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Why Black women’s wage gap is a problem for everyone

August 3, 2021, 11:00 AM UTC

On Tuesday, the average Black woman will have finally earned the same amount as the average non-Hispanic white man earned a year earlier—eight months later. That’s a problem, not just for Black women—who lose out on $900,000 in lifetime earnings—but for everyone, say experts on equal pay.

For Black women, of whom many are the primary breadwinners of their households, the pay gap of 63 cents on the dollar represents more than just a loss of money, said Shannon Williams, the director of Equal Pay Today, a project of Equal Rights Advocates. Experts are reflecting on this wage gap on the date known as Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, which comes four months after Equal Pay Day, averaged for all women, reflecting the larger pay gap Black women face.

“The issue of equal pay is not just a woman’s issue because it trickles down into our families and into our communities, and it trickles down into our overall economy,” Williams said.

If the gender pay gap were eliminated, on average, a Black woman working full-time year-round would have enough money for more than two-and-a-half years of child care, more than two-and-a-half additional years of tuition and fees for a four-year public university, or 22 more months of rent, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families.

To begin to rectify the wage gap between Black women and white men, companies need to make changes to their hiring and promotion practices, said Williams. Policies such as asking people to report their previous wages or discouraging workers from sharing how much they are being paid with colleagues can keep in place lower pay for Black women.

Until substantial change is made, advocates such as Williams will continue to bring attention to the wage gap, she said.

“When you can actually see it and you can put a number to it with the 63 cents, and you can put a date on it and people can see where it actually falls, then it becomes a tangible issue,” Williams told Fortune. “Once it becomes a tangible issue, then it becomes something that can be fixed.”

The stubborn gender pay gap

Black women’s gender pay gap has only closed three cents in 30 years, according to the National Women’s Law Center. This disparity adds up to a typical loss of $24,110 dollars a year, totaling about $900,000 over a 40-year career.

When women are doing the same work as men, there should be no pay gap at all, said Christian F. Nunes, the national president of the National Organization for Women. “The cost of rent, cost of living—life costs the same—and so we should not be creating more hardship on women because of their gender,” Nunes said.

Although median earnings for Black women significantly rose from 1979 to 2019, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent report on women’s earnings points out that for both Black and white women, earnings growth tapered off around 2004. From 2004 to 2019 Black women saw earnings growth of 3%, and in 2019 Black women had a median weekly salary of $704, compared to $840 for white women and $1,036 for white men, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

At the current trajectory of pay increases, it would take Black women until the year 2130 to reach equal pay, according to the National Women’s Law Center.

A wage gap that was already large to begin with was also exacerbated by the pandemic, as many Black women lost their jobs. The unemployment rate for Black women was 4.9% in February 2020, before the brunt of the pandemic hit the U.S. Yet, in April 2020, the unemployment rate for Black women was 16.5% and as of June was still at about 8.5%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Even during the pandemic, Black women who hadn’t lost their jobs were doing essential work and risking their health, for comparatively lower wages, said Nunes.

“A lot of times, Black women are employed in those occupations that are seen as essential to keeping things running during the pandemic, but they’re also lower paying jobs,” Nunes said.

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