Wanda Sykes’ recent tweet in support of fellow comedian Mo’Nique showed the power of black sisterhood in its full glory. When she brought receipts that showed that she, too, had been lowballed by Netflix to create a comedy special—and by less than half of Mo’Nique’s offer—err’body had to shut up and pay attention to the racial and gender inequity that Mo’Nique had tried to get us to see.
Sykes’ tweet revealed the pay inequality that black women have experienced from slavery to present day, an experience supported by statistics.
According to “The Simple Truth About the Gender Pay Gap,” a report published by the American Association of University Women, women were paid 80 percent of what non-Hispanic white men were paid in 2016. Black women were paid 63 percent of that amount.
These statistics are proof that we need a circle of sistah-friends like Wanda to confirm when we’re being lowballed and to teach us how to proceed when we’re offered paltry pay.
Thankfully, today’s Hollywood is filled with examples of sistah-friends who are making BOSS money moves and helping each other do the same. We know many of them—well, at least we think we do—since we follow them on social media:
Mega TV producer Shonda Rhimes is intent on helping women garner the jobs and money they’re due. When Rhimes courted actress Viola Davis to play Annalise Keating in How to Get Away With Murder—a role that has secured her both Emmy and SAG Award wins—Rhimes is credited with asking Davis “What do you need to be happy?” Apparently, $250,000 an episode (the salary Davis now reportedly receives) was enough.
Rhimes is no stranger to asking for what she needs to be happy. According to Forbes, the writer-producer makes more than $10 million a year in her deal with ABC, not including lucrative back-end fees from syndication or licensing.
Oprah Winfrey and Ava DuVernay are another sistah squad where each member uses her individual clout to support and uplift the other. Now, granted, Oprah doesn’t need anybody to uplift her—she’s richer than Black Jesus. But still, their dynamic partnership—Oprah starring in Selma and DuVernay’s upcoming film, A Wrinkle In Time, and Ava creating Queen Sugar for the Oprah Winfrey Network—is #SquadGoals. Let’s also remember that Oprah is famous for advising up-and-coming black entertainers about how to manage their coins: “Sign your own checks.”
Wanda Sykes is only one of a few heavy hitters who are publicly disclosing their “paltry” paychecks. In a recently leaked meeting, Tracee Ellis Ross revealed that she makes “significantly less” than Black-ish co-star Anthony Anderson.
As actress Jada Pinkett Smith recently tweeted:
If Hollywood’s black leading ladies are being shafted, then how much more are we being undervalued and underpaid overall?
Time’s truly up on us being lowballed or, worse—lowballing ourselves.
After I left my full-time job three years ago, I learned a disturbing fact: As a director, I had been paid the same salary as a colleague who was a manager. I was two promotions ahead of her, a few years her senior; heck—I had helped train her when she was an intern. Yet we made the same amount.
Suddenly I realized that I should have ignored my boss’s encouragement to keep my salary a secret. Every time I received a slight pay raise, she made it seem as if she had advocated for me, and advised me not to discuss it with my colleagues, for fear that they would become jealous.
Today I recognize that my pay increases were minuscule compared with what I could have received. But I didn’t realize it then, because I never talked money with my co-workers. I chose to operate within the siloed American work culture that silences discussions about pay.
As a freelance writer, I’ve struggled with owning my worth and demanding commensurate financial compensation. Two years ago, a publication invited me to become a regular contributor. I asked my community of women writers what to charge. They suggested rates, standard industry rates, but the rates felt too high to me. I quoted the editor 55 percent less than what my peers suggested.
When he responded with, “That’s very doable,” I immediately knew that I had lowballed myself. For whatever reason, I didn’t think that my work warranted the higher rate. In other words, I didn’t believe in myself.
Arguably more than any other group, we as black women must fearlessly advocate for our paychecks, and it begins with the belief in our worth.
After Viola Davis received her best actress Oscar, she surprisingly admitted to struggling with self-doubt. “I still have the imposter syndrome,” she told ABC News. “Some days, I wake up and think, ‘Everybody’s gonna see me for the hack that I am … until I realize that I do know what I’m doing.’”
She does know what she’s doing.
We do, too.
To become the staunch advocates that our paychecks need us to be, we must do three things:
We need to connect with other black women—inside and outside our industries. We must reach ahead and behind with the recognition that it feels as good to give as it does to receive.
To do this, ask your colleagues which professional groups they belong to. Ask your friends if they have friends in your industry they can connect you to. Join online industry groups. I belong to about a dozen professional groups on Facebook, which have resulted in new contracts and increased confidence. My favorite group is a community of seven black women writers whom I connect with almost daily. We discuss our challenges, encourage one another and talk money. Each one is my Wanda Sykes.
Don’t be afraid to ask your sistah-friends what they make. Now, I know that can be a bit awkward, but you can simply say something like, “I have a personal question for you: Do you mind sharing with me how much you made on project X?” Or you can pose a more general question: “Do you mind telling me the pay range for someone in your position? I want to ensure that I’m not short-changing myself.”
If a sistah-friend asks about your paycheck, tell her! The longer we’re all hush-hush about our pay, the longer we can all be lowballed. We must abandon the toxic, individualistic cultural mores that say that talking about money is taboo. We must relinquish long-held cultural norms that discourage us from “tellin’ our business”—because they no longer serve us. If we take a collective approach to owning our worth and demanding that worth, we will all rise, together.