Underpaid and Fed Up: Black Women Level up Despite the Wage Gap

Detroit resident Chantel Watkins, 30, is the lead organizer for Michigan One Fair Wage, part of a national organization that champions fair pay. Watkins wants Black women to be paid fairly.

Photo provided by Chantel Watkins


“The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman.


“The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.”


Malcolm X spoke those words in 1962 during a speech on the power of Black women despite overwhelming struggles. A few generations later his words still resonate, especially when it comes to discussing Black women and the wage gap.


Typically, Black women in the United States are paid 38 percent less than white men and 21 percent less than white women, according to national reports.


According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), an equity-based organization, women, especially Black and Latina women, were more likely to work in low-wage jobs.


The pay and wealth disparities that Black women face impact not only the person but the families they support. About 80 percent of Black mothers are the sole, co- or primary breadwinners for their households, according to the report. And a good-paying job could mean the “difference between struggling and sustainability for a family.”


According to the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit public policy organization, the overall Black-white wealth gap over the past three decades has increased. The median wealth of white households grew from $106,900 in 1992 to $185,400 in 2007 which is 7.8 times more than the average Black household ($24,100). According to the Federal Reserve, in the second quarter of 2020, white households—who make up 60 percent of the U.S. population—held 84 percent or $94 trillion of total household wealth in the U.S.


In comparison, Black households—who account for 13.4 percent of the U.S. population—held just 4 percent or $4.6 trillion of total household wealth.

According to the U.S. Census, on average, Black women were paid 63 percent of what non-Hispanic white men were paid in 2019. To put into context, it would take the average Black woman 19 months to be paid what the average white man takes home in 12 months. That percentage is well below the national earnings ratio for all women, 82 percent, as reported in AAUW’s The Simple Truth about the Gender Pay Gap.


Chantel Watkins, 30, of Detroit, knows all about pay gaps. As the lead organizer for Michigan One Fair Wage, part of a national organization that champions fair pay. Watkins told The Michigan Chronicle that the organization is committed to fighting for $15 an hour for all hourly and tipped workers.


“We have people all over the country who work with legislators, workers, volunteers and organizers to get people a fair wage,” she said. “The people involved the most are actual workers, especially restaurant workers. People in the restaurant industry are paid minimum and a subminimum wage that has them living in poverty and putting up with work conditions they otherwise would not.”


These inequities didn’t happen in a vacuum.


Historically, Black women have been undervalued and even skipped over for opportunities although they are the most educated group in the United States according to national statistics. This is nothing new. During the 1930s and 1940s, Black women had few career choices: maid, nanny, laundress or cook. Forty percent of Black women worked in some type of domestic job, according to information from the Detroit Historical Society’s (DHS) Detroit Historical Museum. Racial discrimination prevented Black women from being educated and employed fairly. And when World War II began, Black women wanted the opportunity to have a good-paying factory job, like white women, but were often excluded from these positions, according to information from the DHS.


“The Housewives League of Detroit, an organization focused on bettering the lives of Black citizens, fought against wartime discriminations. The organization held meetings asking why Black women weren’t being hired in the factories,” according to the DHS. In 1943, Detroit’s War Manpower Commission estimated that 28,000 Black women were available for work.


Watkins, similar to sisters before her, is helping people stand in the gap, too, when it comes to equitable employment.


“On a daily basis I am interacting with people, mainly women of color, to give them a fighting chance economically,” she said, adding that she knows what being underpaid feels like. “It sucked.”


Watkins, who worked at a spa for two years, said that she was overworked and underpaid and could not pay all of her bills.


“If I did not live with someone else, I wouldn’t have been able to survive,” she said, adding that places like the hospitality and restaurant industry ask for “back-breaking work with a smile for what equates to pennies.”


Watkins wants more women to openly tell other women what they make to ensure fair treatment and to see the wage gap closed for good.


“The wage gap [allows] Black women to be severely mistreated and it is time it stops now,” she said, adding that due to centuries of racism and patriarchy Black women are still “stereotyped as less than.”


This longtime nationwide (even worldwide) issue is inspiring others to speak up. A Black woman, who has worked at Amazon since 2017 is suing the company for racial discrimination, according to a CBS News article. She says that the company doesn’t promote employees of color and pays them less than white coworkers. She applied for a higher-up job and though she was qualified she was passed over for someone else. The lawsuit was filed this month.


Retired Southfield resident Marilyn French Hubbard, who owns Church’s Chicken franchises in Ohio and had an illustrious career, can relate — it happened to her, too.


Hubbard literally wrote the book on Black women getting better pay. As the author of “Sisters Are Cashing In: How Every Woman Can Make Her Financial Dreams Come True” (penned in 2000), she, too, knows about being paid unfairly despite excelling at her job.


“Many times I was lowballed … and (I) felt it was just because I’m Black and a woman. When a promotion was presented to me several times, I turned the promotions down …I came in knowing my value and my worth,” she said.


Hubbard also formed the Michigan Chapter of the National Association of Black Women Entrepreneurs in 1980, which grew to 5,000 members.


Hubbard, in her 70s, had a 20-year career in health care, and was appointed to leadership roles by Presidents Carter, Clinton and both Bush’s. She also served on a Presidential Transition team, two Detroit Mayoral Transition Teams, and more, she said in an interview with The Michigan Chronicle and reports.


Hubbard also recalls times when she, too, felt passed over after entering corporate America at 45 years of age. Back then she was a divorced, single mother with a teenage son.


Hubbard said that she started her organization because a lot of women couldn’t find jobs.


“And I was like let’s create our own,” she said, adding that the glass ceiling for Black women is a bit thicker. “Black women are trying to break … a concrete ceiling. We have to chop at it so it can really get shattered.”


Despite the challenges women are still facing, Hubbard is inspired by younger women (like Watkins) who are “stepping up to the plate.”


She added that Black women need to harness “our own power” like they did during the November election and take that into the workforce.


“I think it’s going to take us banding together supporting each other so some of this craziness goes away,” she said.


Detroit wants to address this issue during its “Equal Pay and Equality for Women” Facebook live discussion at noon Friday, March 19. The discussion will feature Dara Walker, a talent acquisition specialist with the City of Detroit, and Barb Rozman-Stokes, chief talent officer with Campbell Ewald.


Find the event on the City of Detroit’s Facebook page.





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