On the weekends, you’ll find Tenekqua Cauthen at Elmcrest Children’s Center in Syracuse, putting in the hours to pay the bills her full-time job won’t cover.
She spends her days as a case worker, and whatever free time is left with her two children, who she raises alone, and the youth she mentors through The Out Crowd. It is a group she established with her sister three years ago for empowerment and leadership training for young men and women.
But if longstanding trends in earnings for women of color in the U.S. don’t change, Cauthen, working two jobs, could still miss out on nearly $1 million in wages over her lifetime.
New York passed legislation on equal pay earlier this year, prohibiting employers from asking about salary history and forbidding hiring discrimination on the basis of race and other factors.
Advocacy groups across New York will gather Thursday to highlight how this issue specifically affects black women (Equal Pay days for women of varied racial and ethnic groups dot the calendar from April to November.)
As Gov. Andrew Cuomo throws his support behind new state laws, victories won at the ground level — often by women who have felt the sting of the wage gap themselves — are changing the dynamic for women of color climbing the workforce ranks, advocates said.
Gloria Middleton spent the last six years negotiating for equal pay for city-employed administrative managers in New York City,after research showed a salary gap that reached nearly $100,000 among individuals working the same jobs.
Black and Latina women were some of the lowest earners. The city settled for about $15 million in April, with paycheck bumps coming for employees later this year.
The difference those bumps will make cannot be understated, said Middleton.
“It will allow them to afford an apartment in New York City,” she said. “It’s putting food on the table. They can actually take a vacation every now and then.”
Middleton, a Harlem resident who took the helm of the 9,000-member Communications Workers of America 1180 last year, joined the public sector as a young single mother because it provided solid benefits and union representation, allowing her to raise her child without worry.
As she rose through the ranks over a decades-long career, wage disparities faced by fellow women of color in New York became apparent.
“Even the minority men would get paid more than the women…the excuse was, ‘Well, they have a family they have to take care of,’” she said of the situation at one of her first jobs. “But I had a family I had to take care of, so what were they talking about?”
That is the moment — when a woman of color recognizes a disparity between people working similar jobs — that change could be made, but often it’s not, said Yversha Roman, 34, of Rochester.
She co-chairs the local Pay Equity Coalition and learned through her work about the barriers still facing women looking for pay equity.
Roman said that, “Historically women of color undervalue themselves.”
She recalled a job interview in which she was asked to provide a range of what she’d like to be paid. The response to the number she provided was surprise — she had lowballed herself, and then felt uneasy asking for more.
“That happens all the time….women of color start off lower, whether it be because of exposure or experience negotiating, and ultimately make thousands of dollars less than their peers,” she said.
New York recently banned asking salary history for employment.
Ultimately it’s on the employers to examine whether pay structures are equitable, but women can arm themselves with skills for pay negotiation, she said.
Researching average pay for fields or specific job titles can help build confidence before landing on a number with an employer.
That’s easier said than done, and only if you’re in a safe enough financial position to negotiate, said Cauthen of Syracuse.
Women fear they’ll be seen as greedy or that they’ll lose out on future opportunities just by asking for a bump in pay; or, worst of all, that they’ll lose their jobs over it.
“Sometimes you don’t have a choice but to take the positions — you need to pay bills,” she said.
But now is the time to step up, said Middleton, because employers don’t want to be seen in the public sphere as having potentially discriminated against employees.
“We need to open up our mouths and ask questions,” she said; If you sit next to a white man doing the same work and making substantially more, ask about it, she said.
Part of the reason it’s difficult to get to the negotiating table is the lack of career opportunities given to women of color over their lifetimes, versus other races and genders, said Tanishia Johnson, 45, of Rochester.
Raised in a low-income neighborhood in New York City, Johnson was the first in her family to go to college. Her mother told her said had to work twice as hard and be twice as smart as her white counterparts to get ahead.
“(She said), ‘You can’t just advocate — you’ve got to prove it,’” she said. “Get in front of your employers to show that you’re doing your work.”
Women of color, with or without college degrees, often work full-time jobs for decades with little to show for it, said Merble Reagon of the Women’s Center for Education and Career Advancement, which researches how poverty and economic trends affect low-income residents in New York City.
“What we know is that very specifically for black women, higher education and work ethic doesn’t pay off in the same way as white women and men,” said Reagon.
Since the year 2000, the city’s cost of living rose at nearly three times the rate of wages, according to the group’s reports, and women of color, often the only breadwinners in single parent families, often start off at a disadvantage.
There’s a number of factors that brought us to where we are now, and there are myriad ways of addressing it on government, workplace and individual levels.
Here are some tips:
New York state has passed a number of laws surrounding wages in recent years, including minimum wage laws and the most recent equal pay legislation.
But wages should be further addressed as they compare to cost of living, said Reagon in New York City.
Local governments could also look at this issue. New York City Council and New York county governments passed their own legislation last year on tracking wages and prohibiting salary history inquiries.
Companies should be open about what they pay for jobs in specific fields, so that gaps between people working similar jobs can be acknowledged and addressed, Reagon said.
There’s a lack of awareness among average employees, politicians and even working women of color about the nuances and effects of the wage gap, said Johnson.
Holding rallies, publishing research and taking part in training and other events would help increase community knowledge.
Even with state or local legislation in place, some employers may not follow it exactly without comprehensive enforcement.
“If there’s no consequence for not following them, it’s just not going to make a difference,” Reagon said.
Talking to young people about their job prospects and goals helps them learn to advocate for their own worth in the workforce.
In working with youth, Cauthen discusses long term career planning, whether or not college is right for them and how to sell their strengths in interviews.
Structural racism and sexism play a role in the overall picture of equal pay for women of color, said Roman of Rochester.
Employers should examine salary policies in this light, knowing that unconscious bias can creep into any discussion surrounding race and gender, she said.
For more information and resources on equal pay for women in New York or the U.S., here are some resources:
Equalpaytoday.org — Equal pay statistics, articles and events
PowHerNY.org — New York statewide advocacy on economic equity for women
AAUW.org — The American Association for University Women advocates for gender equity, among other social issues, and provides reports and statistics
Nwlc.org — The National Women’s Law Center provides reports and statistics surrounding gender, LGBTQ+, education and poverty.