NPWF President: "Robust interventions to address the substantial racial inequities in maternal health in the United States are long overdue and require immediate action." WASHINGTON, D.C. – September 19, 2023 – Today, the National Partnership for Women...
Improving Employment Outcomes and Economic Security for Black Women
By Jocelyn Frye
Black women are often a bellwether of how well the economy is working, especially for women. Black women have a long history as workers in the United States – from the early horrors of their traumatic, involuntary arrival as forced slave laborers to their present-day reality where they must navigate persistent gender and racial norms and expectations about workplace roles and job advancement opportunities. The challenges and barriers that Black women confront — in terms of wage disparities, lack of supports for caregiving, over-concentration in jobs with low pay and few benefits, and perpetually having their work devalued — mirror the challenges that many women experience on the job, but often are harsher due to the complex mix of attitudes, stereotypes, and biases that shape workplace culture.
At the same time, Black women workers are a critical backbone of the economy. As demonstrated during the COVID-19 pandemic, women were the majority of essential workers who continued to work during the pandemic, providing vital services and sustaining the nation’s economy throughout the public health emergency. Black women disproportionately work in many of these essential roles, such as cashiers, grocery store workers, and health aides, which are often low paid and insecure. The pandemic demonstrated with stark clarity the foundational role that women often play in our economy, particularly as caregivers, and the effects of longstanding policy failures that have led to inadequate care supports and economic inequality.
Now, amid the ongoing national conversation about the scope and resilience of the economic recovery, topline economic data indicate that women largely have returned to the workforce at pre-pandemic levels and have rebounded from the pandemic’s economic and job losses. Those numbers show the highest labor force participation rate for women between 25 and 54 ever recorded, a signal that the Biden administration’s early, big investments such as the American Rescue Plan are paying off for workers.Smart, T. (2023, July 14). Women, Prime-Age Workers Return to the Labor Force – But Blacks See Warning Signs. U.S. News & World Report. Retrieved 19 July 2023, from https://www.usnews.com/news/economy/articles/2023-07-14/women-prime-age-workers-return-to-the-labor-force-but-blacks-see-warning-signs This narrative, however, risks oversimplifying the story of what happened during the pandemic and its aftermath – and it risks missing the pandemic’s most important lessons about the progress needed for women workers in the future. The policy gaps and failures that existed prior to and were exacerbated during the pandemic – especially the lack of comprehensive care supports – already meant that most women were navigating an economy and workplaces that were not built with their experiences in mind.Wilson, V. (2020, June). Inequities exposed: How COVID-19 widened racial inequities in education, health, and the workforce. Retrieved 19 July 2023 from Economic Policy Institute website: https://www.epi.org/publication/covid-19-inequities-wilson-testimony/ For example, although Black women often have the highest labor force participation among all women, they consistently experience significant disparties when compared to their white counterparts – in unemployment, wages, access to key work-family supports, and in advancement opportunities – often reflecting the prevalence and combined effects of racial and gender bias.Wilson, V. and Darity Jr., W. (2022, March). Understanding black-white disparities in labor market outcomes requires models that account for persistent discrimination and unequal bargaining power. Retrieved 19 July 2023 from Economic Policy Institute website: https://www.epi.org/unequalpower/publications/understanding-black-white-disparities-in-labor-market-outcomes/; National Partnership for Women & Families. (2022, October). Black Women and the Wage Gap. Retrieved 19 July 2023, from https://nationalpartnership.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/02/african-american-women-wage-gap.pdf; Milli, J., Frye J., & Buchanan, M. (2022, March). Black Women Need Access to Paid Family and Medical Leave. Retrieved 19 July 2023 from Center for American Progress website: https://www.americanprogress.org/article/black-women-need-access-to-paid-family-and-medical-leave/; Hunter-Gadsden, L. (2018, November 12). Report: Black women less likely to be promoted, supported by managers. PBS News Hour. Retrieved 19 July 2023, from https://www.pbs.org/newshour/economy/report-black-women-less-likely-to-be-promoted-supported-by-their-managers A real recovery must do more than return to and cement a pre-pandemic status quo that consistently undervalued Black women’s labor, and the labor of all women. Rather, it must transform our approach to the economy as a whole, tackling persistent barriers that have undermined Black women’s employment and implementing policies designed to promote sustained economic security and equity.
Disparities experienced by Black women rooted in historical and structural biases
Fixing our economy to work for Black women, and women more broadly, must start with a deep understanding of the underlying economic problems they face and their origins. Black women have always worked, yet their experiences in the labor force and economy have been shaped by a broader societal context where women workers were confined to narrow, often racialized roles and women’s work overall was viewed as less valuable and less consequential to a thriving economy. The added effects of entrenched racism and sexism rooted the United States’ culture of white supremacy and paternalism and the deep legacy of forced, exploited, and devalued labor meant that Black women workers had few options for concrete, lasting economic gains.Frye, J. (2019, August). Racism and Sexism Combine to Shortchange Working Black Women. Retrieved 19 July 2023, from Center for American Progress website: https://www.americanprogress.org/article/racism-sexism-combine-shortchange-working-black-women/ Historically, Black women were largely confined to mostly domestic and service roles, where they were compensated with very low wages and little consideration was given to their work or family responsibilities.Frye, J. (2019, August). Racism and Sexism Combine to Shortchange Working Black Women. Retrieved 19 July 2023, from Center for American Progress website: https://www.americanprogress.org/article/racism-sexism-combine-shortchange-working-black-women/ To the extent they sought to step outside of these roles and pursue other types of job opportunities, they frequently were met with discrimination and other obstacles used to make their pathway harder.Frye, J. (2019, August). Racism and Sexism Combine to Shortchange Working Black Women. Retrieved 19 July 2023, from Center for American Progress website: https://www.americanprogress.org/article/racism-sexism-combine-shortchange-working-black-women/ Such biases along race and gender lines often meant that Black women experienced compounded forms of discrimination, contributing to disparities between white and Black women and other women of color. Biases about Black women have also fueled systemic practices that continue to devalue their work and depress their wages and perpetuate stereotypes about their skills and work ethic. All of these challenges occur in workplaces and an economy designed to maintain a balance of power, infrastructure, and racial and gender hierarchies that are white-led and male-dominated.
Many of the factors that undermine women’s employment overall disproportionately impact Black women. For example, the current economic system assumes a tenuous balance of work and family responsibilities that disadvantages women, who often shoulder unpaid caregiving responsibilities for their families. This disproportionately impacts Black women, who are more likely than their white counterparts to take on the bulk of caregiving responsibilities for their families and are also a disproportionate share of paid caregivers, contending with low wages and inadequate benefits.Reinhard, S., Caldera, S., Houser, A. & Choula, R. (2023, March). Valuing the Invaluable: 2023 Update Strengthening Supports for Family Caregivers. Retrieved 19 July 2023 from AARP website: https://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/ppi/2023/3/valuing-the-invaluable-2023-update.doi.10.26419-2Fppi.00082.006.pdf Without sustainable, comprehensive solutions to address the care needs of workers and support caregivers, the employment outcomes of Black women will continue to suffer.
Black women have relatively high labor force participation and unemployment
The story of the pandemic for Black women is not solely a story about job losses or women leaving because of caregiving responsibilities, it is also a story about the experiences of those who continued to work – their job quality, economic instability, and overall gaps in women’s employment opportunities. In February 2020, just before the pandemic began, Black women’s labor force participation rate was 63.9 percent. In June 2023, Black women’s labor force participation had rebounded to 62.9 percent (among the highest of any group of women) compared to 59.3 percent in April 2020.U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Current Population Survey Table A-2. Employment status of the civilian population by race, sex, and age,” available at https://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.t02.htm; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Economic News Release, Table A-3. Employment status of the Hispanic or Latino population by sex and age,” available at https://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.t03.htm (last accessed July 2023); U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey, A-15. Employment status of the civilian noninstitutional population by race, Hispanic or Latino ethnicity, sex, and age,” available at https://www.bls.gov/web/empsit/cpseea15.htm (last accessed July 2023).
Another measure of the labor market, known as the employment-to-population ratio (EPOP), calculates the percentage of people working of the relevant population. Unlike the unemployment rate, which is focused on those working or looking for work, the EPOP also considers those disconnected from the labor force (such as people who are not currently looking for jobs). Prime-aged Black women (those aged 25-54) tend to have among the highest EPOPs among groups of women. For example, in June 2023, 75.5 percent of the prime-aged population of Black women were employed, compared to 75.1 percent of white women.Authors Calculations, U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey (last accessed July 2023)
However, Black women continue to experience disproportionately high unemployment. In February 2020, Black women over the age of 20 had an unemployment rate of 4.8 percent; by May 2020, unemployment for Black women had peaked at 16.6 percent. Even as unemployment has decreased, Black women are still more likely to be unemployed than other groups of women – in June 2023, Black women over the age of 20 had an unemployment rate of 5.4 percent compared to 2.6 percent for white women, 3.2 percent for Asian women, and 4.1 percent for Latinas.U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Economic News Release, Table A-2. Employment status of the civilian population by race, sex, and age,” available at https://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.t02.htm (last accessed July 2023); U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Economic News Release, Table A-3. Employment status of the Hispanic or Latino population by sex and age,” available at https://www.bls.gov/news.release/ empsit.t03.htm (last accessed July 2023); U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey, A-15. Employment status of the civilian noninstitutional population by race, Hispanic or Latino ethnicity, sex, and age,” available at https://www.bls.gov/web/empsit/cpseea15.htm (last accessed July 2023).
Tellingly, the gap between Black women’s unemployment rates compared to white women’s in the last 50 years was at its most narrow in April 2020, when women of all races were losing jobs at a drastic rate due to the onset of the pandemic and resulting economic downturn.Boesch, D. & Phadke, S. (2021, February). When Women Lose All the Jobs: Essential Actions for a Gender-Equitable Recovery. Retrieved 19 July 2023 from Center for American Progress website: https://www.americanprogress.org/article/women-lose-jobs-essential-actions-gender-equitable-recovery/ Temporarily narrowing the gap because Black and white women had similarly high unemployment rates at the beginning of an unprecedent economic crisis is not a success, nor does it provide a model for ensuring long-term parity. As the economy has recovered, a consistent unemployment gap between Black and white women has reemerged, even as Black women experience historically low rates of unemployment and other indicators of a “tight” labor market wherein the economy is close to full employment.Gallagher Robbins, K. (2023, Aril 11). Black women’s unemployment hits a historic low – but there is more to do|#JobsDay April 2023. National Partnership for Women & Families Blog. Retrieved 19 July 2023, from https://nationalpartnership.org/black-womens-unemployment-historic-low/ That consistent disparity, especially when labor force participation is relatively high, points to the persistent structural biases that shapes Black women’s outcomes in the labor market.
Though Black women are more likely to work, a consistent wage gap persists
Improving the employment outcomes and economic well-being of Black women requires more than an understanding of their labor force participation and unemployment rates. Black women continue to face a pronounced wage gap in comparison to white men and women. In 2022, women workers (inclusive of those who work part-time or part of the year) were paid just 77 cents for every dollar paid to a man. Among these workers, Black women workers were paid just 64 cents for each dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men; white, non-Hispanic women were paid 73 cents, Latina women 54 cents, and Native -American women just 51 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men.National Partnership for Women & Families (October, 2022). Factsheet: America’s Women and the Wage Gap. Retrieved 22 February 2023, from https://nationalpartnership.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/02/americas-women-and-the-wage-gap.pdf Looking more narrowly at just full-time, year-round workers, Black women were paid 67 cents for each dollar paid to a white, non-Hispanic man.National Partnership for Women & Families (October, 2022). Factsheet: America’s Women and the Wage Gap. Retrieved 22 February 2023, from https://nationalpartnership.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/02/americas-women-and-the-wage-gap.pdf These disparities depress lifetime earnings and have far-ranging impacts on everyday quality of life, ability to accumulate wealth, reserves for financial emergencies, and retirement outcomes. And, in part, because Black mothers are substantially more likely than others to be the sole or primary breadwinner in their households, inequities in pay and other disparities have consequences for entire families.
The wage gap experienced by Black women is fueled by multiple factors, including occupational segregation, inadequate work-family and caregiving supports, and discrimination.
Occupational segregation is a key driver – occupational segregation occurs when people are unevenly represented in different jobs with very different wages, benefits, and working conditions in part based on their race, gender, and other identities. Black women are overrepresented in occupations with lower wages and inadequate benefits, making them more vulnerable to economic precarity and resulting in billions in lost wages. For example, research by the National Partnership for Women & Families has found that Black women make up almost a third of all nursing assistants and home health aides, and are also disproportionately employed as personal care aides; the average wage across the top ten most common occupations for Black women was $30,200 compared to $80, 500 for white, non-Hispanic men’s ten most common occupations.Mason, J. & Gallagher Robbins, K. (2023, March). Women’s Work is Undervalued, and It’s Costing Us Billions. Retrieved 19 July 2023 from the National Partnership for Women & Families website: https://nationalpartnership.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/04/womens-work-is-undervalued.pdf Black women lose nearly $36 billion annually compared to white, non-Hispanic men when considering the wage gap in the ten occupations in which they’re most likely to work.Mason, J. & Gallagher Robbins, K. (2023, March). Women’s Work is Undervalued, and It’s Costing Us Billions. Retrieved 19 July 2023 from the National Partnership for Women & Families website: https://nationalpartnership.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/04/womens-work-is-undervalued.pdf Supporting Black women’s employment requires improving wages and benefits in the occupations in which they are most likely to work and addressing barriers to their employment in higher paying occupations.
Actively and intentionally combatting occupational segregation and gender and racial wage gaps is especially important as historic investments in manufacturing, transportation, clean water and energy, communications and more create millions of high-quality jobs.Glass, A. & Walter, K. (2022, October). How Biden’s American-Style Industrial Policy Will Create Quality Jobs. Retrieved 19 July 2023 from the Center for American Progress website: https://www.americanprogress.org/article/how-bidens-american-style-industrial-policy-will-create-quality-jobs/ Racism, sexism, and other structural factors have combined to leave women historically underrepresented in industries funded by the landmark investments prioritized in the U.S. CHIPS and Science Act, Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), and Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).Gruberg, S., Mason, J. & Gallagher Robbins, K. (2022, September). Historic Investments in Good Infrastructure Jobs Can’t Leave Women Behind. Retrieved 19 July 2023 from National Partnership for Women & Families website: https://nationalpartnership.org/report/infrastructure-investment-jobs-act/ For example, research by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission finds that Black and Hispanic or Latino workers and women workers face barriers in the construction industry that limit their ability to fully benefit from good wages, benefits, and other indicators of quality jobs in the industry. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (2023, May). Building for the Future: Advancing Equal Employment Opportunity In the Construction Industry. Retrieved 19 July 2023, from https://www.eeoc.gov/building-future-advancing-equal-employment-opportunity-construction-industry#Women; Kelly, M. (2022, November). 2022 Evaluation of the Highway Construction Workforce Development Program. Retrieved 19 July 2023, from https://www.oregon.gov/odot/Business/OCR/SiteAssets/Pages/Workforce-Development/Program_Evaluation_November_22_FINAL.pdf; U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (2022, May 17). Knocking Down Walls: Discrimination and Harassment in Construction. Retrieved 19 July 2023, from https://www.eeoc.gov/meetings/meeting-may-17-2022-knocking-down-walls-discrimination-and-harassment-construction; Hegewisch, A. & Mefferd, E. (2021, November). A Future Worth Building: What Tradeswomen Say about the Change They Need in the Construction Industry. Retrieved 19 July 2023 from Institute for Women’s Policy Research website: https://iwpr.org/a-future-worth-building-report/ Rather, those populations are both underrepresented overall and/or disproportionately concentrated in lower-paying roles in the construction industry. Women and workers of color also reported being assigned tasks that are more physically demanding or dangerous, or unrelated to the skills required for their trade when compared to their white male coworkers. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (2023, May). Building for the Future: Advancing Equal Employment Opportunity In the Construction Industry. Retrieved 19 July 2023, from https://www.eeoc.gov/building-future-advancing-equal-employment-opportunity-construction-industry#Women; Kelly, M. (2022, November). 2022 Evaluation of the Highway Construction Workforce Development Program. Retrieved 19 July 2023, from https://www.oregon.gov/odot/Business/OCR/SiteAssets/Pages/Workforce-Development/Program_Evaluation_November_22_FINAL.pdf; U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (2022, May 17). Knocking Down Walls: Discrimination and Harassment in Construction. Retrieved 19 July 2023, from https://www.eeoc.gov/meetings/meeting-may-17-2022-knocking-down-walls-discrimination-and-harassment-construction; Hegewisch, A. & Mefferd, E. (2021, November). A Future Worth Building: What Tradeswomen Say about the Change They Need in the Construction Industry. Retrieved 19 July 2023 from Institute for Women’s Policy Research website: https://iwpr.org/a-future-worth-building-report/ If the current status quo persists and funding and implementation is not deliberately focused on increasing women’s presence in industries related to infrastructure and renewable energy, the National Partnership finds that Black women will account for less than 4% of the nearly 800,000 jobs created by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.Mason, J. & Gallagher Robbins, K. (2023, March). Women’s Work is Undervalued, and It’s Costing Us Billions. Retrieved 19 July 2023 from the National Partnership for Women & Families website: https://nationalpartnership.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/04/womens-work-is-undervalued.pdf This is a reminder of the importance of gender and racial equity in the ongoing conversation about what transformative industrial policy must look like and how best to deploy to infrastructure investments so that all can benefit, especially women.
Closing the wage gap also requires vigorous enforcement of existing legal protections, including bolstering the resources of enforcement agencies so that they have access to the full range of tools to evaluate employer pay practices and surface discrimination. Comprehensive access to pay data broken down by race, ethnicity, and gender, for example, a strategy pursued during the Obama administration and subsequently rescinded during the Trump administration, is a critical action step that can be taken to ensure that agencies have access to better pay information. Addressing discrimination and occupational segregation, combined with the crucial work to ensure access to work-family policies such as paid family and medical leave, would help close the pay gap for Black women.
Supporting Black women’s economic security and well-being requires a comprehensive approach
Black women’s experiences in the formal labor market do not alone determine their economic security and well-being. Despite higher rates of labor force participation than other demographics, Black women experience among the highest rates of povertySun, S. (2023, January). National Snapshot: Poverty Among Women & Families. Retrieved 19 July 2023 from National Women’s Law Center website: https://nwlc.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/02/2023_nwlc_PovertySnapshot-converted.pdf. In 2021, the official poverty rate for Black women over 18 was 18.8 percent compared to 17 percent for Hispanic/Latina women, 11.7 percent for women overall, 21 percent for Native women, and 8.9 percent for White, non-Hispanic women.Sun, S. (2023, January). National Snapshot: Poverty Among Women & Families. Retrieved 19 July 2023 from National Women’s Law Center website: https://nwlc.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/02/2023_nwlc_PovertySnapshot-converted.pdf Black households are more likely to experience hunger and food insecurity than other families.Feeding America. (n.d.) Black communities face hunger at a higher rate than other communities. Retrieved 19 July 2023, from https://www.feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/black-communities Black women are also disproportionately rent-burdened and are more likely to experience evictions over their lifetimes than white women.Solomon, M. & Baldassari. (2022, February 21). Why Black Women Are More Likely to Face Eviction. KQED. Retrieved 19 July 2023, from https://www.kqed.org/news/11905386/why-black-women-are-more-likely-to-face-eviction; Hepburn, P., Louis, R. & Desmond, M. (2020, December). Racial and Gender Disparities among Evicted Americans. Retrieved 19 July 2023 from the Eviction Lab website: https://evictionlab.org/demographics-of-eviction/ And Black women are three times more likely to die during pregnancy or in childbirth than their white counterparts.Population Reference Bureau. (2021, December 6). Black Women Over Three Times More Likely to Die in Pregnancy, Postpartum Thank White Women, New Research Finds. Retrieved 22 February, 2023, from https://www.prb.org/resources/black-women-over-three-times-more-likely-to-die-in-pregnancy-postpartum-than-white-women-new-research-finds/ These disparities occur in a broader societal context where the prevailing narrative about Black women often expects them to shoulder burdens without help or intervention and to be tough and impervious to pain, suggesting Black women do not need, or deserve, supports.
Building an economy that supports Black women’s well-being, ensures they can meet their and their families’ needs, and improves their employment requires solutions that intentionally address structural racism and sexism. Government intervention and policy solutions such as paid family and medical leave, paid sick leave and high-quality, affordable childcare can help Black women balance their family and work responsibilities without being forced to sacrifice crucial income or time with loved ones. Other interventions include robust enforcement of employment discrimination laws; intentional strategies to raise wages, such as increasing the minimum wage, eliminating subminimum wages, and improving pay for care workers; and commitments from employers to review internal practices and evaluate hiring and promotions with a racial and gender justice lens.
Black women deserve an economy that works for them – it is past time for policymakers to prioritize solutions that advance their economic well-being and employment.