I am a single Black woman and the sole breadwinner in my family. When my daughter was growing up, I felt the emotional and financial strain caused by that incredible responsibility. I was fortunate because my parents were able to help out when needed them, but there are far too many women in our country who do not have a safety net, and who are underpaid.
July 31st is Black Women’s Equal Pay Day. It is when we recognize the additional days in 2017 that the average Black woman must work in order to earn the same income as her white, male peers earned in 2016. That’s right. It would take half a year’s additional work for Black women in America to close the wage gap.
And what particularly rankles me is that this pay gap continues even though Black women are doing everything that we associate with economic success. At a skyrocketing rate, Black women are pursuing higher education (in fact we’re the most educated group in the United States). We are participating in the labor workforce, and starting businesses. Just consider that in the last decade, the number of businesses owned by Black women increased 178% — the largest spike among any racial and ethnic group of women or men. Yet, pay inequality costs Black women with Bachelor’s degrees an average of $10,000 their first year out of college.
This disparity obviously hurts Black women, but it also hurts their families and their communities as well. Eight out of ten Black women are breadwinners, and many the sole breadwinner, so their contribution to the family income is vital. Yet, a quarter of Black women live in poverty, with nearly the same rate being trapped in service occupations, with the lowest wages. These low wage jobs often lack paid sick leave, family leave, and other essential benefits, all of which contribute to a vicious cycle of inequality and poverty.
This means that 13% of the U.S. population — 23.5 million Black women — who relentlessly pursue the American dream, continue to be overlooked and underpaid. They are robbed of an equal opportunity for prosperity, and plagued by systematic injustice. I know these women. They are my family. They are my neighbors. They are my fellow citizens. So when I became a Senior Advisor to President Obama and Chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls, I was proud to work for a President who took the fight for equal pay as personally as I do. President Obama recognized that millions of Americans grew up in homes like his, with single mothers who relied on food stamps, and grandmothers who shared stories of less-qualified men leapfrogging ahead of them at work. And with pay inequality amounting to $1.2 trillion a year, he knew the cost of ignoring this inequality simply was much too high. He knew that our government, institutions, and employers needed to live up to the ideals upon which this nation was founded.
During President Obama’s eight years in office, policies were established that supported gender equity. The first bill he ever signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which prohibits gender-based discrimination and allows women to fight back against discrimination in the workplace regardless of when it began. When Congress did not pass the Paycheck Fairness Act — common sense legislation to give women the additional tools to fight pay discrimination — President Obama signed an Executive Order to prohibit federal contractors from retaliating against employees who chose to discuss their compensation. (Because how do you know you’re not getting equal pay if you can’t talk about your pay?) He supported paid leave, paid sick days, workplace flexibility, and affordable childcare, all essential for the 21st century worker to thrive at work and at home.
We must all be responsible for challenging the barriers that lead to systemic inequity— of which equal pay is a big part. That’s why the Obama Administration worked hard to shed light on the obstacles African American girls face, and the steps we could all take to remove them. We focused on keeping the teenage pregnancy rate on a historic downward trend, because we know it is a barrier to economic self-sufficiency. The President and the Vice President launched It’s On Us, because one in five women are sexually assaulted while in college. We produced guidelines for employers to learn about pay discrimination and the best practices to achieving pay equity. We encouraged the entertainment and toy industry to remove implicit biases, knowing that you cannot be what you cannot see.
And President Obama passed the Affordable Care Act, the landmark legislation that ensured that health care is a right for all Americans, and not just a privilege for some. While it remains law today, we must continue to fight against harmful bills being considered by Congress that would leave millions of American without insurance, defund Planned Parenthood, take away preventive care from women, permit women to be discriminated against just because they’re women, and hurt vulnerable populations including, the poor, disabled, and senior citizens.
Of course, Black women have embraced this willingness to fight for decades. In our homes, churches, communities, businesses, and social justice movements, Black women have always organizing and demanding justice, even when the deck has been stacked against us. And the deck is still stacked! It’s still legal for employers to pay Black women less than men for the same work based on their previous salaries. It’s still legal to fire us for sharing our salary information. And the current administration eliminated the 2014 Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Order, walking back basic protections for women in the workplace. At the rate we’re going, Black women won’t achieve equal pay until the 23rd Century. Even when Black women make it to the highest ranks in our government — leaders such Senator Kamala Harris and Representative Maxine Waters — there are efforts to silence them. But they refuse to be silenced.
And let’s not silence ourselves. We must not shy away from advocating for ourselves. We must not fear rejection or disappointment. I remember how afraid I was to speak up the first time I asked for a promotion nearly 30 years ago. I thought my boss should recognize my worth and just give it to me. Silly me. I learned that I could not sit around and wait for him to do the right thing. I needed to swallow my pride and ask for what I deserved. After all, what was the worse thing that would happen? He might say no and hurt my feelings. Well, fortunately he said yes, but where might I be now if I had not had the courage to ask?
Now I also recognize that many women are not in the position to advocate for themselves. That’s why it is so important that we advocated for each other. And because we do that each and every day, I remain optimistic. I know that the movement towards equality will not be weakened. The journey to perfect our union has never been easy, and today is no exception. The strength and resiliency of our democracy rests squarely on the shoulders of each citizen who embraces her and his power to be a positive force for change. So let’s fight to continue to fight to make sure all of this progress is not reversed. And let’s fight to continue to “bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice.”
Since leaving Washington in January, my optimism has remained steadfast because of what I see happening across our nation. I have see citizens who love our country shouldering the responsibility to change it, our judiciary upholding our American values, and local governors and mayors stepping in to pass legislation for paid leave and paid sick days. I have seen employers recognize that it is in their self interests to support policies that help working families.
The change we are fighting for often seems impossible, until it is inevitable. I will keep fighting every day to make it so. We can’t and we won’t just throw up our hands. We have to ask, “what else can I do to perfect our union?”
It’s time for Congress, and all state and local officials to step up to adopt 21st century workplace policies, including equal pay, affordable child care, paid family leave, and paid sick days if we expect the United States to be globally competitive. We are the only developed country in the world that doesn’t have a federal paid leave policy. It’s time we raise the salaries of low-wage jobs at the federal level and pass the Paycheck Fairness Act.
The road ahead will be difficult, but let’s meet it with tenacious rigor, courage, and our moral compass as our guide.
We cannot simply rely on our employers and our government to do what is right on their own. That’s why we need every one of you. While the public overwhelmingly supports fair pay policies, many in Congress still don’t hear us. So join me along with the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign to call, write, and tweet your members of Congress using The Representation Project’s hashtag #RepresentHer. Together, we can advocate for and achieve policies and programs that support women and girls of color. Let stay true to our American values and ensure every woman and girl has a fair shot at the American dream. Make it your charge to make that dream a reality. Yes we can!