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Black Women Aren’t Paid Fairly – And It Starts as Early as Age 16

Here’s a stark statistic: On average, Black women make 63 cents for every dollar a white man makes. It will take a Black women more than a year and a half — in fact, until August 3, 2021 — to earn the same amount of money that a white man earned in 2020.

According to LeanIn, this pay inequality begins early. From age 16, Black girls are consistently paid less than boys, and the disparity follows them throughout their careers. Black women enroll in college at higher rates than white men, but those who have bachelor’s degrees earn 35% less than white men on average.

As a Black woman who’s spent more than two decades in the mostly white male world of management consulting, I’ve learned that no matter where you are in the hierarchy, advocating for pay equity is something we all must do. And it’s not just about your current paycheck. Over the course of our careers, the lost income adds up to a LOT — almost a million dollars for Black women compared to white men.

Beginning your career with an eye on pay equity is a key first step. When I was about seven years into my career, I learned that a colleague straight out of business school was being paid significantly more than I was. (He let it slip during a social event.) While he was complaining about all the work he was doing for the salary, I was struck by the stark difference between our salaries. I decided to do something about it — and the lessons I learned have helped me to advocate for the pay I deserved throughout my career.

If you’re just starting out in your career, know that while the racial and gender pay gap is a systemic issue, you can do your bit, too. Here are four steps to take if you suspect you’re not being paid fairly.

Do your research.

My colleague’s informal information drop fueled me to figure out if he was making much more than he should have been — or if I was making much less. While many companies have begun including salary ranges in job postings (a practice that signals that a company is committed to equitable compensation), not all organizations are this transparent.

First, I dug into the company’s salary structures. Human Resources shared with me the salary bands by level as it was information any employee could access. If you don’t have access to this kind of data, ask a trusted peer if they’re willing to share salary ranges. I then did industry research on sites such as Glassdoor and Payscale to learn what I could about what I’d be worth elsewhere.

Understanding how your company pays is key too. For example, through conversations with colleagues you might discover that it’s not only you — it’s that your company consistently lowballs employees. (In which case it might be time to start looking elsewhere.) If you don’t have trusted relationships with colleagues to ask those kinds of questions, I’ve found the peer-sharing app Fishbowl to be extremely helpful in gauging salary data anonymously.

I suggest tracking and understanding your salary in the context of your industry and your company. I always look at the higher end of the pay scale, and if I am more than 5% below it, it’s a red flag that I might need to dig further.

Prepare.

The data that you’ve gathered is key to having an informed conversation about your salary with decision-makers at your company.

As a Black woman, I’ve always been hesitant to call out a pay discrepancy as direct consequence of my race or gender. While the structural issues are undeniable, I’ve found in my experience that there might have been other reasons that my pay may not be on par with a colleague’s. Maybe he or she was hired through an acquisition of a company that had a different pay structure, or maybe they simply asked for more money when they negotiated their job offer.

But I am comfortable having a fact-based, data-driven conversation that accounts for both the hard work and performance I have put in and the average salary for my position either at my company or elsewhere.

Conversations about money can be hard, so role-play before you have them. Enlist the help of a friend or mentor, or simply run through the conversation yourself.

In doing so, try to list out all the possible questions and objections that can come from the other side. This helps the conversation go more smoothly and ensures that your answers are less clunky when the hard questions come up. (And they inevitably will.) Preparation will allow you to walk into an otherwise nerve-wracking meeting with confidence and authority.

Have the hard conversation.

When I decided I needed to do something about the difference between my pay and my colleague’s, my first stop was my counselor, who was the liaison between me and Human Resources. The problem? She stumbled through the meeting, reddening at the thought of salary discrepancies. It was uncomfortable, and I could have dropped it then, but it’s essential that you drive the process behind these discussions about pay.

So, I took my prepared, evidence-based, data-driven conversation to the next level and met with HR about a pay increase — noting that a colleague with less experience was being paid more, but also laying out the case for why I deserved it. You must have these difficult conversations — and you also have to follow through.

Approach the conversation with a factual, objective tone. Here’s some sample language:

Thanks for connecting with me today. I’ve had a great experience with the company and am looking forward to finding other ways to create impact and drive value for our clients. As a result, I’d like to discuss my salary, and I’m looking for your support and guidance here.”

I appreciate your time today. I enjoy the work I do and am thrilled at the opportunity to grow my career here. I want to share some thoughts based on research I’ve done regarding salary, and I’d love your thoughts on it.”

When I had this conversation with my HR team, nothing happened for several months. Eventually, with persistence, I did get that pay increase. The experience left a bad taste in my mouth, however, and I wound up beginning to look for a new opportunity and leaving about six months later. 

Be your own advocate.

I’ve always been able to walk into salary adjustment or promotion conversations knowing the value that I bring to the table. If you’re a high performer, armed with data and evidence about your work, it’s difficult for the employer to say no.

What’s most important is that you are prepared to tell your story. Salary decisions are often being vetted by people that may not see your day-to-day contributions. Help them to understand the value you bring to the table and to envision your future with the company and the contributions that you’ll continue to make if you feel valued.

Instead of saying, “I have been managing a team of eight, and we’ve been consistently meeting our goals,” you could say, “I’ve been working with the smallest team, yet we’ve managed to continuously meet and often surpass our monthly goals. We’re on track to reach the $1.2 million much further ahead of schedule than the other teams.”

Make them understand that you’re willing to stick around and will continue to be a rock star — you just want to be paid fairly.

Pay inequality is a serious issue that needs to be addressed systematically. However, by holding employers accountable through strategies to ensure our own pay equity, right from the start of our careers, we can help close the racial and gender pay gap.

Head shot of Christie Lindor

Source: Harvard Business Review Aug 2018

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