By Zahnay Gates
I was 21 years old when I started working as a legal assistant for a law firm in Tampa Bay, Florida. As a Black woman navigating the primarily White spaces of the legal field, I was accustomed to being the singular Black woman in the room and knew this might affect my work-life experience. But I was fresh out of college and held on to the excitement many young women my age feel when they begin their first “big-girl job.”
However, this excitement quickly faded. Once, a White male manager criticized me for being “aggressive” and “confrontational” when dealing with deadline mistakes, while my White male colleagues were praised for their “excellent conflict resolution skills.” Another time, I was denied a raise because “it was unfair to other staff in the same position,” even though I had twice the responsibilities and was paid the least.
Black women have made major advancements in education, wealth, entrepreneurship, and leadership. However, we have accomplished this despite glaring inequalities that exist in society—including in the workplace. From macroaggressions to flat-out sexism and racism, like many Black women navigating the workplace, I could not escape these barriers.
According to a recent Economic Policy Institute study, structural barriers cause a disproportionate number of Black women to be significantly underpaid in the United States. Black women are paid 33.7% less than their White male counterparts, 25.7% less than White women, and 22.2% less than Black men. A 2020 Lean In and McKinsey report, stated Black women also experience persistent prejudice and structural hurdles to hiring and advancement. Black women receive less management support and mentoring possibilities. And, Black women experience a wider range of microaggressions and racism.
As it stands, not many resources, research, or policy solutions have been created to alleviate the combination of issues that affect Black women in the workplace. Historically, leading policy solutions to improve structural racism, sexism, classism, etc., have been approached through a single-axis framework. The single-axis framework examines one inequality separately: “We are exploring sexism first, then racism.” While well-intentioned, this approach impedes progress since it leaves many behind, particularly Black women who are subjected to various simultaneous inequalities and discrimination.
The viewpoint for observing how various forms of inequality operate simultaneously to exasperate each other can best be described as intersectionality. The term intersectionality was first coined by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, following decades of judicial precedent, which assumed racial discrimination was what all Black people experienced regardless of gender, and that sex discrimination is what all women experienced regardless of race. Thus, making it difficult to acknowledge the experiences of Black women.
Today, amid the Coronavirus pandemic that brought social injustice and inequalities to the forefront, it is time to reevaluate what is working in the modern workplace and what is failing to ensure equality among all employees. Therefore, I propose that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) should deploy an intersectionality initiative to study how the intersections of personal and social identities (i.e., race, gender, sex, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, etc.) connect to shape Black women’s complex employment experiences.
The proposed BLS intersectionality initiative will be a ten-year pilot program to study and address workplace inequalities and structural discrimination against Black women. It will specifically collect data on the Black female labor population in New York City (NYC) through established collection methods. Why NYC? One reason is that the wage gap for Black women compared to White men in NYC is larger than for Black women across the United States – roughly 43 cents compared to 37 cents. Another reason is NYC has a substantial Black labor force population across subcategorized demographics. The goal of the BLS intersectionality initiative is to create a foundation of cross-sectional information that can better equip policymakers, industry giants, social justice advocates, and corporate executives to address the compounded challenges Black women face in the workplace.
The proposed BLS intersectionality initiative will collect disaggregated data, further breaking down statistical population data by demographic segmentation to examine intersectionality. This approach aims to separate organized data into even smaller units to reveal underlying trends and patterns. Through disaggregated data analysis and collection, the BLS intersectionality initiative will better assist in directly pinpointing inequality, analyzing discriminatory policies, and providing targeted solutions for Black women.
Throughout the years, intersectionality has become increasingly polarizing. Early critics of this framework have argued against Black women being categorized as a “special class.” Today’s critics, mainly conservative figureheads, strongly oppose studying intersectionality. They see intersectionality as a leftist-radical critical race theory designed to value victimization and target straight White men. As a result, conservative politicians have made it a top policy agenda to introduce legislation that inhibits the encouragement of discrimination examination and education.
However, these critics have gravely misinterpreted intersectionality. Intersectionality does not target or blame a specific individual or group of individuals for their inherent privileges. It targets the structures that perpetrate inequalities and discrimination. As a Black woman, I have disadvantages precisely because I’m a Black woman, which neither Black men nor White women experience. And any data analysis that disregards intersectionality cannot adequately address how Black women are particularly suppressed.
Black women’s history in the workplace and in life is one of resilience. However, just because Black women have prevailed in many respects does not mean reform is unnecessary. If workplaces continue to generalize Black women workers’ experiences as simply Black issues or women’s issues, we will continue to be undervalued, unprotected, and underrepresented in professional spaces. The proposed BLS intersectionality initiative is an opportunity to examine structures of discrimination, reveal undetected inequality, and provide precise resources and support for Black women.
Zahnay P. Gates is an MPA-PNP student at NYU Wagner, specializing in Advocacy and Political Action. Zahnay aims to do policy work that ensures all citizens’ political, educational, social, and economic equality. She holds a BA in Criminal Justice from The University of Alabama.
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