Credit: Public Domain/Bill Branson acquired from National Cancer Institute

“There weren’t any rules or regulations based on your work experience or title,” said Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies Executive Director Jennifer Jones Austin at the National Urban League headquarters Tuesday morning. “And I assumed a senior vice president role.” It took her about six months to learn that two of her colleagues, who also served in senior VP roles at the nonprofit, made more money than she did. When she confronted her bosses about it, she was met with excuses.

“I was told, ‘Well one is managing the finances and one of them is helping to raise the money,’” said Austin. “But I’m building the product. I actually had to fight for it.”

Austin was part of a panel discussion co-hosted by the Essence magazine and the New York State Council on Women and Girls about the wage gap and Black women. It’s the first of several regional forums that will be held across the state addressing economic security and opportunity.

Although Austin was talking about her first nonprofit job, she could’ve easily been talking about any workplace in New York City and New York State.

Tuesday marked Black Women’s Equal Pay Day and reports from local government officials showed how wide the wage gap is between Black women and white men.

A new analysis by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer showed that in 2016, Black women working full time in the five boroughs made 57 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men, earning an average of $32,000 less annually, and the wage gap for Black women in the city is larger than for Black women in New York State and in the United States.

When extracted to cover a 40-year working career, the median full-time working Black woman in New York City would make $1.27 million less because of the gender wage gap. According to the report, a Black woman in New York City would have to work 30 additional years to attain the same level of earnings as white men in the city.

“In a city like New York that touts its progressive ideals, it is an outrage that Black women in 2018 are still denied economic equality,” said Stringer in a statement. “As a city we’re failing to level the playing field for Black women and denying them the opportunity to buy their own home, pursue more education or have economic security. They should not have to work an additional 30 years to earn the same living as a white man. If New York is going to continue to be a progressive leader in this country, city leaders need to put immediate plans into action.”

The panel at the National Urban League headquarters also included NAACP New York State Conference Head Dr. Hazel Dukes, New York State Department of Civil Service Acting Commissioner Lola Brabham, Black Women’s Blueprint Executive Director Farah Tanis, Carver Federal Savings Bank Chief Lending Officer/Senior VP Blondel Pinnock and UFT VP for Academic High School/NYC Central Labor Council Secretary-Treasurer Janella Hinds.

When Pinnock first went to work for the bank she started at the bottom rung and realized that she had to keep records of her accomplishments. “One of things that I had to do, and I don’t know how I did it, is that I had to sit down and put on paper the things that I felt I was doing,” she said. “I kept copious amounts of notes of everything that I did … every closed loan. So when I it came time to ask for a raise, I laid out everything that I had done. I don’t know how much anybody else was making, but I got a raise.”

According to Stringer’s report, if the gender wage gap were closed, the more than 350,000 Black women working full time in New York City in 2016 would have collectively contributed close to $11.2 billion more in earnings to the local economy. Although Black women outpaced women in other racial groups in attainment of bachelor’s and graduate degrees, in 2016, more than 23 percent of Black women in New York City live in poverty.

A spokesperson from the Comptroller’s office told the AmNews that they’re announcing these results to get major U.S. healthcare and insurance companies – targeted for their outsized pay disparities – to commit to ending the gender pay gap. Eight companies, including Aetna, Progressive and MetLife have made first time public commitments that their employees – across gender and race – get equal pay for equal work.

Stringer’s report is another in a line of reports demonstrating the wage gap for Black women. A recent report from New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office showed that Black women make 64 cents for every dollar earned by white males. In a statement, Cuomo said, “Whether it’s enacting a statewide $15 minimum wage, or instituting a salary history ban, New York has led the way in advancing women’s rights and economic equality.”

Dukes pointed out that more needs to be done, and Black women need to fight the system internally. “It’s not easy,” said Dukes. “But being an only child and being a daddy’s girl, I was born to be a hell raiser.”

Dukes talked about wanting to be a change agent in every area of life that affects people. She felt that little steps would lead to the change that Black women in New York City, New York State and around the country need.

“We gotta use our power, our power to vote,” said Dukes. “We’ve been fighting inside and outside to get us the power we need. Policy means … PTA meetings, that’s where you need to be. When the budget is talked about. It starts with the school board to the real boards. To change policy, you must know your elected officials. You must not wait until you head to Albany to see them. We gotta begin doing the baby steps.”

Essence Communications President Michelle Ebanks, while presiding over the panel discussion, noted that she wanted to get the hashtag #AskYourWorth trending on social media. When the topic of worth was given to the panel, Tanis said that asking for her worth wasn’t integrated into her life, and she struggled with how to approach that question in a world that saw her as less than. She found the answer looking in the mirror and made that her mantra.

“But who am I gonna ask my worth in a culture and in a system that inherently devalues everything I stand for and who I am?” asked Tanis. “Who am I gonna ask my worth? I’m gonna ask myself and I’m going to determine my worth.”