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By Renee Morad

African-American women are coming together to rise above gender inequality. Women of color represented the majority of new women elected to Congress in the 2018 midterm elections, and state and local elections followed a similar trend. More minority women are also climbing the corporate ranks as companies increasingly realize that a diverse workforce results in greater success. Women of color are recognized in Hollywood now more than ever before.

As we celebrate these accomplishments, particularly during Black History Month, there is still a ways to go, especially when it comes to the wage gap.

In fact, African-American women working full-time earn only 61 cents for every dollar that white, non-Hispanic males earn, according to the National Women’s Law Center. In comparison, women, in general, earn 80 cents for every dollar that their male counterparts earn.

“Women of color in the United States experience the nation’s persistent and pervasive gender wage pay most severely,” according to a report published by the National Partnership for Women & Families.

“It has been more than 55 years since the passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and women — particularly women of color — still face a pernicious wage gap,” Sarah Fleisch Fink, general counsel and director of workplace policy at the National Partnership for Women & Families in Washington, D.C., told Know Your Value. “Discrimination based on sex and race persists, and workplace harassment, job segregation and a lack of workplace policies that support family caregiving, which is still most often done by women, all contribute to the wage gap.”

If no action is taken to correct the wage gap and current trends continue, the wage gap will continue until 2059, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Making progress

There’s hope that the election of the most diverse and female Congress in history will lead to a greater emphasis on advancing pay for women of color. As Fink mentioned, over the last month alone, members of Congress reintroduced the Raise the Wage Act, the Paycheck Fairness Act and the Family And Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act — legislation intended to help to raise wages, root out pay discrimination and support women at work by providing paid family and medical leave.

We’re also seeing policies on the state and local level that ban the use of salary history in setting pay. Such policies have recently been enacted for individuals applying for jobs with the city of Atlanta and for those applying for jobs with state employers in Illinois. In a recent report cited in the Harvard Business Review, wage transparency in countries that mandate it narrow the wage gap and also increase the number of women hired and promoted into leadership roles.

“The overall numbers are still very small to be sure, but this kind of progress can build on itself,” said Kim Churches, CEO of the American Association of University Women in Washington, D.C. “Women of color have more role models to emulate and can envision themselves on similar trajectories.”

Despite this progress, “we’ve still got a long, long way to go,” Churches said. She and colleagues believe in a multi-pronged approach to equity — one that doesn’t solely rely on women for the solutions but also tackles barriers such as a lack of opportunity and access.

What’s holding us back

The historical experience of African Americans has resulted in an enormous range of economic inequalities, and the wide pay gap among black women is just one manifestation of this. The typical black household possesses just 6 percent of the wealth owned by the typical white household, which carries over into challenges for women’s opportunities for education, jobs and quality of life.

“Because of the legacy of discrimination — which persists today — women of color still do not have the opportunities that white Americans have, plain and simple,” Churches said. “This stands in the way of their earning power, which contributes to the pay gap and the leadership gap.”

“What we know is that the percentage of low-wage workers making under $15 an hour is disproportionally women and disproportionally women of color, and that makes it very difficult to move forward to save and build any cushion to get off the wage treadmill and be able to own assets,” said Chuck Collins, director of the program on inequality for the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.

A study conducted by the National Women’s Law Center found that while black women make up 13 percent of the women in the labor force, they account for 18 percent of women earning $11 or less an hour. About 28 percent of black women work in service-sector positions, which tend to have the lowest wages and often don’t provide benefits like paid sick days and parental leave.

Then there’s the fact that affordable housing continues to be pushed farther away from places of employment. “Why is affordable housing father away from many of the low-paying jobs?” Collins asked. “We’ve created an obstacle course where we put as many things in the way as possible and then blame the person for not being able to run the Olympics fast enough.”

A roadmap for closing the wage gap for women of color

Collins suggested that Americans need to dig deeper into the racial divide that is carrying over through multiple generations to pave a better way forward. A comprehensive childcare policy, particularly for women of color, could make a big impact on building wealth.

While passing the Paycheck Fairness Act and providing sufficient funding for agencies that investigate and enforce fair pay are good first steps, much more can be done. “We also need to raise the federal minimum wage and eliminate the sub-minimum tipped wage for tipped workers and workers with disabilities – this would especially help women, who are disproportionately represented in lower-wage jobs,” Fink said. “Women need supportive workplace policies like paid family and medical leave and paid sick days to help them thrive at work and stay in the workforce, as well as protections against workplace harassment and pregnancy discrimination.”

“For lasting change, we need to make a conscious effort to eliminate biases, remove those barriers and open up more opportunities for women of color, at every stage of life,” Churches added. “Equal access to quality education; affordable college and workforce development training; family friendly policies to make it possible for women to get and keep good high-paying jobs — all of these will create economic security for women and girls, and particular for women of color.”

Indeed, there’s no quick fix here, but a roadmap to close the gender wage gap for all women, and particularly women of color, could begin with increased awareness and commitment for change. “We simply need to make a firm commitment for our educational institutions, expectations of employees and support policies at a local, state and federal level that can make it happen,” Churches said.