By Janell Ross

Equal Pay Day usually marks the apex of public conversation about women’s average earnings, the persistence of gender discrimination and its life-altering effects.

But most of the spotlight fades away after that day, which is the point each year when women’s earnings theoretically catch up to what men earned during the previous year. And for at least two groups of American women — black and Latina — the wage gap remains not only very real, but also too large to surmount in an average lifetime.

What’s happening with the wages paid to these women in the United States often shapes the economic fortunes of entire households.

“There is a confluence of forces which absolutely create what I call the wage gap squared or the double gap,” said Michelle Holder, an assistant professor of economics at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Holder, an economist, is researching the role which the double gap plays in sustaining corporate profits and has assessed reams of data on American workers and their pay.

The National Women's Law Center, a women’s rights research and advocacy organization, late last month released a state by state analysis of wages paid to women and men working full time between 2013 and 2017. The report indicates that while women overall earn about 80 cents for every dollar earned by white men, a figure unchanged for the last decade, those losses add up to stunning figures over a career. And the picture is even more bleak for Native American and black women, as well as Latinas.

“One of the realities that the wage gap deniers miss is that women of color are overrepresented in low-wage jobs, under-represented in high wage jobs, and tend to be affected by multiple forms of discrimination," Maya Raghu, director of Workplace Equality at the National Women's Law Center, said. "Discrimination is so pervasive that even the idea that women ‘choose’ lower-paying careers is — well — faulty. You have to examine how real those ‘choices,’ are.”

Girls are also often steered into certain jobs and majors, Raghu said. Studies show they are often praised for exhibiting certain behaviors such as compassion and punished for aggression or unmasked competitiveness. These patterns can continue in adulthood. Racial stereotypes and intragroup pressures can also play a role in the jobs women pick, feel they must keep and how they should pursue them.

Rhonda Sharpe, a black economist and founder of The Women’s Institute for Science, Equity and Race, gave up a tenured job at a college, a move that many people questioned and for which she, at times, felt guilty. She worries more about young women of color emerging into a workforce in which stories about the double wage gap and disadvantage appear every year.

“Of course, it has some kind of effect,” Sharpe said. “The question is what kind of effect? Are they going to be more willing to walk into spaces and negotiate because they have this information or do they walk in and take what they can get because they do have this information? Or do they opt out of the entire thing?”

The double gap connects to many things. Sharpe sees young black women seeking to take on careers such as professional online influencers as a possible response to the realities of labor force trends.

But she also wonders what the nation might learn if it culled more details from its pay data, what’s happening to single black women without children, Asian married mothers and Latinas with graduate degrees. The answers might be useful to policymakers and those who shape programs.

What is clear is that some jobs are underpaid and always have been because they are dominated by women, such as anything involving caregivingand education, Raghu said. In fields like nursing, once overwhelmingly staffed by women, wages began to rise as men entered the field in larger numbers. In education and caregiving, men also tend to take home bigger paychecks and to be advanced into senior roles.

Differences in the industries in which black women and others are concentrated certainly plays a role in the the double pay gap. So, too, does the continued gap in educational attainment -- specifically who graduates from college.

Still, black women have the highest labor force participation rate of all women and, most years, work more hours. Sometimes that’s also happening at multiple jobs. And, for black women, limited movement in the minimum wage and the fact that the tipped minimum wage has remained unchanged for almost 30 years also have a deep impact.

Black women and Latinas make up the majority of those working in many food service, hospitality and retail jobs.

“The problem is even after you control for all of that, there is still this residual difference in wages between white men and black women that cannot be accounted for,” Holder said. “Some of it simply comes down to discrimination.”

Holder is in the process of analyzing federal data detailing the earnings of American-born black women and white men with the same levels of education and work experience working in the same industry in 2017. She’s spotted vast gaps, she said. She attributes them to systemic discrimination and its ongoing legacy, and the strength and reach of white men’s personal and professional networks.

“To get a job and secure a salary, you need access to information about jobs and what they tend to pay, how the place works. You can really only get so much information online.”

Holder and many other researchers use white men as the barometer, she said, because white men are the group who have been consistently best able to negotiate wages that outstrip their experience or education.

Among those working full time, women, on average, earn about $406,760 less than men over the course of a 40-year career, according to the law center’s analysis. Native American women lose $977,720, black women lose $946,120 and Latinas lose $1.14 million over the same period due to the wage gap.

The wage gaps amassed over a 40-year career are so massive that Native American women need to keep working to the age of 89 to catch up with the earnings of non-Hispanic white men. For black women, that point happens around the age of 86 and for Latinas, at 95.