Ideas and insights for today’s people-centered leaders.



Black Employees Face Three Generations of Unequal Pay to Catch Up to White Colleagues

A new research report released by Visier today details the alarming scale of inequity between white working professionals and their non-white counterparts as it relates to pay and career progression. Findings show that at the current rate of progress, Black employees in particular won’t reach pay parity with white employees for 78 years.

The report titled, Racial/Ethnic Career Gap Reveals Magnitude of Equity Challenge, measured gaps in pay and manager representation using a subset of data from the Visier Insights database: 400,000 U.S. employees from 44 enterprise organizations during 2017-2020. 

We spoke with Lenora Billings-Harris, author, speaker, and one of the top thought leaders on diversity, equity, and inclusion to get her take on what impact these gaps have on employees of color and what employers can do to address the racial divide on pay equity and career progression.

Visier: Hello, Lenora, thank you for speaking with us. After reading the report, what was your immediate takeaway?

Lenora Billings-Harris: The report is thorough and very straightforward. Executives have an obligation to their employees and to their stakeholders to stop continuing to ask for more data before they will be convinced to take action. This report gives them the data they need. Now it’s time to develop plans, processes, procedures that will help them be successful.

Do these findings surprise you—especially the data showing that it’ll take 78 years for Black employees to reach pay parity with white employees? 

I am, unfortunately, not surprised. It’s discouraging because reaching parity in 78 years assumes that organizations will live up to the promises they’re making today. That’s a huge assumption.

What effect do these glaring inequities have on a company’s reputation? How does pay inequity do harm to a company?

All employees are impacted by pay inequity. It doesn’t just impact Black employees. It affects the ability of the organization to retain top talent, which then impacts innovation and this will ultimately impact revenue. So, it is opposite the business case, when organizations ignore this issue—they aren’t saving on costs, they are actually losing in the long run.

From the standpoint of a BIPOC professional workforce, it must be devastating to see how being overlooked and undervalued is actually supported by data. What damage does undeniable pay inequity and lack of career progression do to these employees?

Well, on a micro level, Black employees are certainly suffering from an emotional tax—all of the exhaustion that comes with being BIPOC and working in a white-dominated workplace. Today, young people, including BIPOC people, want to work for companies that have a vision beyond profits. So, they will work where their voices will be heard. They do have a choice to work for organizations that will value them.

On a macro level, this pay inequity and lack of progression for Black employees has a much more damaging knock-on effect for household wealth, community wealth, and generational wealth. It’s not hard to connect progress and wealth advancement back to simple pay parity, is it?

Absolutely. It does relate back to pay parity. There’s a multi-generational impact. For generations, Black people have not been appreciated and rewarded financially for their contributions. Think of it this way: Imagine a Monopoly game with 10 players, five of whom are Black. However, those five Black players are not allowed to start when the five white players start. They also only get 25% of the money when they do start and they’re not allowed to buy property as they go around the board. In other words, unless there is systemic and structural long-term change, there’s no way to catch up.

It seems clear the pay gap isn’t going to fix itself and will instead require active understanding, and then action on the part of executives and decision makers who determine both pay packages and job progression within a company. 

Well, first and foremost, both the executives of the company and those sitting on their boards need to check their ego at the door, get out of their own way, and recognize that they have to take responsibility for the solution—even if they were not born when the problem began. 

So, how do companies move beyond simple awareness of these issues to close these disturbing pay gaps?

They must lean into the discomfort of learning things they may not want to know. They need to be  willing to be vulnerable and admit that they don’t know what they don’t know, then move beyond that awareness to identify measurable and reportable actions regarding their progress. Reportable to their board of directors, reportable to their workforce, reportable to their industry. In other words, hold themselves accountable in measurable ways.

Let’s talk about the “Manager Divide” findings in the report and the effect it has on BIPOC employees later in their careers. Do you think the current lack of BIPOC managers leads to a persistence in both conscious and unconscious bias?

Bias is going to persist in any case. We can disrupt our biases, but we can’t get rid of them. And, we can’t wait until there are more Black managers because it is not going to happen organically. 

What needs to happen then?

For every hire and for every promotion, diversity needs to be weighted as a factor, just as other skills and abilities for a particular job are. So for example, if you’re hiring an accountant, they obviously need to have skills. Well, having diversity  seen as a skill is necessary so that when you’re looking at the final two or three candidates, all of whom are qualified for the job, which one will bring diversity? That should not be a “nice” to have. It should be a “must have” if you’re wanting to move forward. 

Additionally, identify and disrupt the hiring and promotion biases, make it easier for people to speak up when biases do lead to inappropriate actions. In other words, create a culture that is a safe culture for people to speak up authentically.

What would you say to white managers and executives who, in response to this report, may feel like these gaps seem too daunting to fix? What are some actionable steps they can take to close the pay gaps?

Have the courage to make this an issue worth addressing. I would recommend that leaders read a book that I just finished: Black Fatigue by Mary-Frances Winters. I believe that this will uncover very quickly what the issues are—not just with pay equity, but with Black fatigue in general. And then when they finish the book, make a commitment to take the actions that she suggests.

What advice would you give to Black and other non-white employees in response to the report findings? What can they do to attain pay equity with their white peers?

As individuals, they need to find allies and advocates within the company who have a voice, who value who you are, and who do want to make a difference so that they can speak up even when you’re not in the room. Additionally, lobby for transparency and for a focus on this issue. Push forward to be heard and realize that you have a choice. There are organizations that want to hear your voice.

You mentioned earlier that actions need to be “reportable”—how can companies stay on top of their actions to see if their numbers are trending in the right direction?

First of all, they need to measure and report and also push their industry—whatever industry they’re in—to make commitments. Look at this as it relates to the company’s values. If their values are that they want the best talent and they want everyone to be authentically who they are, then you don’t have a choice. You have to do this work.

Why does tracking these kinds of numbers and asking these kinds of questions of your people data help to move the needle in effecting change?

What gets managed gets done and what gets measured gets attention. So, if they’re willing to put as much attention on this dire issue, as they are on other things, the needle will move.

Download the Visier Insights Report: Racial/Ethnic Career Gap Reveals Magnitude of Equity Challenge today.

Lenora Billings-Harris, CSP (Certified Speaking Professional) is a CPAE (Council of Peers Award of Excellence) Hall of Fame speaker and an internationally recognized authority in the areas of inclusion, diversity, and bias. She has been included as one of the 100 Global Thought Leaders on Diversity and Inclusion by the Society of Human Resource Management and was named by Diversity Woman Magazine as one of the twenty top influential diversity leaders in the US. In addition to management positions held with two Fortune 100 companies plus the Business School at The University of Michigan, Billings-Harris has held leadership positions with several non-profit organizations. To watch Lenora’s presentations and find out more about her work, go to:

About the author: Kari Browne

Kari Browne is a seasoned journalist and media producer whose work as a senior BBC producer has taken her all over the world, from covering U.S. Presidential elections in Washington, D.C. to the Oscars in L.A., and from the United Nations in New York to the Global Financial crisis while in London. Currently, she is based in Sydney, Australia where she operates Browne Agency, a PR and content consultancy that helps social-justice clientele tell their stories.

Be the first to know!

Never miss a story! Get the Outsmart newsletter.

Related Articles