Originally published in Fortune – February 3, 2020
Happy Black History Month, everyone. We’re kicking off our coverage with some #BlackGirlMagic, courtesy of this opinion piece from Leilani M. Brown, senior vice president of Strategic Partnerships and External Engagement for K12, Inc. More coverage, including some spectacular Super Bowl #LatinaMagic below.
Five years ago, when I first heard the phrase “Black Girl Magic,” I joined the chorus. I readily embraced the way it celebrates Black women—our beauty, intellect, resilience, and accomplishments. In a world that often says we are otherwise, who wouldn’t embrace this wonderful affirmation?
But when it comes to Black women’s participation in the workforce, our career advancement, and our earnings, we are not exactly experiencing the magic at work.
Consider this: Black students are enrolling in college at higher numbers. And according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, in 2017, Black women earned 64% of the bachelor’s degrees, 70% of the master’s degrees, and 68% of the research doctorates awarded to Black students that year.
Despite these achievements, the wage gap for Black women remains daunting, ranging from 47 cents (Louisiana) to 71 cents (Hawaii) to a white man’s average dollar, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
Together, these two facts serve to debunk the myth that “college to career” is the only (or best) path to career success and upward mobility.
That notion isn’t just inaccurate—it’s unfair.
In fact, one of the things undermining our progress is a lack of participation in well-paying, technology-driven fields like software engineering, cybersecurity, health care, and manufacturing.
These career fields have the potential to level the playing field relative to access and earnings for all under-represented groups, including Black women. For example, the average median pay for web developers and program designers is more than $69,000 per year. However, in 2019, African Americans made up just 6.7% of the workers in this field.
So, where should business and education leaders start?
If they really want to minimize the inequities at scale—addressing the employment, wage, and participation gaps in a meaningful way—they can and should start preparing young Black girls for the future of work.
And that career preparation should begin in middle and high school. More than two-thirds of employers said in 2017 that they couldn’t find qualified talent to fill open jobs, according to a CareerBuilder survey. And a study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that 55 million job openings will be created through this year and more than 30% of them will be new-collar—jobs that require education and training beyond high school but less than a bachelor’s degree.
What if Black women could be first in line for these opportunities? What if they had access to tools like hands-on work experience, industry credentials, and specialized certifications, so they could be more competitive in today’s job market and tomorrow’s?
Career readiness and workforce development programs provide students with these tools and exposure to different career fields. Some programs—like those at Year Up and Idaho Technical Career Academy—even offer students the chance to earn college credits or work toward industry certifications, which can help give Black women a leg-up in the new-collar job market.
Schools, companies, and community organizations need to do more to prepare young Black girls and women to seize these opportunities.
I want to be clear—I am in no way suggesting that Black women should abandon their college dreams and aspirations. I went to college, my child will likely attend, and it is a great option for many young people.
But if one must incur significant student debt for a degree that doesn’t translate into a high-paying job, is it worth it? For many, that answer is a resounding no. On average, a Black woman graduating with a bachelor’s degree will enter the workforce with around $30,000 in student loan debt, according to an American Association of University Women (AAUW) report. This is nearly $4,000 more than the debt of Black male loan borrowers, and it’s nearly $11,000 more than that of their white male counterparts.
To change the tide, business and education leaders need to think critically—and speak honestly—about what is working and what is not. By romanticizing just one version of success, they are doing a disservice to Black women. And if it persists, it will continue to rob Black women of income-earning potential that could make a significant difference in their lives.
At the end of the day, it really is up to each of us—private-sector partners and education officials, parents and community members—to ensure that we are preparing our girls for the future of work and to be life-long learners and equitable earners in the new economy. This collective group should participate in a movement that addresses the earnings gap—a movement that supports Black girls and women and ensures that we achieve pay equity, greater opportunities and upward mobility.
Now that would be Black Girl Magic—at work.
Leilani M. Brown is senior vice president of Strategic Partnerships and External Engagement at K12 Inc. She is also a board member for Tallo, a platform that connects young adults to career and higher education opportunities, and author of From Campus to Cubicle: 25 Tips for Your First Professional Year.