Respect and Value Black Women’s Work
By India Heckstall
Black workers have historically faced discrimination in the U.S. workforce, despite their contributions to building America and its economy. Black workers remain one of the most exploited groups in the U.S. labor force, comprising 47 percent of workers that earn less than $15 per hour—often without worker protections. Women, especially women of color, are disproportionately represented in low-wage jobs, with 40 percent of working women and 50 percent of working women of color earning less than $15 per hour.
July 27, 2023, this year’s Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, marks how far into 2023 a Black woman must work to be paid what a white non-Hispanic man made at the end of 2022. On this Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, we are highlighting the injustice in our economy that fails to recognize and value the labor of Black women. Black women face both a race and gender wage gap, reflecting intersecting realities of their daily lives. The most significant disparities in earnings occur between Black women and white men, who often hold the highest-paying jobs. Despite having the highest labor force participation compared to other women, Black women are paid 67 cents for every dollar paid to white men. Without policy interventions, inequities will persist and worsen for Black women due to our country’s history of privileging wealthy, white men at the expense of women and people of color.
Throughout history, legal restrictions were used to exclude all women, especially Black women and other women of color, from many high-paying jobs which were reserved exclusively for white men. Over time, these formal restrictions have diminished, but some Black women are experiencing occupational segregation where they are being steered into and disproportionately hold jobs that offer low wages. Workplace narratives perpetuate negative stereotypes that Black women do not want to work hard, should simply be content to have a job, or should prioritize work over their own health and well-being. These narratives significantly diminish the value of Black women in the workplace and influence decisions about their compensation. We must combat these narratives and strive to ensure fair treatment, equitable pay, and comprehensive benefits for Black women.
Black women are not protected in the labor market.
Black women’s work has been undervalued and disrespected by society. During the era of chattel slavery, Black women generated wealth for the U.S. economy, but were systematically denied rights to it. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 explicitly excluded agricultural and domestic workers, many of whom were Black. Moreover, the New Deal’s legislation on minimum wage, overtime pay, and collective bargaining legislation omitted domestic service and farming industries— the primary areas where Black women were employed. Over 80 years later, workers in these industries still lack comprehensive access to worker protections.
Today, Black women still confront systemic injustices in the labor market. In 2019, Black women lost $39.3 billion in wages compared to white men, due to occupational segregation. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated this disparity, with Black women disproportionately employed in the hardest-hit sectors, including caregiving, hospitality, and service jobs. Unfortunately, these industries often lack worker protections, such as employer-provided retirement plans, health insurance, paid sick and maternity leave, and paid vacations.
Black women are more likely to earn college degrees compared to Black men and have the highest labor force participation rate compared to other women, yet they still face significant wage disparities. They carry a heavier burden of student loan debt than any other group, with an average of $38,800 in federal undergraduate loans compared to $24,348 for white males. However, the median wage for Black women with a bachelor’s degree is $50,100 per year, compared to $71,700 for white men—a difference of $21,600 annually. This exacerbates the existing wealth disparities and reinforces barriers to achieving economic stability.
Economic security for Black women is long overdue.
Black women deserve to live in a society where they have access to economic opportunities equal to those provided to white men and where their work is respected, valued, and supported. Current policies have failed to protect Black women in our economy, leaving them vulnerable to workplace exploitation, burdened with insurmountable student loan debt, and subjected to hazardous conditions for low wages. Policies must specifically address the unique experiences of Black women in the workplace and establish greater accountability and transparency.
To address the economic injustice faced by Black women, we must enhance worker power and ensure stronger protections. Policymakers should pass legislation that promotes women’s economic security, especially Black women. This should include ensuring infrastructure investments are tackling occupational segregation, providing affordable and accessible child care, guaranteeing paid leave, increasing the minimum wage, and strengthening women’s right to organize in the workplace. Black women deserve more than a single day of recognition for the pay gap. They deserve concrete, actionable steps that prioritize fair pay and economic stability for themselves and their families.