Closing The Gap

5 black women talk starting salaries, being underpaid and how they asked for more

Tonya Rapley, April Reign, Karen Civil, Minda Harts and Leslie Mac share stories about negotiating your worth in the workplace. 
Credit: Bryce Churchill
Tonya Rapley, April Reign, Karen Civil, Minda Harts and Leslie Mac share stories about negotiating your worth in the workplace. 

Equal Pay Day, the symbolic annual reminder of how far women have to work into the new year to earn the same pay white men earned the previous year, took place this year on April 10th.

Now, four months later, Black Women's Equal Pay Day has finally arrived. On average, black women have to work eight additional months to achieve pay equity with white men. (This year, Native American and Latina women won't cross this threshold until September 7th and November 1st, respectively.)

Currently, black women are paid 38 percent less than white men and 21 percent less than white women, according to new data released by SurveyMonkey and LeanIn.org in partnership with the National Urban League. Over the course of a typical career, this amounts to nearly $870,000 in lost wages.

Systematic issues of discrimination and workplace bias play a huge role in these statistics. But in addition to drawing attention to the need to combat these problems, Black Women's Equal Pay Day provides an opportunity to discuss how black women can be better advocates for themselves at work.

CNBC Make It interviewed five black women about their compensation history and the negotiating advice they have for other women looking to earn what they're worth. Here's what they told us:

Tonya Rapley, millennial money expert, founder of My Fab Finance

My Fab Finance founder Tonya Rapley
My Fab Finance founder Tonya Rapley

Tonya Rapley is a nationally-recognized millennial money expert. She founded the award-winning site, My Fab Finance, in 2013. Rapley has been featured on several platforms including Forbes, NY Daily News, Cheddar, Essence.com and Refinery29.

What was your first job out of school?

My first job out of college was working as a customer service representative for Windstream Communications. It was a means to an end, as I was having a hard time getting hired out of college. I know for sure I wasn't making more than $16 an hour.

Were you paid fairly for the work you were doing at that time? If not, how did you find out you were underpaid?

Absolutely not, but I learned I was not alone in this, and most of the individuals who started in my position were underpaid so I'm not sure if negotiating would have made a difference. It was one of the most stressful jobs I have ever done, which is why I lasted less than six months before finding a position that was more related to my degree.

What negotiating advice do you wish you had known in your 20s?

To ask anyway. Just because it appears to be corporate protocol does not mean there isn't wiggle room for more money.

What advice do you have for black women today who are thinking about asking for a raise?

No matter how qualified you are, don't underestimate the benefit of stating your value and what you bring to the table in your request. You should also understand your skill sets and leverage them when making your ask.

And in the event that you don't get the raise, don't automatically take it personally. While it could be personal, immediately defaulting to this response and belief puts you in an emotional state, rather than a strategic one.

April Reign, Senior Director of Marketing at Fractured Atlas

Senior Director of Marketing for Fractured Atlas April Reign
Senior Director of Marketing for Fractured Atlas April Reign

April Reign is a senior director of marketing at non-profit arts organization Fractured Atlas. In addition to her day job, she is a speaker and diversity consultant who built a large online following in 2015 with her viral #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, which challenged Hollywood's lack of representation in film.

What was your first job out of school?

Right after college I went to law school and I didn't have a job in between. So my first job after law school was working as a young lawyer at a law firm.

Were you paid fairly for the work you were doing at that time? If not, how did you find out you were underpaid?

I honestly don't know, and I think that is part of the problem. There is this lack of transparency in respect to salary. It was enough, but I don't know if it was actually fair.

What negotiating advice do you wish you had known in your 20s?

To research my job and its starting salary in my geographic location so that I could know the average pay.

What advice do you have for black women today who are thinking about asking for a raise?

I think women always, especially black women, undervalue what we do. So you should always determine what you deserve and then add 25 percent.

At my current job at Fractured Atlas, they were very transparent about salary and I absolutely love that. So I knew what the starting salary was going into the interview. And so when they gave the offer I said, "You know what, based off what I am bringing to the table, I think I am this plus 25 percent." And my team lead, because we don't actually have bosses, said, "I needed you to say that." She said, "I needed you to ask for more money because I wanted to give it to you, but I couldn't just offer it." So, they came back to me and were like, "Yes, we will give you everything you asked for." And you know, that is an amazing feeling.

Karen Civil, CEO of Live Civil and Always Civil

Karen Civil, CEO of Live Civil and Always Civil 
Karen Civil, CEO of Live Civil and Always Civil 

Karen Civil is CEO of the marketing and branding agency Always Civil and founder of the blog site, Live Civil. She's been dubbed a "self-made marketing guru for the hip-hop generation" by Complex and has created branding campaigns for artists and companies including Lil Wayne, Beats by Dre and Nipsey Hussle.

What was your first job out of school?

My first job was at Burger King in Elizabeth, New Jersey. I was making $5.15 an hour.

Were you paid fairly for the work you were doing at that time? If not, how did you find out you were underpaid?

At the time, I thought I was. But after a few months, I learned that certain people who lacked the skills I possessed were getting paid $5.75 an hour. When the shift managers didn't find it necessary to give me a raise, I decided to move forward with a new job at Nautica where I was making $7.25 an hour.

What negotiating advice do you wish you had known in your 20s?

When you're an independent contractor/entrepreneur, you have to realistically know what's worth your time. My motto now is to never step over a dollar to pick up a nickel. You just have to understand that certain projects are not worth the energy.

What advice do you have for black women today who are thinking about asking for a raise?

If you're in a male-dominated industry, like myself in entertainment, you have to work twice as hard just to be respected or given the same opportunities as others. Some women think the way to combat this is to up-sell their talents while offering them at a discount. But the biggest mistake we can make is to undersell and overwork ourselves. If you do quality work, then you need to believe in yourself and never lose sight of your worth.

Remember, don't be afraid to do your research and add that to your negotiation. You can include details like, "Other people in this position are making this annually," or "The average pay rate for this company is." This will show how serious and detail-oriented you are when dealing with business.

Minda Harts, CEO of The Memo

The Memo LLC founder Minda Harts
The Memo LLC founder Minda Harts

Minda Harts is the founder and CEO of The Memo LLC, a career development platform for women of color. She's also the creator of the #SecuretheSeat podcast and in 2016 was named a Change Maker at The White House State of Women Summit.

What was your first job out of school?

My first job out of college was an administrative assistant position. They offered me $28,000 and I asked for $30,000 and received it. It was more than my family's total household income growing up and I felt like it was a lot of money since I had spent my formative years working at fast food restaurants and grocery stores for minimum wage.

Were you paid fairly for the work you were doing at that time? If not, how did you find out you were underpaid?

At the time, I had no idea if I was being paid fairly or how to negotiate. I solely based my desired salary on how much my bills would be each month. Shortly after college, I signed a lease for a studio apartment in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago. I knew that I had to make at least $30,000 to pay all of my bills and have a little bit left over. So that was the reason why I asked for more.

What negotiating advice do you wish you had known in your 20s?

In my 20s, I let companies and hiring managers tell me what I was worth. The main piece of advice I would give my younger self is to know your worth before you start any negotiation process because knowing your worth is the most important mindset shift you will ever make.

What advice do you have for black women today who are thinking about asking for a raise?

I think its important for young black women to conduct research on their desired position. Negotiation is a high stakes game and you can't show up unprepared. At the very least, you should know what the market rate is for the job. Knowing this information will set you up for success and allow you to incorporate this information into your counter-argument if you are being offered a salary lower than the going market rate.

Leslie Mac, community organizer, activist and writer

Community organizer and writer Leslie Mac
Community organizer and writer Leslie Mac

Leslie Mac is a community organizer, activist and writer. After the shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in 2014, she created the Ferguson Response Network to provide additional support for people working to create lasting social change. She is also the creator of the hashtag #PayBlackWomen, which trended last week after lawmakers and activists joined the conversation to discuss the need for black women to be paid equally.

What was your first job out of school?

My first job out of college was as a restaurant manager. I was working for a restaurant chain doing corporate training for them. I remember I was making like $32,000 a year.

Were you paid fairly for the work you were doing at that time? If not, how did you find out you were underpaid?

At the time, I thought it was a really good salary and I was excited about it. But looking back, I was underpaid and doing so many other job functions in my corporate training role. And so you know, when I think back on that time, I often think about the work we do as black women to make our communities better, to make our families better, to make our congregations better, to make whatever organization we are connected to, including the workplace, better. There is so much work that we do that is never compensated.

I would highlight that you have to get really specific about what you're asked to do, and make concerted decisions when you decide to go above and beyond. That shouldn't be the norm, and I think a lot of times we make that the norm and ultimately it devalues the hours we spend doing work because it's on stuff we're not being paid for.

What negotiating advice do you wish you had known in your 20s?

I think there is a tricky piece to negotiating as a black woman, right? Because our confidence is often misconstrued as arrogance and our enthusiasm is frequently positioned as anger. So we have to go into these conversations around negotiation with an understanding about how we're going to be read and what we can do to combat it.

What advice do you have for black women today who are thinking about asking for a raise?

One thing I really suggest is practicing your negotiation. I do this with my friends and we will just have some role play and a couple of different scenarios. So spend time practicing that like you would the interview process. I actually think it's part of the interview process, but oftentimes we think of it as something separate.

I would also say seek allies in the workplace. A lot of times we go into work situations where we don't have these conversations with each other, and therefore, we are not able to build collective power. We have a corporate culture in this country where what you are making is supposed to be a secret and this feeds into the biases around salary. I always say whatever you're doing, talk to people about how much you're getting paid, even if it's just for a conference where you are getting paid to speak. This way, you and other people know how much you should be getting paid for a job if you all have similar backgrounds or are doing similar work.

We have to remember that getting a raise likely won't happen by happenstance. Unlike our white male counterparts who have room to fail up, we don't have that luxury. And so we really have to be strategic in our approach.

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Don't miss: Reminder: Today isn't Equal Pay Day for black, Latina or Native American women