Morela Hernandez, an associate professor at the University of Virginia, told a CNBC reporter last year “Racially-biased job evaluators see Black job-seekers as less deserving of higher monetary awards and take issue when the Black job seekers ask for more.” This conclusion was drawn from a study Hernandez led which was published in November 2018 and found “Each time a Black job-seeker was perceived to have made an offer or counteroffer, it corresponded in the receipt of over $300, on average, less in starting salary.” In layman’s terms, employers punished Black job seekers for knowing their worth and for asking to be paid it. What the study didn’t say — and the gender wage gap movement as a whole has ignored — is that white women hold the purse strings. Not only are 71% of Human Resources Managers in this country women, 84% of them are white. That implies the pay gap in this country is just as much about race as it is admittedly about gender, and arguably far more intentional than we’ve been led to believe.
My parents’ firm talks with me about having to work twice as hard never made any mention of doing so for half the money. My first real job offer after college, I accepted the first number put on the table, knowing nothing at all about salary negotiations, although I was starting a career in Human Resources. As I shadowed my manager, a white woman who was also the hiring manager for various internal departments, I began to see a predictable pattern in her hiring practices. Although we were provided preset salary ranges for each and every position within the company, we had every authority to produce salary offers anywhere within those ranges as we saw fit. As I noticed her having a hard time justifying various salary determinations, particularly when race was the only differentiating factor, I began to question her justification for mine. Eventually my suspicions were confirmed when a few coworkers shared their starting salaries with me, which is strangely against most company policies. As far as qualifications were concerned, we were nearly identical, even they struggled to make sense of our huge pay differential. It was obviously too late for me to bring it up now, I had signed on the dotted line which pretty much meant I had forfeited my right to fuss. And when I finally brought up a pay increase at my six-month performance review, using my exemplary performance report as my justification, my request was still ultimately denied.
Although I anticipated the outcome, I couldn’t suppress my desire to know why. My manager placed the blame on “budgetary restrictions” but I felt like there were less than politically correct reasons as to why I couldn’t manage to escape my compensation cap with this company. And apparently I wasn’t alone in my concerns. Research says that despite all recent efforts to level the playing field, the level of discrimination Black employees face in hiring, wage setting and promotion decisions hasn’t changed since 1990. Findings also show Black female employees were less likely to be offered a starting wage comparable to that of their white counterparts, whether male or female, even when the qualifications were seemingly identical. According to the study, Black female employees were less likely to receive comparable raises and, furthermore, less likely to be considered for promotions and other internal opportunities. There was nothing about me that made me less deserving of equal pay, not on paper and certainly not in performance, the issue was that my white female manager was unable, or unwilling, to see that.
Our new hire manuals would have us believing that the workplace were an insulated ecosystem where everyone was judged solely on the merit of their labor and individual contribution to the company, and that Human Resources was there ultimately to help maintain the checks and balances, none of which is true. For starters, people don’t leave their biases at the door, and evidence of those preconceived prejudices at play in the workplace can be seen in the countless discrimination complaints filed against employers every year in America. And furthermore, Human Resources Departments exist for the sole purpose of protecting the bottom line and best interests of the company, its owner(s) and its shareholders. Everything else is just fluff.
The management of humans as resources is as American as apple pie, and we’d be foolish to believe that where we see evidence of the capitalistic classification of human life for profit, racism isn’t too far behind. If it’s true that the most valuable asset any company can have is its’ human capital, wouldn’t it make sense that the responsibility of that resource be entrusted to someone in close proximity? According to Linda Akutagawa, chair for the Alliance for Board Diversity, not only do Caucasian/White men account for 66% of all Fortune 500 CEO board seats, they account for 91% of the chairmanships on those boards. When these men appoint the management of their most entrusted resources to someone, where do we think they’re most likely to look?
If people are going to be seen and treated as resources, the way these resources receive their valuations has to be vetted. For far too long we’ve been looking at this issue as though it were simply another edition of rich white men behaving badly, but things are far more ground level than they might seem. Unconscious Bias, the automatic, unconscious assessment of an individual based on one’s unrelated, personal lived experiences, is a real thing. But how long are people expected to cope with the lived consequences of other people’s subconscious prejudices? This issue extends well beyond gender, and at this stage in the fight we need to be just as vocal about who’s ignoring the status quo as we are about who instituted it. It’s not our responsibility to coddle the gatekeepers in exchange for their good graces. What good is “allieship” when the allies can be bribed? If white women act as the decision makers in spaces where black and brown women continue to be marginalized, underpaid and overworked, we should be within our right to question their complicity. And we are certainly within our right.