When Sonja Agee took some time away from work to care for her ailing family, she thought she’d return to her government agency role refreshed. What she didn’t expect was the familiar toxicity and inequity to greet her at the door instead.
“My grandmother was suffering from dementia, my mother had a mild stroke shortly after and I had to step in to care for them both,” Agee shared with Essence. “After my short leave of absence time expired, I went back to work and quickly realized I’d had enough of the meanness and the undercutting that was going on there.”
Shortly after that realization, it dawned on her that the lack of support from her employer forced her to choose between her mental health and a paycheck. Shortly after, she turned in her letter of resignation from the entity she worked with for nearly 30 years.
Unfortunately, Agee’s story is common.
Data tells us that only 19% of women workers have access to paid family leave through their jobs, and only 40% have access to short-term disability insurance, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families—compelling many Black women to make the agonizing choice between making money and assuming the role of caretaker to their loved ones.
A lack of paid leave affects the upward trajectory of Black women that are already underpaid. Every year, Black Women’s Equal Pay Day aims to shed a spotlight on what we feel every day but rarely have the room to openly discuss: Black women in the US deserve better.
When Black women are unable to take adequate paid breaks from their jobs for maternity leave or elderly care for family, they often exit the workforce completely, and their salaries and career opportunities are significantly affected in adverse ways by this break.
Black women, many of whom are the financial head of their households, are paid 63 cents on the dollar. This represents more than just a loss of money. It’s a downturn in the overall quality of life.
Two financial experts break down what this means.
“We must continue to push for parity with a sense of urgency.” Lule Demmissie, President of Ally Invest shared with Essence. “In the financial services industry alone, women hold less than 25% of leadership roles. And a record-breaking 7.4% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women — yes, that’s considered a win. We have to keep advocating for parity, progress will not happen without that. One of the ways we can do that is continuing to encourage ourselves and those around us to engage in important financial conversations, advocate for diversity in hiring and promotions, actively diversify our talent network (e.g. LinkedIn), much more.”
The gender and racial wealth gap have been wedged even further due to COVID-19, exacerbating what we already knew to be serious issues. Large numbers of Black households face more societal hurdles and have access to fewer resources in times of financial insecurity.
“It’s so important to take time to really reflect on the state of gender parity because every year, Black Women’s Equal Pay Day in the U.S. denotes the approximate number of days a Black woman in this country must work into the new year to earn what their White male peers were paid at the end of the previous year,” said Jacqueline Howard, Senior Director of Wealth Advisors Operations at Ally Invest. “That’s right, it takes nearly eight months of earnings for a Black woman to be on par with white men’s salaries and that’s something that I want to see shift significantly in my lifetime.”
Fortunately, there is hope, Agee said.
After leaving her mentally and financially disempowering government job, she focused her attention on mapping out a financial plan, creating other revenue streams, and eventually full-time entrepreneurship by launching her cooking brand Put a Fork In It Catering.
“I’ve always loved cooking and baking, but my former job often made me use what little energy I had left for creativity to my job,” Agee shared.
Now, she’s not only supplemented her salary but she has developed an even deeper bond with her family.
“I want the Black women who are struggling with the decision to prioritize their spiritual and financial worth to take this as a sign to take the leap because you are worthy.”