Black Women’s Equal Pay: Taking Legal Action

Anyone who has spent time around children knows that the concept of “what’s fair” is often front and center, as young children innately know when the rules of a game or contest just don’t seem right. Many women of color know that the game, when it comes to equal pay, it is not fair. August 23rd is African American Women’s Equal Pay Day and takes place on the day black women catch up to white men’s pay from the prior year.

Latina Equal Pay Day takes place in November. So in comparison, Black women have to work about 20 months to earn what a white man earns in 12 months, and Latina women have to work 23 months. Based on a report by the National Women’s Law Center, the lifetime wage gap is staggering – women lose $430,480 over the course of a 40-year career.

For African American women, the losses are $877,480, for Latina’s the career losses mount to $1,007,080. There are six states, including the District of Columbia, where the lifetime gap for black women has already surpassed $1m:

District of Columbia: $1,595,200

New Jersey:                $1,231,600

Connecticut:                $1,140,400

Louisiana:                    $1,134,880

California:                   $1,046,960

Massachusetts:           $1,022,440

A key factor in the wage gap is that Latina and African American women are underrepresented in high-paying occupations like law and engineering. Programs that mentor young girls interested in higher paying occupations, such as those associated with STEM, will be crucial in closing the wage gap.

Unfortunately, education cannot be the only path to closing the pay gap. A report by the American Association of University Women found that at all levels of education; women’s median earnings are less than men’s median earnings. Further, Black women with a high level of education still experience a wage gap.

African American women with a bachelor’s degree typically make only $1,849 more a year than white men with a high school diploma.

Legislation addressing the gap is vital. Laws regulating pay have been proven to have an impact. For instance, employers know that U.S wage and hour laws are strict and they can face very steep penalties for violating federal and state wage and hour laws, therefore most employers adjust their compliance accordingly.

The Paycheck Fairness Act is proposed legislation, introduced in every Congressional session since 1997, which would strengthen the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Fair Labor Standards Act by adding enforcement tools and remedies. The Act would provide much needed legal protections, such as:

  • Requiring employers to demonstrate that wage differentials are based on factors other than sex;
  • Prohibiting retaliation against workers who inquire about their employers’ wage practices or disclose their own wages;
  • Strengthening penalties for equal pay violations;
  • Directing the Department of Labor to collect wage-related data and;
  • Implement programs to train women in ways to better negotiate their wages.

While stronger federal legislation has yet to come to fruition, states are passing equal pay reforms. Connecticut, New York and Oregon have enacted legislation that prohibits employers from discriminating or retaliating against employees who discuss their wages. And in North Dakota, law makes it harder for employers to use non-work-related defenses to defeat pay discrimination claims.

As we continue to raise awareness on this large disparity,  women should not forget their bargaining power in negotiating wages.

When negotiating wages we have to remember that the pay offered is just that – an offer – and more than likely your employer or prospective employer expects you to negotiate.

You should counter and include reasons why you are entitled to a higher pay – such as your education, or experiences you have the employer may not be aware of.

Share this article to spread the word about Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, and continue the discussion on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. 


Shavon Smith


Shavon is the principal of The SJS Law Firm, PLLC where she counsels business owners on a variety of legal issues including entity selection and formation, employment matters - including wage and hour issues, intellectual property, compliance, contracts, and resolution of disputes. Shavon frequently speaks on business topics such as business and legal planning and regularly volunteers with various organizations to provide pro bono assistance to community entrepreneurs. She is a graduate of Howard University School of Law.

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Walker's Legacy is a growing global women in business collective founded to establish networks of empowerment and access for women of color in business.