Black Women’s Equal Pay Day—a day to bring awareness to the extreme pay inequity that Black women face in the United States—is on July 9 this year. A new fact sheet from IWPR finds that, across the country, Black women with earnings make 66.5 cents for every dollar a White man makes. Black women face many barriers to achieving pay equity, including pay discrimination, occupational segregation, and obstacles to educational attainment. To achieve pay equity, IWPR proposes passing policy solutions that address the institutional barriers that prevent Black women from accessing high-paying jobs.

Pay Discrimination

Black women face pay discrimination in the workplace due to their employers’ perceptions of their race and gender. As a result, they may be paid less for the same work done by a male and/or White counterpart. Additionally, a lack of salary transparency prevents workers from having complete knowledge of what they should be paid in a job.

The Paycheck Fairness Act (H.R. 17), if passed by Congress, would enable workers to talk openly about their salaries by protecting them from employer retaliation. All workers would be able to bring awareness to and resist wage discrimination. Additionally, it would prevent employers from asking about a worker’s salary history and potentially using it to pay them less. Salary history can have especially negative effects on Black women, who are overrepresented in low-paying jobs. Passing the Paycheck Fairness Act would help combat the systemic underpayment of Black women and serve to bridge the pay gap.

Equitable Access to Education

Access to higher education is a major factor in increasing Black women’s potential earnings since a degree can expand the range of jobs and salaries available to them. However, Black women face many barriers to educational attainment, including an inability to afford the cost of tuition and a high student debt burden. Black women have difficulties affording higher education due to the lack of generational wealth in Black communities, caused by centuries of segregation and discrimination. As Black women are typically the breadwinners of their families, much of their money goes to covering basic needs such as housing, food, and child care. As a result, to afford higher education, Black women must take out larger loans than White women and have more difficulty paying them back. This demonstrates the financial instability that can be caused by pursuing a degree, which impacts future career trajectories and potential earnings.

A major way to reduce the financial burden that Black women face in attaining an education would be student loan debt cancellation. Black women have the highest average student debt. For student parents, the debt burden is even greater. IWPR research found that student parents were more likely than non-student parents to have student debt (73 percent and 48 percent, respectively). According to the report, there are also racial disparities in debt borrowing for student parents, as Black student mothers and fathers were more likely to take out loans than student parents in general. When Black women have greater access to higher education, they are better qualified for high-paying jobs that will contribute to pay equity.

Occupational Segregation

Black women are commonly subject to occupational segregation, meaning that they are more likely to work in fields where men are underrepresented. Typically, these occupations, such as care work and service jobs, tend to have lower earnings than male-dominated fields, such as construction and finance. Black women are also underrepresented in high-earning fields and leadership jobs, like management and C-suite positions. In addition, Black women are underrepresented in high-earning STEM careers such as engineering.

To combat occupational segregation for Black women, workplace protection policies can be beneficial. Protecting unions that increase workplace protections can help Black women enter and stay in fields and occupations where they have been traditionally underrepresented. The Protecting the Right to Organize Act (H.R. 20) prevents employers from discouraging union membership, protects employees’ right to organize, and prevents employer retaliation against union membership. Lastly, investing in women entering historically male-dominated fields, such as construction and trade occupations, is an important and effective way to mitigate occupational segregation.

Gendered racism contributes to the current pay gap experienced by Black women. To close the pay gap, the government has an obligation to eliminate student debt, promote salary transparency, and pass workplace protections. However, this does not eliminate the need for individual organizations to combat discrimination and encourage allyship internally. Creating spaces for women of color to network can contribute to positive professional and career development. Through organizational and policy change, Black women can have better access to high-paying positions and feel economically empowered.