By Zena Gainsbury
My friend works in the finance industry, where there are no black women in senior roles. There are no black people, period. It’s hard to see the race/gender pay gap in an environment with an unsettling absence of a minority group. Although yearly pay for a senior figure in the finance sector isn’t the norm, it is arguably the higher pay grades where the enormous disparities are more visible; this is where salaries are negotiated rather than fixed.
Look at the BBC, for example, which exemplifies the fact that the higher the salary, the greater the gender and race inequality. Claudia Winkleman, the highest paid female at the BBC, earns merely a quarter (okay, it is £450,000 so hardly ‘mere’) of Chris Evans’ 2 million. Of course, salaries in the millions and hundreds of thousands are unusual, but if we have Winkleman on 25% of her male colleague’s salary, this translates in layman’s terms to a man earning £25,000 a year, whereas a woman would only earn £6,250.
This isn’t even the biggest gap in BBC pay: the highest paid and only black man on the list, Trevor Nelson, earns £250,000 a year. The highest paid black woman, Tameka Empson, earns £150,000. Yes, the work of these individuals is different, but the highest paid black man earns just 10% of the highest paid white man, and the highest paid black woman earns just over 5% of the highest paid white man, and just under half of a white woman’s salary. This doesn’t project the equality we expect at the BBC. I don’t think that we need to put this in ‘average-joe’ money to explicate the inequality here.
It’s difficult to express what these figures mean. When we are talking about salaries in the hundreds of thousands, we’re not implying that there is any financial hardship. In fact, this isn’t really about money at all, it’s about value. The value we place on someone’s work in the Marxian ‘Labour Theory of Value’ way. It’s also about why black women in particular aren’t reaching the most senior jobs. It’s about a racism that still pervades modern society and work culture. When black women are successful it’s forgotten (see the interview with Andy Murray where Serena Williams’ is forgotten) or challenged (see John McEnroe stating that Serena Williams would be ‘700th’ if she played in the men’s league).
On Black Women’s Equal Pay Day on the 31st of July 2017, the day in which black women in the US finally accumulate the same pay as their male counterparts in 2016, stories of racism in the workplace were trending on twitter with the hashtag #BlackWomenAtWork. The stories shared on this public forum include accounts of black women who have been reprimanded in the workplace for wearing their hair naturally and ‘failing’ to wear a weave, as well as women who have been typecast as an ‘angry black woman’ for voicing their opinions or concerns. These examples demonstrate the two-fold discrimination against black women. Women’s natural Afro hair is ridiculed due to racist prejudice, and also in terms of patriarchal control of female bodies. In the case of black women, racism and sexism are inextricably linked, creating a new type of discrimination unbeknown to other groups.
It’s not surprising that Serena Williams weighed in on the sexism she has received as one of the most famous Tennis players in the world. Serena’s impassioned essay draws on her personal experiences, she may be an elite athlete, but even this hasn’t protected her from an onslaught of racist and sexist remarks from competitors, reporters and the public. Serena states:
“I have been treated unfairly, I’ve been disrespected by my male colleagues and—in the most painful times—I’ve been the subject of racist remarks on and off the tennis court.”
Her account of the racism she has faced is shocking. But perhaps the most painful part of this sentence is Serena’s matter-of-fact tone. This is the day-by-day reality for black women. And if this is the experience at the top, what about the other black women in the US and the UK? ‘At least it’s getting better’ I hear white feminists say. Yes, if ‘it’ refers solely to pay gap between white women and white men. For black women, there has been literally no improvement in the full-time pay gap since the 1990’s. If this isn’t a call for white feminists to reflect on what mainstream feminism has looked like for the last 20+ years, and reconsider the use of the term ‘better’ with an intersectional lens, then I don’t know what is.
About the Author
Zena is a Masters student at UCL, studying for an MA in the History of Political Thought and Intellectual History whilst also holding a managerial position at a bank. Her interest in feminism began during her undergraduate degree in English and History at Queen Mary University of London, where she began to engage with feminist discourse. Zena has written about feminism and gender in a number of different ways, but she is particularly interested in changing concepts of ‘woman’, Marxist/Socialist feminism, intersectional feminism, and psychoanalysis. In her master’s, which is in a field overpopulated with dead white men, she has challenged herself to formulate all of her essay questions, on women/gender and/or feminism. She also writes at zenaeloise.com and can be found on Twitter @zenaeloise.