Women Get Unequal Pay for Equal Work

Julianne Malveaux, President Emerita of Bennett College for Women


When John and Ann started working on January 1, 2013, John had an immediate advantage.  Because women earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn, it took Ann until last Friday [April 11, 2014] to earn the same amount of money that John earned in the calendar year of 2013.

The issue of unequal pay is so important that President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act 50 years ago.  While we have come a long way, baby, the pay gap has remained stubborn.  This is why President Obama signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act as soon as he assumed office.

This year, to commemorate National Equal Pay Day (that’s the day Ann finally earns as much as John), the president signed an Executive Order protecting workers from retaliation when they speak of unequal pay in the workplace  (one of the ways employers can maintain unequal pay is to make discussing pay grounds for firing).  The president, through the Secretary of Labor, is also requiring federal contractors to provide data on pay, race, and gender to ensure that employers are fairly paid.  Furthermore, the Senate is considering the Paycheck Fairness Act, which may pass the Senate, but not the House of Representatives.

We know all about John and Ann, but what about Tamika?  If women earn 77 percent of what men earn, what about African American women?  Women surely have come a long way, but some are moving far more slowly than others.  How many African American women are there in the Senate?  Among Fortune 500 leaders?  In other positions of power?  What about pay?  African American women earn about three quarters of what other women earn, meaning that if it takes Ann until April 11 to catch up with John, It will take Tamika until about June 1 – about another six  weeks – to catch up. Tamika earns in 18 months what John earns in 12 months.

Even African American women with the highest levels of education experience these differences. White men with a postgraduate degree earn a median salary of $1,666 a week African American women earn a median salary of $1,000 during the same time period.  For all the talk of pay equity and paycheck fairness, the status of African American women is largely ignored.

It wouldn’t take much for the president, or some of those feminist groups who support paycheck fairness to throw in a line or two about African American women.  Nor would it hurt African American organizations, especially those who serve Black women, to point out this injustice.  Are African American women invisible?  Don’t we count?  African American women raise the majority of our children, and shoulder many of the challenges in the African American community.  Ignoring us in a conversation about unequal pay simply marginalizes our experiences and us.

The focus on “overall” data is yet another way of marginalizing not only African American women, but other people of color well.   Reporting aggregate data gives some notion of economic progress.  Reporting specific data about African American women and men makes it clear, for example, that African Americans experience depression-level unemployment rates.

I was delighted when President Obama signed the Lily Ledbetter Act, and I have been privileged to hear Ledbetter speak on more than one occasion.   She is an amazing woman with a talent for “breaking it down.”  When she learned that men doing the same job she did earned more money, she cried “foul” but the law said it was “too late” for her to complain.  In her inimitable way, she said that grocers did not charge her less money because she was female, nor did doctors, or anyone else.  She said that higher-paid men didn’t have to make uncomfortable choices about which child would get new shoes or clothes.

African American women can tell the same story as Lily Ledbetter.  Indeed, the gaps African American women are likely to be more severe than the ones Lily Ledbetter faced.  The pay gap for African Americans is larger and too many live in food deserts where the cost of food is higher even as the quality is lower.

Lily Ledbetter deserves the limelight she earned because she brought this matter to the president’s attention.  There’s a Black woman out there who can tell a similar or more compelling story.  She, too, needs to be lifted up.  We ought to know her name, see her name on a piece of legislation.  Ledbetter is an ordinary shero, a working class woman who stood up for her rights.  She reminds us that, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “You don’t have to be great to serve.”  We need a sister to remind us that we don’t have to be elected, appointed, or anointed to make a difference.

When African American women are marginalized, so are our girls.  They are left with the mistaken impression that we have not fought for our rights.  We’ve been fighting and fighting, but somehow the story of a sister struggling is too unremarkable to be noted by the media.

Race and gender continue to shape the opportunities that African American women have, and race and gender continue to marginalize us Black women.  When do African American women have equal visibility in the policy and imagery arena?  When we demand it and when we stop applauding our own marginalization.

Julianne Malveaux, President Emerita of Bennett College for Women

Julianne Malveaux, President Emerita of Bennett College for Women

Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer.  She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.

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