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3 Tips to Stop the Racial Wage Gap From Ruining Your Retirement

Black workers tend to be paid less. This advice could help you earn more

spinner image The racial wage gap is referenced by a man's hands holding two unequal stacks of coins.
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Imagine doing $100 worth of work but getting paid only $76 instead. 

That’s the situation many Black workers face hour after hour, paycheck after paycheck, as they try to earn a living but often are paid less than their white coworkers. Over a lifetime, that wage gap not only makes it hard for African Americans to cover their daily costs of living, but it also leaves them with far less to invest for retirement.

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For decades, researchers and equal pay advocates have tried unsuccessfully to identify the reasons why Black people are paid only 76 cents for each dollar paid to white workers, a disparity that has lasted for generations.

Differences in career choice is one possible explanation. Black Americans, who are roughly 13 percent of all workers, are overrepresented in comparatively lower-paying fields such as bus drivers (36.6 percent of all drivers), security guards (34.5 percent), and home health aides (32.5 percent), according to the Pew Research Center. At the same time, Black workers are underrepresented in high-paying careers such as information technology, financial services and professional services, the consulting group McKinsey & Company finds.

But even when compared with white workers in the same field with the same level of education, Black workers tend to be paid less than their white colleagues, according to research from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. The persistence of the racial wage gap suggests it’s unlikely to close anytime soon, but advocates for equal pay have identified some practices that could help you in salary negotiations.

1. Don’t answer salary history questions

Your salary past does not have to be your financial future. This idea is especially true for workers who are Black, for members of other racial minority groups and for women, all of whom sometimes get trapped into lower salaries throughout their careers simply because they started off in lower-paying jobs.

Advocates for equal pay say that employers should avoid asking questions about applicants’ salary history. Research does suggest that removing the question from the hiring process can lead to higher salaries for Black workers.

According to a study from the Technology + Policy and Research Initiative at Boston University, African American workers in Massachusetts saw a 13 to 16 percent increase in pay in counties that banned salary history questions when compared with the earnings of similar workers in counties without such bans.

Some lawmakers acted based on such research. In recent years, 21 states and 22 cities have laws that prohibit employers from asking applicants about their past salaries, according to a list compiled by HR Dive.

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Whether or not you live one of these regions with bans on questions about previous income, salary negotiation experts recommend that you politely deflect any questions about salary history or income expectations until the employer makes the opening bid. For example, the job placement firm Robert Half suggests you might respond to such questions by saying something like, “I’d rather not talk in detail about money this early in the process. I’d like to first learn more about the job and the company. But may I ask what salary range you’re considering for the position?”

When the question appears in online job applications and it can’t be skipped, it’s better to give a salary range rather than provide a specific number.

2. Research pay ranges for the position

One way to miss out on a higher salary is not to know how much employers are willing to pay. While your current salary gives you an idea of what type of income is available for your field, you have no way of knowing whether that number by itself is at the high or low end of the pay scale for your job. This research is especially important for Black workers and women who may be underpaid in their current jobs.

There are multiple online resources that help you research how much workers are earning for different job.

  • Indeed. In addition to offering postings for millions of jobs nationwide, Indeed offers job seekers information about salaries in their region. For example, bookkeepers in Washington, D.C. region earn an average wage of $23.31 per hour, ranging from a low of $16.40 to a high of $33.15.
  • Payscale. The website specializes in measuring salary and benefits information by quickly surveying its users. That research helps them keep their numbers up to date as job offers change during a year.
  • Glassdoor. This website also gathers data from its users as they register for the website to determine what the specific salary ranges are for different jobs with specific employers. The ranges are updated monthly using information gathered over the past two years.
  • U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Quickly type the job title you’re researching into the search bar on this website and you’ll get a wealth of information about that profession. In addition to the median wage, you’ll find information about whether the number of jobs is growing or shrinking in that field, along with tips on which other jobs require similar skills if you’re thinking about a career switch.
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Increasingly, you can find information about the pay ranges in the actual job postings. Eight states—California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, Nevada, New York, Rhode Island and Washington—have enacted laws that require employers to tell job seekers the pay range for the position, either in the posting, during the interview, or on request, according to the Center for American Progress. More than a dozen states and the District of Columbia are considering similar laws. Advocates say the laws can be an effective way to close the racial pay gap.

3. Use your networks

Another route for researching salaries is social media, although you should proceed with some caution if you pursue this route. In recent years, some people of color and women have started using platforms such as X (previously known as Twitter) and TikTok to share information about their personal salary history or what they have learned about pay ranges from various employers.

In February 2022, as she was changing jobs, travel writer Victoria Walker posted a note on social media telling applicants for her previous job how much salary they should ask for.

Walker’s post went viral and has since been followed by other workers posting their salaries on platforms such as X. The trend shows that social media—where African Americans tend to have higher usage rates than other groups — can be helpful for finding salary information. But before you post your own salary information, make sure that doing so won’t upset your current employer or price you out of the market for new job opportunities.

And just a reminder, face-to-face networking can also be a valuable way to learn more about pay ranges while also building relationships that can lead to jobs.

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