URBAN AGENDA: Most Educated, Least Paid – Black Women Demand Equal Pay

Most of us assume there’s a strong correlation between a person’s educational background and the value they command in the marketplace—a relationship that would seem to hold even when gender pay disparities are factored in.

If only it were that straightforward for black women in America who experience double-dose disparities that defy any workplace gains from higher education. In addition to gender-based pay disparities—black women earn just 67.7 cents on the dollar compared to white males—African-American women also face racial pay disparities that persist, and even increase, with a college education. This is counterintuitive but revelatory: despite being one of the fastest growing groups in higher education—black women outpace all other groups by race and gender in college enrollment rates—black women are treated differently in the job market.

Education may be the great equalizer, but higher enrollment rates and more degrees haven’t translated into better income opportunities for African-American women. Despite their educational success, black women lag behind most of their gender (at 67.7 cents to the dollar) when benchmarked against white male earnings, compared to 81.9 cents for white women, 93 cents for Asian women, and 62.1 cents for Hispanic women.

What accounts for this? Why do black women earn so little despite their clear success securing degrees and credentials in higher education? And, what can be done?

When America frames gender pay equity as a women’s issue, it’s about more than just pay disparities: representation in the workforce matters, too, yet black women hold only 8% of all private sector jobs, fewer than 2% of all leadership positions, and under 3% of all Fortune 500 board of director positions. Instead, black women are more likely to hold low-wage caretaker jobs, work as teachers, or hold positions in the nonprofit sector—the types of services on which we all depend but that are poorly compensated.

These pay disparities have an outsized impact on poverty rates among black families in the U.S. African-American women are more likely to be single mothers—more than 30% of all black children in the U.S. live with unmarried mothers (compared to less than 7% of white children)—and as primary breadwinners and caretakers, far more likely to support a family with their income. Predictably, the lower wages and chronic pay disparities these women face mean higher poverty rates for black families.

(Of course, the complex social and institutional determinants that give rise to single-motherhood also saddle black families with disproportionate rates of poverty, maternal mortality, social dislocation, and incarceration, with 1.5 million black men missing from daily life or dying early as a result.)

If a highly educated demographic is so consistently excluded from the types of economic benefits and opportunities enjoyed by similarly educated groups, we need to push for answers, solutions, and accountability—just as society is pushing to close the pay gap affecting that class of individuals known as women. A similar push is needed to address the double-dose disparities that afflict educated black women.

Beyond the need for public policies and programs that support working families and help narrow the wealth gap (e.g., affordable child care, broad homeownership, accessible healthcare, etc.), our civic, commercial, and cultural leaders must also acknowledge and confront the entrenched realities of racism and sexism.