On so-called Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, we are told that we are victims of a double whammy — our gender and our race. Black women earn 38 percent less than white men and have to work eight months longer to catch up to what they earn in one year.
Although data point to other factors as drivers of gender pay gaps, that doesn’t matter. To those peddling the victimization narrative, there’s no room for personal agency. Dreams and ambition are powerless against the perceived goliath of discrimination.
Instead of playing the violin for black women, let’s look at ways that we can empower them to earn more while respecting the choices they make in the workplace and life. Those choices actually lead to personal fulfillment and improve life in black communities.
According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), on average black woman make 62 percent of white men’s median annual earnings in 2016. That translates to working 20 months to earn what white men earned in just 12 months.
First, we should question the accuracy of this statistic. IWPR analyzed Census data, which draws wages for in 14 and 15-year-olds, rather the Bureau of Labor Statistics wage data which only looks at workers aged 16 and older and for good reason. How many 14 or 15-year-olds do you know work full-time, year-round?
This likely skews the numbers to paint a worse picture.
Nevertheless, women’s groups are running with this statistic to support a narrative that black women have an even higher mountain to climb because of racial discrimination. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In Foundation and the National Urban League used it as a starting point for a new survey on the attitudes about black women’s pay.
According to what they’ve released, one out of three Americans is unaware of the pay gap between black women and white men, and half of white men think the obstacles blocking advancement for black women are gone compared to just 14 percent of black women.
A hyperfocus on discrimination conveniently overlooks others factors at work in gender pay differences. For example, women work fewer hours than men and fewer women work full-time than men. Women are more likely to work in lower-paying occupation — and this is especially true for black women.
It’s not surprising that black women are under-represented in high-paying management, professional, and related occupations, because many (including even those with college degrees) gravitate to jobs and careers in health care, human services, retail, and education which are lower paying.
Women also consider non-financial benefits like flexibility and enjoyment of future work when choosing a major, while men are more concerned with salaries and status. For black women, careers helping people offer them the chance to care for the educational, physical, and emotional needs of their families and communities.
To help black women in the workforce, we must first acknowledge that in choosing worthwhile careers, they willingly make tradeoffs for higher wages. That’s not a negative judgment, but a realistic view of how the market values occupations versus how individuals value their time.
If we want to move women into higher-paying jobs or careers in high-paying fields, we must develop their human capital. That begins with a solid primary and secondary education. For those in poor areas and low-performing schools, school choice offers young women better educational opportunities and a chance to be exposed to career paths that they wouldn’t otherwise consider.
Expanding the pipeline of black female talent requires helping young women understand the skills, majors, degrees, and relationships needed to obtain those opportunities.
Boosting mentorship at earlier ages is a key factor.
Not every young woman will go to college. For those who would seek an alternative career path, apprenticeships can be invaluable in gaining skills and experience and building relationships with prospective employers that lead to employment.
The White House recently announced a public-private initiative with major companies to create 3.8 million apprenticeships and training opportunities. Efforts like this could help close wage and skills gaps and create pipelines of diverse workers for companies.
Black women are also finding success at creating their own ladders rather than climbing the corporate ladder. They are the fast-growing demographic of entrepreneurs, but they need access to training, capital, and mentorship to grow their businesses. (Making small business tax relief permanent will also allow them to reinvest in their businesses the way corporations have been able to thanks to the recent tax cuts.)
The strength of the American workforce is the skill and ingenuity of its workers. Helping black women build the human capital to succeed in whatever career they choose is more empowering to knock down obstacles than playing up the victim mentality. We shouldn’t turn a blind eye to discrimination, but we shouldn’t let it blind us to opportunity either.
Patrice Lee Onwuka is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Independent Women’s Forum and a contributor to Bold Global Media. Onwuka has worked in the advocacy and communications fields for more than a decade. Prior to joining IWF, she served as national spokeswoman and communications director at Generation Opportunity, and worked at The Philanthropy Roundtable and the Fund for American Studies in policy and media roles. She was also a speech writer for a United Nations spokesman. Onwuka is a regular guest on Fox News, Fox Business News, MSNBC, and PBS programs. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Hill, Bloomberg, The Washington Times, the New York Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and other outlets. She holds a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science from Tufts University and a master’s degree in economics and international relations from Boston College. Follow her @PatricePinkFil. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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