The Game of Life: If You’re A #BlackWomanAtWork, You Probably Have An Equal Pay Story.
By: J.T. Johnson
Let’s play a game. I’ll tell you my equal pay story, then you tell me yours.
Once upon a time, long ago and far away in the land of hope and change, I graduated from university with honors and a degree in TV and film. I was one of the fortunate people who, despite the Wall Street bailouts and resulting economic meltdown, had a job waiting when I left school.
Three months in, I got a call from home.
My great aunt, who’d raised me, my brother, and her granddaughter as if we were her own children, had been riding around in a cab for hours with a few boxes and suitcases and a cab driver who could eventually tell his passenger might be lost.
When the call came, my mom was already on her first full week and a half away from work.
No one said it then, but no one needed to: I had to come home.
Fast forward a few years. After my unpaid leave and a few gigs, I was willing to take any door that would open, even if it started at $10 an hour and meant being a mail room girl. (No…for real.)
I remember being terrified that all those skills I learned in college had expired.
It didn’t matter that I’d taught myself to code and design to stay hire-able. Did I even know how to edit video anymore? How much had the tech changed? Was President Obama really allowing me to keep my mom’s health insurance until 26? (OMG! THANK YOU, SIR!) Could I construct sentences worth reading? Did my undergrad internship experiences with major networks count for anything anymore? Are my student loans in default? (Um…yes. But loan forgiveness!)
So, my first year in my first official TV job, I was all in. After some months, the kindness of people in higher places put me in the deep end.
I got to be an assistant and I got a $2 raise. For this childless (Thanks for the contraceptives, Planned Parenthood!) 20-something who’d returned home and was terrified she’d never be employable — or independent — again, that $2 was a morale boost. So, I went all in again. I was in the newsroom now. I offered to write stories. I did write stories. I asked to go on shoots. I did go on shoots. I was encouraged to pitch stories. Pitch stories I did. Some of those stories even made it to TV. How gratifying! And then I was asked to be a different kind of assistant — one with more producer-like expectations without the producer-anything pay.
Meanwhile, while I was in the stairwell, busy learning what anxiety attacks feel like, my old college classmates were starting to run newsrooms and writing rooms and becoming agents.
I loved my job, but I could not see the light at the end of my financial tunnel. I resolved that I’d grin and bear it. I simply needed to play catch up. I’d keep working harder, longer. I’d ask for more work and loudly.
Around the two-year mark, an executive producer began hiring me out from time-to-time to write for broadcast.
And that’s when I felt the need to start asking questions. The first time I was hired to write for air, my jaw dropped when I got my paycheck. That amount of money, on a regular basis, would be enough to move out and start over.
I talked to some co-workers who’d been there longer, and were paid better — or so I assumed. They, too, were earning a whopping $12 an hour. We were all performing some combination of duties that were comparable to existing, salary-based roles, but without anything remotely close to matching pay. In the most extreme case, a woman I’d been certain was a salaried employee was told she could receive an upgraded title — but it would come with less hours, that is, less pay.
That simple act of talking about pay led to a flurry of activity that I sincerely regret not seeing through. Those co-workers and I, it turned out, did indeed have the right to better pay. Our unofficial union representation confirmed it, and shortly thereafter, a more senior manager took a suspicious sudden interest in redirecting all of our attention to jobs outside of that network.
To this day, I’m not convinced we weren’t being played. I am, however, convinced that there’s nothing coincidental about most of the people in that situation being women of color.
For me, truly understanding the fight for equal pay started with the realization that life can and will interrupt your life without warning. That’s certain. It’s your perceived value that’s subject to uncertainty. Your perceived value can be subject to the whims of those around you — including you.
Taking time out of the workforce to be present for my family was never an option. In fact, being able to make a significant contribution to my family’s wellbeing and feeling the urgent need to make up for lost time were the hottest fires under my ass when I re-entered the workforce. To work said ass off, and have that work go undervalued, quite frankly, hurt. I couldn’t help thinking that being a young Black woman hadn’t played a part in the strange recognition of my hard work, yet total devaluation of it just the same.
But I can’t imagine reliving that experience again under this Administration.
Having a kid, caring for a loved one, paying off your education, managing your mental health or your reproductive health or your health, period, shouldn’t feel as random or precarious as a board game.
Now, it’s your turn: what’s your equal pay story?
If you still need help figuring it out, play our take on the Game of Life: “Making It Work: Trump Edition.”