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Women of color are paying the highest price for the gender pay gap

The pay gap is significantly worse for women of color, with black women earning just 61 cents for every dollar a man earns. (Illustration: MAKERS/Nathalie Gonzalez)

When Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) first introduced the Paycheck Fairness Act in 1997, she did so with a seemingly simple goal: to ensure that women and men, when doing the same job, are paid equally. Twenty-two years later, it’s a vision that’s yet to be realized.

In a hopeful moment last week — perhaps fueled by Equal Pay Day, on April 2 — the bill successfully passed through the House of Representatives, the first time it’s done so in eight years. But despite this win — which Speaker Nancy Pelosi hailed as “historic” — experts say it’s unlikely to make it through the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may not even bring it to a vote.

For women, who reports show earn just a fraction of what men in equivalent jobs do, this is not good news. But for women of color, who earn significantly less, it’s worse.

According to a report from the National Partnership for Women & Families (NPWF), women in the U.S. who hold full-time, year-round jobs are typically paid 80 cents for every dollar a man earns. But the number decreases when divided by race. Black women, according to U.S. Census data, take home just 61 cents for every dollar a white man earns, Native American women 58 cents, and Latina women 53 (Asian American women, the exception, take home 85 cents for every dollar a man earns).

When considering yearly pay for women of color, the gap is particularly egregious. According to NPWF, the median annual pay for a black woman in the United States who holds a full-time job is $36,735, while the median annual pay for a white, non-Hispanic man who holds a full-time, year-round job is $60,388. If this gap was eliminated, it would allow black women to pay the full cost of tuition at a two-year college, over 30 months of childcare, and 17 months of employer-based premium health care.

(Illustration: MAKERS/Nathalie Gonzalez)

So what’s contributing to this gap, specifically for women of color?

While discrimination due to gender and race is a major contributor, an overlooked aspect may be the lack of opportunities and support available to women in certain communities. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, women are overrepresented in lower-paying service jobs, such as healthcare and food service and are more likely to be living below the poverty line. They also, according to NPWF, face workplace discrimination and harassment at higher rates.

Similar issues exist among Latina women, with the Joint Economic Committee report from Congress in 2015 finding this group twice as likely to live in poverty as non-Hispanic whites, four times less likely to have a have completed high school, and far less likely to have access to child care or parental leave. Native American women also disproportionately grow up in poverty, according to the Economic Policy Institute, have a far higher chance of unemployment, and are less likely to earn their GED.

Kangela Moore understands these disparities, and their impact, all too well. She had been working as a school safety agent for 18 years when a class action lawsuit in New York City brought to her attention that she was being discriminated against. Moore and her agency colleagues — 70 percent of whom were women of color — were being paid $7,000 less each year than men in the same positions.

“I had been on the job for 22 years. That’s 150-something thousand dollars,” Moore tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “All of the shortcuts I had to take during those years to make ends meet, all the things I did to try to compensate, which took me away from my family. All the overtime I worked for a little vacation. Knowing we were shortchanged, knowing we were women, and knowing we were women of color — it kept compounding, insult on injury.”

Five years after launching the case, Moore and her colleagues won. But the payout doesn’t make up for the years she struggled. “For years we were shortchanged in education for our children, in the healthcare we could afford, in the food that we could eat,” says Moore. “This puts people behind.”

Monica Ramirez, an activist and civil rights attorney who created Justice for Migrant Women — the first U.S. project dedicated to addressing gender discrimination against farmworker and migrant women — echoes these points, saying there’s no one single factor driving the pay disparity between white men and women of color, but rather a “confluence of compounding circumstances.”

“Women of color have less money for rent, food, childcare, basic necessities, educational costs and savings, among other things,” Ramirez tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “It takes women of color longer to pay back student loans, inhibits our ability to build wealth and limits opportunities for ourselves and our children for generations.”

Emboldened by these sobering facts, the NPWF is working to find solutions — pushing companies to get involved alongside Congress. “The private sector must do more to ensure all women are paid fairly,” Sarah Fleisch Fink, general counsel and director NPWF tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “This means addressing sexual harassment and pregnancy discrimination; providing paid sick days and paid family and medical leave to support family caregiving; raising wages and eliminating the sub-minimum wage for workers with disabilities and workers who rely on tips.” 

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), a supporter of the Paycheck Fairness Act who rather famously worked as a waitress before being the youngest woman elected to Congress, agrees. “We cannot pay people depending on their salary history,” Ocasio-Cortez said during a press conference. “It is time that we pay people what they are worth, and not how little they are desperate enough to accept.”

Ramirez, who works tirelessly to lift up women in marginalized populations, says closing the gap will take a collective effort. “Build bridges. In order for us to close the pay gap, we must work together across ethnic and racial backgrounds, economic strata, industries and sectors,” Ramirez tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “We must advocate for ourselves and others so that companies understand that we are not going to accept substandard or unequal conditions for ourselves or anyone.”

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