4 Critical Strategies Black Women Can Use To Maximize Their Earnings in White America

Black women still earn just 61 cents for every dollar paid to white men. That has to change.

I’ve devoted my professional life to advising and mentoring young women, especially women of color, on how to achieve their career goals, but what I, unfortunately, cannot do is close the wage gap for my students of color to ensure they are being equally compensated for the same work as white women and white men. And the sad truth is that it could be another 100 years before Black women’s annual earnings reach parity with white men. 

Black women earned just 61 cents for every dollar paid to white men in 2018 and had to work an additional eight extra months to earn the same amount. In other words, it takes until August 22 of this year — Black Women’s Equal Pay Day — for a Black woman to "catch up" and earn what a white man earned the year before. Some of you may think that your college education puts you in a different bracket. Think again. Despite the admirable news from the National Center for Education Statistics that Black women are the most educated group in the United States, the wages of a Black woman with a high school diploma, bachelor’s or advanced degree are consistently 35-36% less than a white man’s. 

While the demands for equal pay echo throughout Capitol Hill and through the chambers of Congress, Black women are fighting two battles — racism and sexism — doubling their demands and need for equal pay. I’d like to be optimistic about closing the wage gap, but the harsh reality is it was 45 years after white women were given the right to vote that Black women earned the same privilege, through the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Progress is slow, and we cannot afford to wait. 

So, what do I tell my students of color during their job hunt? What can Black women do to achieve equal pay without the help of politicians and protesters? Speak up. As the saying goes, a closed mouth doesn’t get fed. Despite the current circumstances, it’s clear to me there are strategies that can help Black women boost their earnings.

Go after jobs you think are beyond your current skill set. One study found that men apply for jobs when they meet about 60% of the requirements, whereas women believe they need to meet every requirement. Posted “requirements” are wish lists. The chances of landing an interview, according to one study, are identical for those matching 50% and 90% of listed job requirements. Assuming you must be 100% qualified to apply suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of the hiring process. You won’t get a high-paying job if you never pursue one.  

Always negotiate salary. A study conducted by Linda Babcock for her book Women Don’t Ask found that 57% of men engage in salary negotiations, but only about 7% of women do so. Securing just $5,000 more through salary negotiations early in your career can result in an extra $750,000 in lifetime earnings. Do extensive research to determine the average salary for someone with your experience and qualifications, then firmly make the case that you should be paid more than your target number. Explain what you bring to the position above and beyond what the other candidates can offer. Stay calm, don’t negotiate against yourself, and be prepared to walk away. Note, however, that negotiating salary, while effective, can have social costs for women, contributing to the double bind women often experience.  

Ask for promotions and raises. Once you’re in the job, recognize that you won’t automatically be rewarded with more money for stellar performance. From day one, start tracking your accomplishments and how you’ve contributed to the company’s success so that you can, when the time is right, clearly enumerate your achievements and future potential. As soon as you can reasonably justify it, ask for more responsibilities in the form of a promotion along with a raise. This is even more important to do when there isn’t a clear path for advancement. Working hard and keeping your head down doesn’t result in the recognition — and compensation — it deserves. Powerful people don’t toil in obscurity, and neither should you.

Don’t be afraid to change jobs. Unfortunately, there’s a stigma attached to job-hopping that discourages many from taking advantage of great opportunities and better pay. Staying with one company your entire working life and earning a gold watch isn’t even an option for most people. Though the median tenure of workers ages 25 to 34 is 2.8 years, it often makes sense to change jobs more frequently than that. According to one estimate, those who stay in jobs longer than two years are paid 50% less over their lifetimes, and changing companies results in an average salary increase of 10%-20%. (That’s usually more than any raise you’d get for staying put.)

While the need for Black Women’s Equal Pay Day may linger for 100 years or more, we can — and should — immediately stop listening to those who discourage us from engaging in behaviors that are rewarded in the labor market as we continue to search for impactful solutions to address the wage gap. Black women’s work is undervalued in society, which can undercut confidence, but it’s time to take back control. Know your worth, ladies.

(Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Youngblood Giles)
(Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Youngblood Giles)

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