Op-ed | How Congress, environmental leaders can close the wage gap and win on climate

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The annual earnings of women in 2020 were 82.3% of what men earned, and for women of color, that gap is even wider, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
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The past few weeks in our nation’s capital have been a whirlwind — in a good way.

Historic investments to address critical societal issues, from student loan debt to climate change, will help everyday Americans and show that real progress is possible. Yet, we are falling short in one area essential for our democracy and a winning climate movement: the pay gap.

The numbers are bleak, especially for those working to protect our environment.

The annual earnings of women in 2020 were 82.3% of what men earned, and for women of color, that gap is even wider, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Compared to white men, Latinas are paid just 49 cents for every $1, Black women receive 58 cents, and Native American women earn just 50 cents. 

Pay disparity is even more stark when considering the cost of living for people of color. Recent investigative reports show how Black families’ homes are consistently undervalued compared to their white counterparts. When wealth and property are undervalued, people of color often play catch-up.

Equal pay for equal work should be the law. Right now, it isn’t — but we can fix that.

Congressional leaders must call for another Senate vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act. This bill, which I have co-sponsored, would address wage discrimination on the basis of sex and would strengthen equal pay protections for women across the country. Economic freedom has never been more important, and we’d like to believe our elected officials will support equal pay.

The impacts of the wage gap trickle down to every major industry: from housing, health and especially climate. As a former educator, I understand the importance of providing young people of color with the opportunities to pursue careers in the environmental movement. Diversity, equity and inclusion must be more intentionally addressed for those working to protect the air we breathe and water we drink. Sadly, it isn’t.

The pay gap is harming the Green Movement

Communities of color that are closest to the problems, and the solutions to the climate crisis must have a seat at the decision-making table. Yet, we cannot expect people of color to be fairly represented in leadership positions if they are underpaid compared to their white counterparts.

There’s hope for change. The U.S. Soccer Federation finally instituted equal gender pay after female soccer players filed a wage discrimination claim and won. Environmental organizations should also lead on addressing pay equity — and not just comment from the sidelines.

Green groups must embrace an ethos of transparency — including hiring, sharing demographic data and other organizational aspects like pay scales, promotion and retention policies, and salary information on job descriptions. All of these components can make or break the careers of people of color and the success of the climate movement.

A new Pay Equity Pledge from Green 2.0 calls on organizations to review staff wages across key demographics of race, ethnicity and gender, and take corrective action to remediate pay disparities that are found. Our environmental leaders need to get on board with pay equity if they want to achieve our justice goals. So far more than a dozen green groups have committed to this campaign, including Earthjustice, Union of Concerned Scientists and Sierra Club.

Unionizing efforts taking place across the environmental sector provide a roadmap of what’s possible. Public Interest Network, National Audubon Society and Defenders of Wildlife are forming unions in the past few years as one way to establish transparency and address internal salaries.

We need all sectors to prioritize addressing the pay gap. Nothing changes if organizations aren’t held accountable for pay inequities. If you think equal pay for equal work should be a given — demand that our leaders make it so. It’s how we win on climate and get closer to our founding ideals.

U.S. Rep. Jamaal Bowman represents New York’s 16th Congressional District. Andrés Jimenez is executive director at the nonprofit Green 2.0.

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