances you may encounter in the workplace. KEEP innovating, leading, learning,building and exploring — you are an incredible needed asset to the world. 

Kenya McKnight Ahad, The Riveter: Minneapolis

Don’t feel like you have to resign yourself to a specific work environment because “it is what it is.” You deserve better. Demand it. And move on to new places who will do better by you. 

Nadia Imafidon, The Riveter: Capitol Hill

Helpful to have a networking cohort of other black women to support one another, share resources, and develop strategies to close the wealth gap. It’s also helpful to see if the workplace has actionable strategies to reduce the barriers and stereotypes black Women face in the workplace — better yet to see evidence that the strategies have produced desired and meaningful results!

Tamara Stark, The Riveter: Minneapolis

What are some system level changes that need to happen to remove barriers to black women’s success in work?

Navigating the intersections of race and gender continue to impact work environments. The work of black women will continue to be judged by intangible things (code switching, agreeability etc.), therefore developing the skills to prominently display (or highlight) the benefit of those intersections is an important key to success in the workplace.

Janice Jackson-Haley, The Riveter: Capitol Hill

In my work at The Woke Coach, I talk a great deal about the importance of allyship. How are we authentically, unapologetically showing up for others? The bottom line is that black women’s success at work is not tied solely to flawlessly executing their duties and responsibilities. That success is tied to being in leadership positions with both the power and authority to make decisions that impact the workplace. It also includes supportive colleagues who champion their thoughts, ideas, and leadership. 

— Seena Hodges, The Woke Coach, The Riveter: Minneapolis

Let’s talk about race, gender and systemic barriers at work, succession plan and develop/advance black women in our organizations, and we cannot sleep on the importance of mentorship/relationship/connection/networks. 

T’Wina Nobles, The Riveter: Capitol Hill

Get real about ensuring equal pay and eliminating the student loan debt burden for black women in particular would be extremely helpful as our earning power, sadly, has not kept pace even when we have successfully attained advanced degrees or acquired specialized skill sets.  This is due to ongoing stereotypes and the devaluation, or dare I say, the dehumanization of our contributions. 

—  Tamara Stark, The Riveter: Minneapolis

System level changes that need to happen to remove barriers at work are having more conversations about diversity and inclusion and its overall importance. More companies need to start assessing their readiness to discuss diversity and begin assessing upper managements understanding as well. The companies leaders often set and represent the tone for how this shows within. 

Danielle Ames, The Riveter: Portland

In fighting for the rights to have what white men have, the white feminist movement failed to fight for policies that place economic value on the work that women already do. Could we imagine what an economic difference it could make if we valued nannies, daycare workers, house cleaners, teachers, and home care providers the way we do mid-level corporate executives or sanitation workers? With women of color being historically tracked into lower wage jobs, it is imperative for us to create policies that value all workers. Not just equal pay for equal work, but unionizing workers and creating not a minimum wage, but a living one.

— Shani Harris-Bagwell, The Riveter: Portland

Black women are needed in upper management and leadership positions. We need to be able to share our experiences with leaders and be heard (and not just documented and filed away). Black women can help us navigate conflict as they arise and invest in a better experience for us all because they know the unique challenges that we face on a daily basis. We need those voices at the table. 

Nadia Imafidon, The Riveter: Capitol Hill

Hire more black women, promote black women in middle and upper management positions. Acknowledge and highlight the contributions of black people beyond Black History Month. Black women are innovators and creators in every industry, find our sheroes and hold them up as encouragement and inspirational examples for black women. Connect to and support local black business and institutions — black people care deeply about our communities and connecting our efforts to improving our communities and cultural spaces is critical. Pay attention to the microaggressions black women experience from white women. Give black women credit for their ideas and contribution in company progress. It matters. Black women come with an incredible amount of lived and professional experiences beyond their current positions, pay them fair wages. Create safe cultural spaces for black women to be who they are and to succeed in your work environments. 

Kenya McKnight Ahad, The Riveter: Minneapolis

“This is not just data and figures or your everyday fodder on gender inequities. This is my life.” 

– Jodi-Ann Burey

Jodi-Ann Burey is the Senior Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at The Riveter.