When Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg, sat down to dinner with her two children this week, she endeavored to explain to them the significance of August 13, 2020. That is the exact date this year that Black women will catch up to the wages White men made in 2019.
Sandberg’s children were gobsmacked.
“It takes even a kid who’s really smart like, ‘Really? How can that be true?’” she told The 19th. That persisting, wide gender pay gap is at the heart of a report her foundation, Lean In, released Thursday concurrent with this year’s Black Women’s Equal Pay Day — addressing an issue that is too often overlooked.
The report, one of the most extensive analyses of Black women in corporate America, looks at the topic of pay inequality in the way most companies don’t: at the intersection of racism and sexism. Across the nation, only 7 percent of businesses set representation hiring targets for gender and race combined, and intersectionality is not often top of mind, Sandberg said.
The result is persisting barriers to entry for many Black women who find themselves underrepresented, undervalued and, often, disrespected at work.
“The challenges women and Black women face in the workplace are really daunting, and very real, and we’re never going to fix them unless we first focus on the fact that we have them,” said Sandberg, whose book “Lean In” focused on women’s upward mobility in the workplace. “Companies and people who believe they’re meritocratic often have more bias. If you believe you’re great at these issues you’re actually probably more biased, because biases run deep,” she said.
The report draws on Lean In and McKinsey & Company’s annual Women in the Workplace study, which has surveyed more than 590 companies employing more than 22 million people since 2015.
It found that Black women are being promoted at far lower rates than their White male counterparts despite seeking promotions at similar rates. For every 100 White men promoted, only 58 Black women are promoted, the report found. Black women are also severely underrepresented in top leadership positions, making up 1.6 percent of vice president roles and 1.4 percent of C-suite positions, despite being 7.4 percent of the U.S. population, according to the survey.
The key issue is what’s known as the “broken rung,” or that first crucial step to becoming a manager. Black women are less likely to move into that position, which creates larger disparities as you move up in the leadership chain.
“If you cannot get that first promotion to manager at the same level, you’re behind all the way,” said Sandberg, who also noted women are still only 7 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs — and that’s a record. None are Black women.
Sandberg, who has helped lead Facebook as its number two since 2008, attributes some of the challenges for Black women — and women overall — to having less access to leaders and managers.
Black women, more so than other groups in Lean In’s survey, consistently said they are less likely to have a manager who advocates for them, helps them manage their career path or advocates for new opportunities. Black women are most likely to say they’ve never had an informal interaction with a senior leader at all — 59 percent compared to 40 percent of all men.
“I say to audiences, “Raise your hand if you’ve ever been promoted by someone you’ve never been in a room alone with?’” Sandberg said. “The answer is zero. We need the informal systems and processes to work for women.”
Sandberg said the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault has likely inadvertantly made men weary of taking women on business trips, for example. According to another Lean In study, about 60 percent of men are uncomfortable having private meetings with women or mentoring women.
“If you’re not willing to have dinner with a woman, don’t have dinner with a man,” Sandberg recently told the Financial Times.
And then there’s the question of persisting stereotypes.
“Think about the word ‘ambition’,” Sandberg said. “He’s ambitious — that’s a compliment. She’s ambitious — that’s an insult.”
The semantics around how women are described compared to men have been part of the public discourse in the past few weeks as Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden finalized his pick for a running mate.
His selection of Sen. Kamala Harris just two days before Black Women’s Equal Pay Day was illustrative of the number of “firsts” still left to be tackled by Black women. Harris is the first Black woman and first South Asian woman to ever appear on a major-party ticket.
Sandberg, who has supported Harris during her career, hailed the choice as an opportunity to bust open a wider discussion on the inequities that plague Black women in the workplace.
“Let’s take the moment when the first Black woman is nominated for office this high to focus on, ‘How do we lift up all women and all Black women?’” Sandberg said. “And it starts by understanding the challenges they face.”
Lean In’s survey calls for more transparency on hiring practices and concrete, publicly accessible figures on representation in the workplace to start to address disparities. Facebook is one of several companies that has been called on to release gender pay gap data in the United States. The company has released the data in the U.K., showing the median gender pay gap was 12.3 percent last year.
Short of releasing the pay data stateside, Sandberg said Facebook has committed to having a workforce that is 50 percent women and people of color by 2024.
Issues of disparities for Black women are more stark now than ever. The coronavirus pandemic has caused Black women to lose 1.4 million jobs and experience unemployment at higher rates than other groups.
“We are in a time when the wage gap and work gap between men and women has never been more important, particularly in a time of coronavirus,” Sandberg said. “There is a lot of hard work to do, but it really starts with the awareness and the acceptance that it isn’t someone else’s problem. This is all of us’s problem.”