Here’s to Her: Black Women Deserve Recognition and Support
A stamp, a coin, and a $20 bill are nice but still aren’t enough
Maya Angelou was recently recognized as the first Black woman to be honored in the American Women Quarters Program; her likeness will be stamped onto U.S. coins. Kim Godwin made history recently as the first Black woman president of ABC News. Denise Gardner is the first Black women chairperson of a major museum board in her new appointment at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Awards and accolades are well-deserved for these Black women, but all Black women need recognition, gratitude, and support.
In the midst of the chaos that is 2021, Black women in the U.S. have many considerations, but at top of that list remain a pandemic that has disproportionately claimed the lives of their loved ones, the relentless police violence against the children they birthed, and a workforce that is rebuilding itself without them.
All Black working women need celebration, acknowledgment and support.
The economy is beginning to bounce back, purchasing power has gone up for the first quarter of 2021, and President Joe Biden is touting the American Jobs Plan. But it is alarming to see the significant number of Black women not regaining their jobs.
Katica Roy, CEO and founder of Pipeline, wrote recently, that in 2021, “32 years of progress toward gender equity in labor markets were lost.”
The state of women in the workforce was already poor, and now decades of improvements have also vanished.
Occupations that posed great dangers during Covid-19 and were considered “essential,” like nursing home staff, meatpackers, and farmworkers, were disproportionately held by women. Yet the lack of women represented at the highest levels of organizations, businesses, and on boards was already abysmal. Only 37 of the Fortune 500 companies are led by women, and of all the board seats for the top 200 companies, only a combined 6% were held by women of color.
The disparity in pay equity is glaring, White women earn 79 cents for every $1 a White man makes while Black women earn 63 cents and Latina women 55 cents. And still the pandemic has widened that gap further, and 22 years of progress toward closing it has also been lost.
In 40% of homes today, women are the breadwinner. That’s 16 million moms supporting 28 million children primarily on their income. But Black breadwinner moms make even less—just 44 cents of the dollar.
In the first week of May, jobless claims hit a new low of 498,000, a decrease of 92,000 from the previous week’s revised level. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in April, employment rose by 266,000 with the unemployment rate remaining at 6.1%.
But the number of Black women still not returning to the workforce remains concerningly high. Of those still unemployed, 5.3% are White, 7.9% are Hispanic/Latino, and 9.7% are Black—an astronomical number in comparison.
These aren’t just numbers; the 9.7% represents real lives. Some of these Black working moms without work today are our very own mom figures and best friends. They are the mothers of our nieces and nephews that depend on them for food and shelter.
So what happens if these Black moms never return to the workforce?
This reality has chilling implications and should not be a burden for these women to shoulder alone. It’s a broader issue affecting the whole family and the overall economy.
Without ways to help them regain their jobs, the spending power of Black women boosting the economy may be missing. The Selig Center for Economic Growth projected Black buying power to be $1.4 trillion and growing to soon be $1.8 trillion, which is more than the gross domestic product of Mexico.
The country is missing out on the profitability, productivity, and innovation these Black women could be contributing to organizations as well as communities. By not having inclusive gender equity in the workforce, revenue loss in businesses is expected to be about $2 trillion every year for the U.S. economy.
Now is the time to act to change this reality.
When companies center fairness, fight bias, and make opportunities equitably accessible, Black women can belong and thrive.
Legislators and policymakers need to consider race-based workforce incentives to solve these disparities, with consideration for needs like childcare benefits, transportation alternatives, and a proactive plan to enforce pay equity.
The American Families Care Plan is a good starting place that acknowledges the departure of women from the workforce and what kind of policies families need to access resources and rebuild. If government leaders enact these proposals into local legislation and include a mechanism to distinguish outcomes through a racial equity lens, Black women and their children could benefit tremendously.
When Black women are generalized under their gender group alone, their unique and intersectional experiences can be glossed over or even be invisible.
This week on the popular show Red Table Talk, Jada Pinkett Smith alongside her daughter, Willow, and her mother, Gammy, profoundly discussed the invisible black women epidemic and underscored the need for listening to the often ignored but unique experiences faced by Black women.
As companies lift hiring freezes, employers can deliberately seek to include Black women in the pool of candidates they interview and hire. Only when organizations are intentional about diversity and inclusion can they see long-term changes in their staff.
Employers also need to consider the environments they bring these Black women into. Gender equity-focused organization Lean In released a State of Black Women in Corporate America report that showed Black women have the worst experiences of any group in the workplace. However, when companies center fairness, fight bias, and make opportunities equitably accessible, Black women can belong and thrive.
It’s true, gainful employment with equitable wages for women — particularly women of color — was already challenging before the pandemic, but the mass exodus last year is a compounded crisis, one that is multifaceted and uniquely intersectional to their identities as both Black and woman.
And yes, both men and women lost their jobs in the pandemic and even more so in specific industries. But all losses are not even. Women were also expected to be caregivers to their families, often navigating the impossible decision to stay home with their kids as schools and daycares closed. Black moms, even more so, were forced to make tough choices with fewer resources.
Certainly acknowledging Black women for their achievements are important. But all Black working women need celebration, acknowledgment, and support. It is time to end their invisibility in the broader conversations and to see them, listen and act for a different future.
Bemnet Meshesha, MSW, is a senior director of inclusion, diversity, and equity, social justice advocate, and researcher of Black experiences. She is a Public Voices Fellow through the OpEd Project.