Closing The Gap

5 black women on how women, employers and colleagues can work together to close the pay gap

Elaine Welteroth, Sherrell Dorsey and Ezinne Kwubiri
Photo credit: Getty, Sherrell Dorsey and Ezinne Kwubiri

In the U.S., the average full-time working woman earns $0.80 to every dollar earned by men. For women of color, this gap is a lot wider as they deal with the dual effects of race and gender in the workplace.

This year, April 2 marked the symbolic date for which the average woman earned the same pay as men from the previous year. Now, after eight months of working into the new year, the average black woman has finally reached the same pay white men earned the previous year. (Native American and Latina women still have to wait until September 23 and November 20, respectively, until they reach equal pay.)

Not only does this pay gap affect the amount of money women earn currently, it also impacts their earning potential for the duration of their career. Currently, the average black woman earns $0.61 to every dollar earned by a white man and stands to lose $23,653 per year. Over the course of a 40-year career, this equals a staggering $946,120 in lost wages, according to data from the National Women's Law Center.

A number of factors contribute to this disparity, including discrimination, microaggressions and underrepresentation, as pointed out by McKinsey & Company's new racial wealth gap report. But there are things that black women, their employers, and their colleagues can do to lessen — or eliminate — these disparities.

CNBC Make It spoke to five black women about how they've advocated for themselves, what they think employers can do more of and how they think allies can push for greater equality.

Elaine Welteroth, journalist and author

Elaine Welteroth attends 10th Annual DVF Awards at Brooklyn Museum on April 11, 2019 in New York City.
Dimitrios Kambouris | Getty Images

Elaine Welteroth is a journalist, New York Times bestselling author and judge on Bravo's "Project Runway." She is the former editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, where she made history as the youngest and second African-American editor-in-chief in Condé Nast history.

Black women continue to face a significant wage gap. What do you think employers can do to ensure they're closing these gaps among their own workers?

I think one of the things that hinders black women from getting the pay they deserve and getting the positions they're qualified for is this outdated notion of hiring for a "culture fit." I think we need to abandon that notion completely, because we should be hiring for our blind spots.

Hiring managers have a responsibility to make sure that their organization reflects the diversity of the audience that they serve or the consumer base, and I think oftentimes there is unconscious bias at play that keeps us from really entering into the leadership pipeline.

What steps can black women take to better advocate for themselves? Do you recall a time when you were your own advocate at work?

There have been several times throughout my career where I walked away from the table feeling like I had just low-balled myself. I think that's a common experience for many women, and particularly black women. I think we need to be more vocal and transparent with each other about how we've learned over the years to navigate salary negotiations successfully, because typically these are not hard skills that we're taught.

It takes a lot of coaching. It's like a muscle you have to strengthen and you need people who can coach you along the way. I know I have sought out peers and mentors who have been extremely helpful in getting me to learn my value. I think too often we stay in situations where we're being undervalued for fear of not finding another opportunity, or fear of upsetting the status quo or ruining the relationships that we have internally. But, I think that's why you really need to rely on your network of advocates because they can push you to see yourself in a better and bigger opportunity.

How do you think people can be better allies to their black women colleagues?

They should speak up. I think so often people are afraid of saying the wrong thing that they miss the opportunity to do the right thing.

At its core, privilege is not having to see discrimination that does not affect you. Stepping outside of your privilege to call out an unjust situation that is affecting someone else is using your privilege to empower, and I think that is our responsibility. We all have privilege and we all have the opportunity to exercise it, to empower other people. How are you using yours? And I think for white allies specifically, they have a role to play in closing the pay gap because often they have access that black women do not and will not unless someone on the inside is working on their behalf.

What advice do you have for a young black woman negotiating her first big raise?

Do your homework. There are ways to find out what the market is paying for the work you're doing, whether it's doing online research or not being afraid to ask around. I think it's on us to open up this dialogue with each other.

It's important to be prepared to prove your value before you ask for a raise and before you ask for that promotion. Every promotion I've ever received, I did the work before I got the reward, and I think that is an important key — to manage your own expectations, because it will help equip you with confidence and with a track record to speak on when you are at the negotiating table.

Sherrell Dorsey, data journalist and founder, The PLUG

ThePLUG founder Sherrell Dorsey.
Photo credit: Sherrell Dorsey

Sherrell Dorsey is a data journalist, entrepreneur and speaker. She founded The PLUG, a platform that provides in-depth reporting on the black innovation economy, in 2016.

Black women continue to face a significant wage gap. What do you think employers can do to ensure they're closing these gaps among their own workers?

I believe companies should do an audit to assess the scope of their own pay gaps — you know, get the data that will show them where inequality exists in terms of compensation, benefits, promotion and advancement for women vs. men, and women of color vs. everyone else.

What steps can black women take to better advocate for themselves? Do you recall a time when you were your own advocate at work?

As an entrepreneur and a consultant, I am constantly having to negotiate fair compensation for my work. The first price that is offered is never the one that I take. I remember getting out of college and being very timid to ask for more money. Over the course of my time being afraid, I'm very aware that I have probably left tens of thousands of dollars on the table.

I am now not afraid to walk away from deals. I learned to take the emotion out of the negotiation and assert myself, my credentials, and the value I bring to the room and to the work. I also always assume that they're willing to give me less as a black woman, so I automatically add 30% [to] my negotiations.

How do you think people can be better allies to their black women colleagues?

Advance. Promote. Support. Sponsor. My best opportunities have come at the hands of white males referring to the quality and impact of my work in rooms I have never stepped into, making introductions on my behalf to top directors and managers within the industry, and just considering me for opportunities when the other names and faces at the table didn't look like mine.

One time, I was negotiating a speaking fee from an opportunity a friend sent my way. When I told him my rate, he said to me, "You need to charge double that. Do you know who you are?" He then went back to his contact and gave them a quote that was three times my rate and that is exactly what I was paid. He forever changed my life by affirming my value and teaching me the fearlessness in asking for what I am worth.

What advice do you have for a young black woman negotiating her first big raise?

Negotiation is both art and science. Start with research: external (salary comparisons across your industry for your level of experience) and internal (your data of accomplishments, results of your work) to arm yourself with the confidence to speak intelligently about your worth and the industry. Lastly, get coached up by a mentor or someone you look up to in a high-powered position that can help you prepare and work through the nerves. Sometimes, mentors who have more experience, can give you thoughtful advice and help you refine your pitch as you position yourself for a big ask.

Gabrielle Simpson Gambrell, VP and Head of Communications, Barnard College

Barnard College's VP and Head of Communications Gabrielle Simpson Gambrell
Photo Credit: Gabrielle Simpson Gambrell

Gabrielle Simpson Gambrell is the Vice President and Head of Communications at Barnard College in New York. Previously, Gambrell served as the director of communications and public relations at the marketing and advertising company FCB Global.

Black women continue to face a significant wage gap. What do you think employers can do to ensure they're closing these gaps among their own workers?

Companies can conduct internal pay audits, assess their evaluation structures for raises and promotions, and create pipeline programs for black women through employee resource groups (ERGs) or business resource groups (BRGs). Companies should also stop asking candidates their current salary and instead provide the salary range for positions they're recruiting for.

What steps can black women take to better advocate for themselves? Do you recall a time when you were your own advocate at work?

In the black community, we have been conditioned to not discuss personal business. But, on the contrary, we should discuss our salaries with our trusted network. Many of my pay increases came from me speaking to black women in my field and acknowledging that I deserved more. In the same respect, I've coached many girlfriends into promotions because I told them they were underpaid. In New York York City it is also now illegal to ask a candidate about their current salary.

Early in my career, I had to advocate for myself when I was working very long hours, doing senior level work and not receiving a raise. One of my mentors, Tiffany Smith-Anoa'i, EVP of Entertainment Diversity, Inclusion & Communications at CBS Entertainment, told me that no one would ever drop a bag of money on my desk and, moreover, to never expect a raise or promotion without both deserving it and asking for it.

Many women think, "I work hard, so someone will notice and [reward] me." That's simply not the case.

When I asked for my first raise, I had a five-page document outlining why I deserved more and I had the courage to ask for stock in the company. I did not get the full amount that I asked for, but I did get an increase of about $15,000 and the stock, which I still have to this day.

How do you think people can be better allies to their black women colleagues?

Something black women can do is reach out to white colleagues for support and mentorship. Most executives at the top are white men, so we need white men on our team. Black women should always be on the lookout for sponsors. If there's a white colleague with whom you've successfully partnered on multiple projects and who you believe knows your value and your worth, allow that person to be a part of your network. This person may end up becoming a great sponsor for you and helping you to grow in your career.

What advice do you have for a young black woman negotiating her first big raise?

My advice to young black women negotiating their first [full-time pay] is to never take what is initially offered. The initial offer is always less than what the employer is prepared to pay, in anticipation that you'll ask for more. So, always, always ask for more. Know your value by doing market research. You should know the going rate for the industry and location of every job you apply for.

Have concrete evidence to back up why you deserve a raise. I encourage everyone to keep a work journal and update it as often as possible, even daily. Your personal work journal should highlight new skills, tasks, duties, and remind you when you've gone above and beyond what's required of you.

Lauren Wesley Wilson, founder and CEO of ColorComm, Inc.

ColorComm, Inc. founder and CEO Lauren Wesley Wilson
Photo Credit: Lauren Wesley Wilson

Lauren Wesley Wilson is the founder and CEO of ColorComm, Inc., a national organization that provides networking, mentoring and career opportunities for multicultural women in communications.

Black women continue to face a significant wage gap. What do you think employers can do to ensure they're closing these gaps among their own workers?

Companies need to pay black women commensurate to their experience – not what the job pays, but what they bring to the table.

When I first started out, I was entering the workforce with a Master's Degree in Communications from Georgetown University. This was something that many of my future employers did not value. However, I knew what I brought to the table. I knew that I was already ahead because of the coursework and case studies in strategic communications. Back then at 22, I was learning and completing strategy plans that my managers who were 10 years ahead of me were just learning to do. When my future employer wanted to hire me and pay me the base pay for the position, I negotiated the cap pay for that level. The most important lesson is to know your worth, first.

What steps can black women take to better advocate for themselves? Do you recall a time when you were your own advocate at work?

Pay equity is different for black women because it stems from an economic issue. It's not enough to ask for equal pay because equal pay is not enough. Black women need to ask for commensurate pay; which is based on their education level, work experience, network, and value brought to the table. Why should I ask for the same pay, if I'm bringing more to the table than my counterpart? In doing so, I'm already behind.

How do you think people can be better allies to their black women colleagues?

They can serve as sponsors and mentors to advocate for black women when they are not in the room. They can help open the door and pay it forward to women who don't look like them. In the end, a white colleague's voice is going to resonate stronger and be heard louder by advocating for someone who doesn't look like them.

What advice do you have for a young black woman who is negotiating her first big raise?

Always ask for more and don't feel guilty doing so. What you deem to be "a lot" can be someone's base line. A mistake that many [women] make is negotiating their raise based on what they make. But, you should negotiate your salary based on the role and responsibilities of the position, not how much you made in the previous role.

Ezinne Kwubiri, North America Head of Inclusion & Diversity, H&M

Ezinne Kwubiri, Head of Inclusion & Diversity for H&M North America
Photo credit: Ezinne Kwubiri

Ezinne Kwubiri is H&M's North America Head of Inclusion & Diversity. Before joining the company in 2018, she spent 11 years at Viacom where she worked her way up from a senior associate role to the Director of Change Management for Global Business Services.

Black women continue to face a significant wage gap. What do you think employers can do to ensure they're closing these gaps among their own workers?

The racial and gender pay gap is part of the larger inequality for black women, and people of color in general, when thinking about access to home ownership, child care, investment portfolios and overall financial generational wealth. When black women are not provided the same foundation for opportunity and access as their counterparts, they will always be on a race to close the gap.

Companies need to acknowledge that such a gap exist. They should create compensation ranges that are based on experience, industry and geographical location. This threshold should not shift because a candidate is of a minority race, identifies as a female or because their initial range is lesser than what you had in mind.

What steps can black women take to better advocate for themselves? Do you recall a time when you were your own advocate at work?

Black women should challenge their initial offers and promotions and come prepared with statistical information backing the range they are requesting.

There was a time when I was going for a promotion and what I did to prepare was collect all of my performance reviews over the course of the last four or five years. I pulled out points where I exceeded expectations and also documented all of the work that I had done that was that was beyond my current level and I used that to show why I was deserving of a promotion.

How do you think people can be better allies to their black women colleagues?

Colleagues that manage people and people's budgets should call out gaps in compensation. They have access to the information and should be supporting black women in closing that gap. Allies should also be open to receiving feedback because the courage and preparation one takes to challenge salary wages is not an easy task and it should be respected.

What advice do you have for a young black woman negotiating her first big raise?

It is important to understand the value of your experience, the industry and the salary comps for your geographical location. Know that companies are always willing and prepared to negotiate from the initial offer.

These interviews have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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Elaine Welteroth, Sherrell Dorsey and Ezinne Kwubiri
Photo credit: Getty, Sherrell Dorsey and Ezinne Kwubiri
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