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Why Black Women Don’t Complain About Labor Market Inequality

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Nkechi Onwuameze
July 13, 2018

“Listen Marsha, you have to quit complaining and count yourself blessed to be where you are. Look around you, how many people of your color [Black] are managers in this agency? I hate for you to be perceived as an ungrateful employee.”

Marsha nods in affirmation, struggles to hold up her shriveling spirit as she mutters Thank you Kim…”

Of course, the excerpt above is a fictional conversation between a Black female manager of an agency and her close friend, but unfortunately highlights the reality faced by the few so called successful Black women in management positions.

The obstacles of labor market inequalities hit black women on multiple levels. First, women in general face wage inequality and lag behind men in promotion and career advancement. Secondly, White female employees earn more than their Black counterparts at all education levels. In a national survey study by Ella L.J. Bell Smith and Stella M. Nkomo, the authors found that 32 percent of the White women managers surveyed were in top-level management positions compared to 14 percent of the African-American women managers surveyed. The African-American women surveyed were also more likely to report being dissatisfied with their jobs and felt the need to outperform their White colleagues to achieve success.

So why the abrupt response from Kim? We can infer from Kim’s response that she was probably tired of hearing the same old complaint and was compelled to call a spade a spade — you are here, count your blessings and move on. Black women hear this repeatedly from their friends, colleagues, managers and family members. Every level of success a Black woman achieves, the society is quick to remind her of her privileged position in comparison to people of her gender and race. Sadly, Kim is suggesting her friend, Marsha, can only find few people of her race and gender in her position is true. Black females are overrepresented in low level positions and underrepresented in top level employment positions.

Narrowing the Wage Gap

The average wage of Black women lag behind that of White women, Asian women and men of all races. In 2015, the average hourly earnings of Black women was $13 compared to $17 for White women, $18 for Asian women and $21 for White men. While the average hourly earnings of White men continues to outpace the wages of women in all racial categories, the gap has continued to narrow since 1980, but the pace has been slowest for Black and Hispanic women.

Researchers mostly attribute persistent earnings gap to measurable factors such as differences in education, experience, skills, while unexplained differences are in part due to labor market discrimination. This is particularly true in the case of gender, as the difference in racial wage gap is partly due to discrimination and cannot be explained by the known measurable factors that influence earnings. Some scholars argue that the role of discrimination in the persistent earnings gap is often neglected because it is difficult to measure. Discrimination account for at least one-third to one-half of the overall wage gap.

Why Wage Gap Persists

Despite what we now know about the wage gap numbers, many readers may still not justify why Kim shut her friend down for venting her frustration about her work conditions. Kim’s reaction may seem abrupt and cold, but it clearly reflects the attitude of the society towards women, particularly Black women, that complain about unequal treatment at work. Women who are paid less than their male counterparts must justify why they deserve equal pay, while risking being labelled a chronic complainer. The frequent visits to the Human Resource (HR) office to advocate for equal pay may be counter-productive as she may be perceived as a controversial employee who is difficult to work with. In attempting to prevent this circumstance for her friend, some may argue that Kim’s response is justified, but silencing the victim may be part of the reasons why gender inequality in the workplace persists.

Unfortunately, for Black women, the hurdle in entering the labor market is their first experience in the harsh realities of the “double disadvantage” they face in the labor market due to their gender and race. Black female managers suffer the effect of both racism and sexism and are more likely to face “more complex, negative situations in the work place.” These so called successful Black women are often tracked to the bottom-rank employment hierarchies and tend to be concentrated in employment areas that are more feminized such as social work and education fields. Hence, the Black women that make it to the top of employment hierarchy and who studies have reported they feel their skills and knowledge are constantly questioned, are reminded how lucky they are to be in such positions.

Conclusion

While we can argue whether Kim genuinely had the interest of her friend at heart, her reaction undoubtedly reflects the attitude of the society towards the “lucky” successful Black women who feel the need to speak up against the discrimination they face in their workplace. But the question remains: Does the pressure to remain silent when confronted with workplace discrimination perpetuate inequality?


Author: Nkechi Onwuameze works for the Illinois Board of Higher Education and an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois Springfield. She earned a Ph.D. in sociology of education at the University of Iowa. Her research interest include educational inequality, gender discrimination in the workplace, workplace diversity. [email protected] or Twitter: @Nkobis

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