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Overcoming the pay gap as a woman of color

It’s no secret women earn less than men, but many women of color have even more to ground to make up


Because of myriad social factors rooted in systemic racism, women of color earn less than men, and some – including Black and Hispanic women – earn less than white women, too.

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It’s no secret that women earn less than men. On average, women earn 82 cents less for every dollar their male counterparts make.

But for women of color, the story is more complicated. Because of myriad social factors rooted in systemic racism, women of color earn less than men, and some – including Black and Hispanic women – earn less than white women, too.

The ramifications of these disparities cut across all aspects of life, affecting the schools we go to, the neighborhoods we live in, the way we raise our children and even our ability to retire. While statistics show that the odds are against women of color achieving parity when it comes to pay, there are steps we can take to increase our chances of earning what we are worth.

The gender pay gap by race and ethnicity

The gender pay gap is the difference between what men are paid and what women earn. On top of that, there is a pay gap by race and ethnicity.

While non-Hispanic white women make, on average, 79 cents for every dollar made by non-Hispanic white men:

  • Asian women make 89 cents for every dollar.*
  • Black women earn 62 cents for every dollar.
  • Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander women make 61 cents for every dollar.
  • American Indian or Alaska Native women make 57 cents for every dollar.
  • Hispanic women earn 54 cents for every dollar.

Years and years of earning less has put women of color at a disadvantage when it comes to paying for the most basic necessities in life. In fact, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families, if there was no gender or racial wage gap, Black women would earn enough money to pay for more than two and a half additional years of college tuition, nearly 31 additional months of child care or more than 16 additional months of health insurance premiums.

Because of this stark reality, “women of color need to become strategists regarding their upward financial mobility,” says Yasmeen Duncan, a human resources leader and founder of The Sisterhood Society for Women of Color, a nonprofit that supports multicultural women in the workplace.

Why the gender pay gap by race and ethnicity exists

There are many factors that contribute to women of color earning less. You can’t have a conversation about the pay gap by race and ethnicity without acknowledging the role of racism and discrimination.

Among women who hold full-time, year-round jobs, the median annual pay for white women is $48,390, compared to $38,036 for Black women, $33,540 for Hispanic women, $34,466 for Native American women and $55,569 for Asian American women. According to the National Partnership for Women & Families, “the gaps represent the tangible consequences of sexism and white supremacy in the United States and how our country systematically devalues women of color and their labor.”

However, other factors can compound the problem.

The impact of education

Asian and white adults are more likely to have a higher level of education attainment than Black, Hispanic and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander adults, according to a report by the American Council on Education.

That could be the result of a number of factors. Since Black and Hispanic families earn less, they would likely have less money to help their children pay for college. Also, students of color are more likely to attend public schools in low income areas where they may not have access to the educational resources they need to get into a competitive college.

The toll of occupational segregation

One of the effects of having fewer educational opportunities is occupational segregation. With less access to education, women of color may find themselves disproportionately in lower-paying service jobs.

Black women are, in fact, more likely to work in low-paying service fields such as domestic work and healthcare assistance than any other industry, according to the American Association of University Women (AAUW). On the flip side, Black women make up just 1% of engineers and 3% of computing, two of the highest paying fields for women.

The effects of motherhood and child care

Having children can contribute to the racial pay gap for women. Motherhood can complicate the careers of working women who must juggle demanding work schedules with caring for their children.

See related: The true costs of child care and how to manage them

But women also sacrifice earning potential when they have children.  Mothers who work outside of the home typically earn 70 cents for every dollar earned by fathers. However, Black mothers earn significantly less, bringing in only 50 cents for every $1 by earned by non-Hispanic white fathers, according to the National Women’s Law Center.

Motherhood can also keep women of color from advancing in their careers to higher-paid positions. According to a study by the Center for American Progress, mothers of color have a more difficult time finding child care than white mothers. For example, Hispanic families are more likely than other groups to live in an area that has no nearby child care facilities, and Black mothers are more likely than white mothers to cite costs as a barrier to child care.

Benefits of greater earning equality 

For women of color, the ability to earn a fair wage can be life transforming.

With more money, women of color could have better housing and live in better neighborhoods with better schools for their children. They would be able to put more money away for retirement and have more money available for healthcare. Their children would be in a better position to attend college, perhaps without having to take out as many student loans. Those children would then be positioned to go after better jobs, leading to a cycle of generational wealth rather than generational poverty.

Every step a woman of color takes today to increase her earning potential can have a massive effect on her future and that of future generations. The wage gap is a statistic that reflects today’s reality, but by being proactive in our careers, we can be empowered to work toward a better tomorrow.

What to consider when looking for a job

As a woman of color, you can benefit from identifying companies that are known for valuing diversity. Some organizations, such as, publish lists of the top companies to work for if you are concerned about diversity. Such lists can give you a good place to start your job search.

Networking is a great way to find such companies, particularly through race and ethnicity-based organizations such as the Black MBA Association or the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, says Angie P. Kirk, a human capital consultant in Washington, D.C. “Attend industry events, even if they are likely to be on Zoom now. It’s very easy to connect from your home to learn a little bit more about your industry.”

When you form close connections, you may feel comfortable talking with those colleagues about money and perhaps how much a certain job can pay. Identifying mentors is another way to get inside information from professionals in your field, who can help you identify high-paying positions before they are posted and put in a good word for you if an attractive opportunity becomes available.

How to ask for your worth as a woman of color

Since the odds of starting at the high end of the pay scale are against you as a woman of color, you have to make a greater effort to make the case for more money.  That’s one reason why Janelle Harris Dixon, a writer based in Washington, D.C., took a class on improving her salary negotiation skills.

“I’ve been self-employed for almost 10 years, and even after all of that time, I still have a hard time speaking up for myself when it comes to money, especially asking for a higher pay rate,” she says.

But she recognized that if she didn’t ask for more, chances are nobody was going to volunteer to give her more. The class she took helped her think through and practice the language she would use to negotiate her rate. It also included role-playing so she could practice asking for more money.

“I think that one exercise empowered me to ask for what I want without apologizing, overexplaining or chickening out altogether,” Dixon says.

There are also resources you can tap to become a better negotiator. For example, the AAUW offers free in-person workshops and a virtual course that can help you learn such skills as how to determine the going rate for a particular position, as well as how to create your own negotiation strategy.

Do your research first

It is also critical to find out as much salary information as you can about a potential position.

Websites such as Glassdoor and Payscale can help you get an idea of the market pay for a particular role. Also, employees in a number of industries have recently tackled the pay gap head-on by creating and circulating spreadsheets in which workers post their salaries and positions anonymously. Such efforts throw the curtains back on salary data. If you can’t find one for your field, you can always start your own.

Have a negotiation plan

When it’s time to come to the negotiation table:

  • Don’t always give all your info. “As an HR leader, I have witnessed specifically women of color shortchange themselves in fear of being counted out,” Duncan says. One mistake candidates make: They tell the employer what they are currently making. As women of color, the stats suggest you have already been making less than your white counterparts, so sharing this information is a mistake. “When discussing compensation in an interview, the only information you need to give is your desired salary,” Duncan adds.
  • Prepare to negotiate down. “When discussing compensation in an interview, ask for a minimum of $10,000-$15,000 more than the market rate,” Duncan advises. “This way, if you end up negotiating, you may come away with more than the market minimum.”
  • Consider your future earning potential. When you’re discussing an offer, don’t be afraid to ask about what may come later down the line. “You might ask, ‘Is this salary at the end of your budget or is there room for me to still grow?’,” Kirk suggests. The answer they provide to that question will let you know whether the position is likely to bring you long-term financial growth.

How to be an ally to your women of color colleagues

You don’t have to be a woman of color to appreciate fairness and equality. If you want to do your part to ensure a level-playing field in the workplace, there are tangible actions you can take.

An advocate is someone who helps a woman of color be more visible in the workplace. If it’s a manager, he or she may offer the woman of color stretch projects or partner them with individuals at higher levels in the organization, Duncan says. “An ally is a vocal advocate who uses their voice to bring attention to me by speaking up for me and others that are disadvantaged.”

*Equal pay figures for this community vary widely by ethnicity.

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