Earlier this year, April 10 was anointed Equal Pay Day for Women, marking the symbolic day that women as a whole reached pay equity with white men. (In other words, it took until the beginning of April for women to make as much money as men did in 2017.) Today, eight months into the current year, marks the day that the average Black woman has achieved the same.
Black women make just 63 cents to the dollar compared to the earnings of white men, which is why it takes them an extra 200 days of work to catch up. As the American Association of University Women (AAUW) explains, “More than 60% of Black women are in the workforce, making them one of the two racial/ethnic groups of women with the highest labor force participation rate, but their earnings lag behind most women’s and men’s earnings in the U.S.”
The reasons for why are varied: From a lack of enforcement with regard to anti-discrimination laws, as well as a lack of affordable care for children, elders, and the disabled, punitive measures against unionization efforts, and a paucity of affordable housing have impacted all Americans, especially Black women.
What’s more is that attaining education can sometimes make things worse for them: Not only do women accrue more student debt than men do on average, but because Black and Hispanic women are more impacted by pay gaps within gender lines, they make less money to pay off student debt.
The gender pay gap is often discussed in a theoretical way that lumps the experiences of all women into one box. Now, people across the country are complicating that narrative. Here, three Black women tell Refinery29 how they learned they were underpaid, how it impacted them, what they did about it, and what they learned from the experience.
Elyse, 28Astoria, Queens
How much do you make?
“$18 an hour. I work in sales, but I don’t make commission.”
Did you negotiate when you took the job?
“They offered me $17 an hour, but I asked them to start me at $18 an hour. I should have probably asked for more, but my uncle, who owns his own business, is always telling me, You know, you don’t want to push the envelope too hard…
“In the interview, they made it seem like there was a lot of room to grow, so I figured I wouldn’t be stuck with this salary for too long.”
And was that true?
“After a couple of months on the job, they opened a new property but didn’t have staff yet. So, I was given more responsibility, but not a raise. I didn’t want to ask because the job was so new.
“A year into the job, a team member went on maternity leave. They asked me to train someone and promised that after six weeks they would consider the possibility of moving me to a salaried role that came with commission. I made $40,000 for the company in three months — and I wasn’t making commission. When I went back to them with these numbers they told me they had [actually] wanted me to make more — but they never gave me any goals.
“Then they claimed they didn’t have the budget to give me a raise, and asked me to wait another three months to be moved into a commissioned role. I was like, that’s not a raise — but I didn’t say that out loud.”
What did you do?
“It was the holidays, so I decided to just power through. The they hired a new director and they made her my boss, even though that wasn’t communicated to me directly. At the end of January, I sat down with her to discuss my raise, and she said she wasn’t in the position to make that decision. She didn’t even offer to advocate for me.
“So, I sat down with her boss and again asked for a raise, and again they gave me a lot of excuses and asked me to wait another 45 days. I felt really defeated — this was the third time I asked for a raise. I had been loyal to them, but they refused to even increase my pay by a dollar.”
How did you find out you were underpaid?
“I don’t have any concrete evidence, but the woman who had my job before opened my paystub by accident one day and was like, ‘Oh, wow.’ It’s not because I’m making more than her. My paycheck is like $400.”
Did you talk to her after you saw her reaction?
“No, because I wasn’t really sure how to address it. I don’t really have any concrete evidence about being paid less than someone else in my role in my company. As far as I know, I’m really the only person in my role in the company.”
How has all of this impacted you emotionally and financially?
“It’s been hitting me a lot harder recently because I turned down a job to stay with this company. I kind of regret it. I was influenced by my mom — but she didn’t necessarily understand the industry. She feared that I’d end up in a job like my previous one, where I was miserable.
“I’m going to be 28, and I don’t make enough money to live on my own. I feel like I’ve proven myself again and again. It’s become very stressful. It doesn’t impact my work, but it definitely impacts my day. I’ll have a bad day, and I’ll have to put on my headphones because if I say anything, I’m going to be angry. That’s not the type of environment I want to work in, and that’s not the type of employee I want to be.
They’ve just instituted a mandatory half-hour break, so I’ll be losing two and a half hours of pay every week. Plus, they’ve got someone monitoring my overtime. They sat me down over three hours of overtime. It makes me feel like there’s a target on my back. But in my year and a half with the company, I’ve never taken advantage of company time.
Yeah, it’s frustrating being responsible for more, but not being compensated for it. I was led to believe that I would have the opportunity to move up in the company. I feel like I need to find another job.
Are you actively looking?
I want to be 100% sure about the next job I take. I want there to be room for growth, and great benefits. A place where I’m treated fairly. Right now, I feel used. I’ve worked for small companies. I’ve worked for larger companies. I’m not really sure what the issue is.
Will you feel more comfortable negotiating next time?
I think so. My biggest goal is to have a job with good benefits. Obviously, the compensation needs to be worth it, too. In my next job, I want a 401(k).
Denise, 28Detroit, MI
Tell me about your first job.
“I [had] just finished grad school with a degree in clinical social work. I applied for a job at a drug rehabilitation program. I had very little experience in the field, and I was really eager to get a job. So, on the application where it asked what salary I preferred, I put a low amount. I thought it would make me more marketable.”
Did you do any research into what salary to ask for?
“I didn’t do extensive research, but I had a general idea of what it should be.”
Did your research entail talking to other people in your field?
“I’ve found that in nonprofits, people don’t talk about what they get paid — they just won’t share. I really think that caters to white men, who benefit the most. People like me end up not realizing that other people with fewer skills are getting paid way more.”
How long were you working in the job when you realized you were being underpaid?
“Maybe a year into the job. I was being prepped to take my boss’s job once she moved up. I had more responsibility, but I wasn’t being paid more. They hired an older white male, and I trained him. Then someone let it slip that he was making more than me. Everyone — except me — had started at a higher salary.
“And this guy was terrible at his job. He couldn’t keep up with me. I was more than pulling my weight and doing a much more effective job, and still they started him off with a higher salary.”
How much higher?
“At least $1,000. Sure, it’s not a huge gap, but to me, when I compared our work, it really bothered me. Once I found out, I started the process of asking for a raise. But they just kept giving me the runaround. For a while they just never responded. Then, I confronted the top boss — not aggressively or anything.”
What did he say?
“He just said that they didn’t have the money. It was just some bullshit excuse, like, We can’t afford it. We’re holding off on that right now. “
Did they offer you anything else instead? Like a title change?
“No. No kind of recognition for all that I’m doing. Then a new position opened up, and they chose someone else for it over me. Someone who I had trained!”
But you had been getting positive feedback from your boss?
“Yeah, they thought I was doing well. Every time we had an audit, they always had the auditors edit my group because we had the best charts and paperwork.
“There’s a message in the nonprofit world that it’s pro-women’s rights and all that stuff. But the higher up you go in organizations, the more male — and the more white — it becomes. It gets harder and harder for women of color to reach the top. Then there’s a point where you just get stuck. You become an outsider.”
What was the impact on you emotionally and financially?
“For me, it was motivating. I knew I had to find something better. I was determined to find a place that would recognize my value.
“At the end of the day, money talks. So, if you’re not willing to back up what you’re telling me with money, it doesn’t mean anything. I’m not going to work to improve your mission for nothing.”
Did your negotiating tactic change when you looked for a new job?
“This time, I went into it really talking myself up in my own head: This is my value. I’m an experienced professional now. I’m fully licensed.
“I also asked for more when they presented their first offer. I had a max I wanted to make, and I asked for that. I do have a number I will settle for, but I won’t take anything below that number. If I’m offered something below, I won’t take the position. My max number was $55,000. I knew that they started people at $36,000. I asked for $55,000, and we settled at $40,000. I knew they wouldn’t go to $55,000. Now, I’m teaching other Black women that technique.
“Another coworker, also a Black woman, later came to me and told me her situation. Our job has a policy where you’re not supposed to share how much you get paid. She overheard somebody else talking who was in a lower position than her, whose paycheck was more than hers. She’s a licensed professional, and the other person was in an entry-level person, and she was very upset about that. She asked me what to do, and I coached her through the process. I told her to sit down and list out everything that she does — her expertise, her license, and her degree. She did, and even added the national average of what she should be getting paid.
“I think she ended up talking to our direct boss about it, and they asked her to write up. She was already prepared.”
Do you know if she was successful?
“She was; she got the raise. It was awesome. And I think most Black women don’t know. We don’t have people to tell us, You know, you should do this, and do that, business wise. Once we know things, I think it’s important to share it, and help each other. I was so excited for her.”
Where did you find the confidence to make that kind of ask?
“Having a license helped. I realized there are lots of places I could work with the license I have, and I didn’t have to settle. I also think it’s important to have a good relationship with your coworkers and with your boss. I had a really good interview; we really clicked. So, I felt really comfortable actually asking for more.”
Nela Richardson, Chief Economist, RedfinNew York, NY
How did you find out that you were underpaid?
“My hiring manager hinted at it, and actually suggested I go to HR and argue my case, but I had no idea the size of the discrepancy. I was very fortunate because I worked for the government, so all of the salaries were public. It wasn’t until my father-in-law, who’s always been very supportive of my career, sent me a link to government salaries that I looked myself up in my department and realized how much I was being underpaid.
“It was frustrating because I had gone to this agency planning to do research, but was increasingly pulled into policy work, while my other, male colleagues were not. The department was mostly male, so not only was I getting paid less, but I had more responsibilities. On a certain level, I knew that I needed to make a change. But with two small children, it was just enough just to work and to live life. It wasn’t until I got that link, and I saw the difference, that I felt the urgency. Within a month, I had another offer from another company.”
How much more were your colleagues making?
“It was actually $63,000. I’m going to caveat a lot, but we had similar education, schools, and experience. I took a pay cut before that job to be a researcher at Harvard. That pay cut was actually used to justify a lower salary when I went to work for the government, even though the boss who recruited me thought that was an unreasonable factor.”
After you found out, how soon did you look for a new job?
“I started looking literally the next day. I searched for offers. I worked contacts. I made sure that I had different price points, so I knew what my value was going in with my next company. Because I had been so vastly underpaid, I made sure to negotiate aggressively. Their offering salary was much higher than what I was making, and I asked for more, because I knew more was consistent with my market value.
“The thing about the federal government is that there’s not a lot of wiggle room. Once you get tracked in the federal government, that salary follows you all the way up. So, because I was underpaid at that point, no matter what job I took within the federal system, I would be benchmarked by that lower salary. My only option to dramatically increase my salary up to the market value was to leave and go to the private sector.
“One thing that worked in my favor was that I still had a job. I was able to negotiate and really be very sharp-eyed about new opportunities because I was already working. It’s harder to do that when you don’t have a job. [When you’re] already employed, you have more time to make a choice and you’re in a stronger negotiating position. I used those advantages to really push up my income just to market wage. I wasn’t trying to go beyond my education; I was trying to get back what I had lost. That’s an important distinction.”
When you were job hunting, how did you make sure you didn’t get underpaid again?
“I worked my network. I found out what the different offering salaries were at consulting firms around town, as well as other places I was interested in. Basically, I had a benchmark — and I learned from my husband, who is an excellent negotiator. I was fortunate to have someone who could walk me through. If it wasn’t for my husband’s support, I probably wouldn’t have been as bold in making the changes that I did. He was more shocked for me in terms of [how my pay reflected] my value as an employee than what it meant for our budget. At some level, this was more about self-worth than it was about income.
“It wasn’t just that I was being paid less — it felt like I was being valued less even though I was doing more work. As an African-American woman, that made it more personal. It made it personal for my husband, too, which is why there was that sense of urgency and motivation.”
What tips do you have for women who are negotiating their starting salary for a new position?
“There’s a lot more leeway in negotiation than women often know. If you know what the market salary is, and if you know your value, you can use that whether you have another offer in hand or not. Knowing your value comes from being involved in professional associations, networking, and going on job interviews. I even suggest going on interviews just to know your value and where you are. Update your resume to understand how far you’ve come since you’ve taken this current job. Nowadays, there are so many great sites, like Glassdoor and Indeed, that actually post the median income for the roles. Using those, along with salaries posted by professional associations, will give you kind of a benchmark on what you can negotiate with a future salary.
“Take time to learn what the competitive wages are for the role you’re getting. Former colleagues of mine look at my LinkedIn page and ask me how much I make when they’re interviewing for other jobs that are similar to mine. Men do this; they figure it out. I think women have to put in as much effort into knowing how much we are worth, and what the market value of our wages are, as we do finding the job itself. I really encourage people to negotiate. You have the most bargaining power when you know a company wants you. You don’t want to negotiate yourself into a salary that’s so high it’s out of proportion for your actual role — which can lead to all kinds of negative things, like resentment or outsized expectations. You really have to be smart about how you negotiate. For me, that’s usually no more than 5% to 10% of the initial offer.
“Then, see what else you can negotiate. Maybe you’re going to a startup or nonprofit and they can’t come up with salary, but they can give you a few more vacation days, or you can work from home more. There are other, non-monetary things that are important to me as a worker that a company could offer me instead of salary. Get those things in writing.”
That’s great. Any other tips?
“In the interview process, while you’re comparing jobs, ask the hiring manager what the career ladder is for the position you’d be in. You may get a great job, a great role, a great salary, and then three years later, you’re flummoxed about what the next step is. You don’t know how to move to the next level; no one’s ever told you how to make director or managing director. Then, you’re in that same position again of, Okay. I got the great salary when I started, but now I’m at this plateau. Have knowledge of the career ladder, the expectations for promotion, and how you get that promotion. If they can’t offer you your dream salary right away, how you get to that point is really a critical part of the interview process.
“So, in the last five minutes of your interview, ask : How do people advance here? What does the career ladder look like? Where can I expect to be in three years, in four years at this company? How does that compare to other companies in the same space? Good employers expect employees to want to advance their career at their companies. I think those are very fair question to ask.”
Are there particular considerations that women, or that women of color, should have when entering these kinds of conversations?
“I think the reality is that there’s an expectation that women and women of color will not negotiate. I think people more often expect men to negotiate. What I would suggest is, don’t say, I want $10,000 more. Say, I want $10,000 more — and I’m worth it because of these six reasons. The more you can quantify your value, the easier it is for someone who’s making that decision to accept the reasoning.
“It may require you to do a lot of self-evaluation of what are you offer this employer that’s unique to you. Really quantifying that case before you step into that negotiation is a very powerful thing, regardless of race, regardless of gender. At the end of the day, employers want to make sure they hire the best people, and that their best people are motivated.”
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