Pay it Forward

On Wednesday, March 24, Americans acknowledged Equal Pay Day, a day which shine’s a light on the continued gap in salaries between men and women. Just as a start, let’s take note of the actual data.

In the United States, white women on average make only 82 cents for every dollar made by an average white man, but for women of color, the gap is even larger. For every dollar that a white non-Latinx man is paid on average, Black women earn 63 cents, Native women earn 60 cents, and Latina women earn only 55 cents.

As I pondered these jarring figures, I began thinking about the formative women in my life who managed to do amazing things on very small salaries and wondered “what more they might have accomplished if pay equity was firmly in place”.

Both of my grandmothers were maids and factory workers. They began their days before the sun came up, each preparing their children for school, ironing fresh shirts for their husbands, and making their way to jobs tending to the needs of prominent families or the local cotton mills. Their workdays were never simple, their time was never their own, and the salary that they received never rose to match the expectations of those who paid them. Yet they managed to create magic in the lives of the people who relied upon them for just about everything.

Recently, I had a conversation with my 70-year old aunt about all that my mother’s mother accomplished on a salary that seems impossible to live on. My grandmother Annie Bell raised five children, first with my grandfather, and then on her own when they separated. She was a commanding woman whose smile was broad and whose left cheek held the signature mole that I inherited. Secretly, I always felt that having that mole in the same spot as the most amazing grandmother in the world represented a superpower that only she and I shared.

In addition to her own children, my grandmother spent the lion’s share of her day as a maid for a prominent family in a small town outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. Each day, she would slip into her gray uniform and hospital shoes and she would manage the household for a family of five. She cooked, cleaned, washed, and ironed clothes, dropped off and picked up the three children from school, made their lunches, and fed them snacks while they did their homework, before getting dinner on the table in time for the husband’s arrival from work. She would then clear the table, do the dishes, and finally make her way home to do many of the same tasks for her own family.

For all of her efforts in raising another woman’s children and cleaning her house, my grandmother made $50 per week. Think about it…$50 per week. And yet, 4 out of 5 of her children went to college, 1 went to law school, and another had a career in the military followed by entrepreneurial success. A Black woman from the south, largely the sole breadwinner , earning $50 per week, literally made miracles. So, it made me think: what would her life look like if earnings matched her worth? Similarly, what would my father’s mother have accomplished if as one of the first forewomen at her job at a cotton mill, she was paid the same as the foremen who shared her job? If they made miracles being paid significantly less than others , I can’t imagine what they could have accomplished if they were paid that full dollar for their efforts back in the day.

If nothing else, the relief from the pressure point of an income that is tied to arbitrary gender norms would have allowed them both the ability to dream and create greater things for themselves. That critical ability to dream freely is what generates innovation and provides us with a level of security in one’s daily existence that makes room for more than just “getting by”.
A lot has changed in the 70 years since my grandmother Annie Bell and my grandma Thelma were in the workforce. Their daughters and granddaughters have all found their way in the world, each finding a place of comfort that was shaped by my grandmother’s hard work and sacrifice. Yet in many ways, things haven’t changed at all. Women, particularly women of color, are still significantly underpaid and undervalued. The work and responsibility of managing a family largely falls on the shoulders of women and regularly collides with the reality of the work that we are paid for. When white women are making 18 cents less, and BIPOC women are making between 37 and 45 cents less per dollar than white men, that pressure point remains very real and stifles the security, dreams and innovation of millions.

Philanthropy is positioned to impact this issue by adding gender and pay equity to their equity practices. This notion might seem counterintuitive since the philanthropic sector skews towards having a larger number of women than men in it’s ranks. But there is still work to be done, both within foundations and in your funding strategies. BIPOC women are still highly underrepresented in philanthropy, and they are less likely to work in leadership positions where the salaries are more competitive. Deepening your employment practices to include mentoring, coaching, and clearly defined pathways to leadership, as well as examining your pay structure to reflect a practice that closes the pay gap is something that funders can do to address gender within their systems. Embedding a feminist perspective into your funding strategies, including committing to funding more programs that specifically target and uplifts women and girls is another opportunity. Supporting organizations and programs that provide skills-building and increased access to tools that will ultimately benefit women in the workplace—is another way to chip away at the pay gap. And finally, while offering the idea that we should all pay women equally for doing the same work as men is a “no-brainer”, it still needs to be said: Pay women equally.

We are surrounded by incredible women in the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors. From Executive Directors/CEOs to Grants Managers and administrative professionals, we have a broad group of women who are making miracles with fewer resources than others doing the same work in our sector. Committing to honor their service to our community is one thing, but honoring their efforts through an equitable pay structure will make the miracles even more magical. #CloseThePayGap

– Kendall Clawson