Quevenzhane Wallis and I have two things in common: We’re black women in mostly white, mostly male industries and our names are considered to be difficult to pronounce. And while the controversy surrounding Miss Wallis during the Academy Award weekend—from the butchering of her name to the Onion’s “satirical” tweet—was upsetting, it wasn’t surprising. I’m nearly 30 years old and I still feel uncomfortable when I hear things like:
“Do you have a nickname?”
“Can I just call you Key-Key?”
“Is that African?” (Because Africa is a country, you know.)
“That’s an exotic name.”
I go along to make colleagues comfortable, but I often find myself questioning my name and the stereotypes that go along with it, particularly in my career. Because, depending on the people who see my name, they see a black woman. And depending on their perspective, they see a certain type of black woman, with a certain type of education, and hopefully a decent Harlem Shake.
Shakespeare asked, “What’s in a name?” Familial ties, cultural cues, and perhaps the city in which your parents conceived you (Hey, Savannah!) are a part of our names, but what if they become a hindrance toward finding a job, receiving equal pay, or building wealth?
While I was unemployed, my day job was applying for jobs. While I tried to remain positive about my name on my resume, there were times I considered using my middle name because it is racially ambiguous and easier to pronounce. I never went through with it and I did land a job with my real name, but there are countless stories about name discrimination during the application stage of the hiring process.
Last year, ABC’s 20/20 posted identical resumes on a career website but used the “blackest” and “whitest names” as determined by the book Freaknomics. The resumes with the “whitest names” were downloaded nearly 20% more than the resumes with the black-sounding names. Two professional women, one African-American and the other Latina, frustrated by the lack of call backs and interviews, devised an experiment where they replaced their more “ethnic” names with “whiter names.” Sadly, when they changed their names, they received more attention from employers.
Women of color, specifically black women and Latinas, are discriminated against during the initial stage of hiring, just for having first names like Keisha or last names like Castillo. As a result, it often takes them a long time to find jobs that they are, in fact, qualified for—and they’re rarely competitive for the best ones.
Between living in long-term unemployment and being forced to take lower-paying jobs just to have a paycheck, it makes sense that there is a stark pay gap between women of color and white women—and an even wider gap between women of color and white men. Recent census data shows that while white women earn 77 cents on the dollar compared to men, black women earn 64 cents and Latinas earn 55 cents compared to the earnings of white men. In the C-suite, not only are women of color practically absent (black women make up 1% of corporate officers), but they also earn 42% less than their male counterparts.
This, over time, also leads to a gap in accumulated wealth. In a 2010 study, Lifting as We Climb: Women of Color, Wealth, and America’s Future, researchers found that while the median net worth of single white women between the ages of 36-49 is $42,600, the median net worth of single women of color (African-American and Latinas) in the same age range is $5. While this is a median, meaning there are figures above and below $5, the pay and wealth gap is a tragic reality for women of color, from the corner-office executive to the auto plant mechanic.
Now, of course, it’s not just all in a name. There are other issues at play here, too, and barriers like lower levels of educational attainment also hinder women of color from transitioning out of low-wage jobs or seeking high-level positions. But even the most skilled, educated women of color are missing out on the best jobs—because they’re being discriminated against at the initial stages of the hiring process.
There is no easy way to fix to this, but there are a few things we can all do, starting today:
Now, I’d also like to point out that there are two lights at the end of the pay gap tunnel: entrepreneurship and education.
Many women of color, like me, have turned to entrepreneurship to secure a job and build wealth. According to the Center for American Progress, 1.9 million firms are majority owned by women of color and bring in about $165 billion in annual revenue. One in 10 women-owned businesses are owned by Latinas, and businesses owned by African-American women grew 67% between 2002 and 2007. This number continues to grow.
Women of color also earned a larger share of college degrees compared to white men in the 2008-2009 school year. Master’s degrees earned by women of color doubled from 1997 to 2007 and the number of doctoral degrees increased by 63%, according to the Center for American Progress.
By gaining education and by starting their own businesses, women of color are increasingly taking their futures into their own hands, and this is another step in the right direction.
But while we have made strides in gender equality—even recently, with policies like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009—we have a long road ahead toward equal pay for equal work for all women. And for this black woman with an “exotic” name, a chance at equality is all I could ever hope for.
Photo of woman at work courtesy of Shutterstock.