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Wage Gap for Women of Color Persists, Fuels Poverty, New Study Finds

By November 22, 2013No Comments

By Yana Kunichoff,

The United States may be closer than ever to a woman in charge of the White House, with Bill Clinton subtly proclaiming on Monday, “I hope we have a woman president in my lifetime.” But for women on the ground, giant disparities persist – and they have a color line.

A new study by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) – a Washington, DC-based advocacy organization – shows that in the same full-time jobs as their male counterparts, women earn only 77 cents to the dollar earned by a man.

And it’s not a gendered phenomenon only – women of color earn less than men of the same race and white women, with African-American women earning 64 cents to a white man’s dollar, and Hispanic woman earning even less – only 54 cents.

Census numbers back up the study and demonstrate that women of color consistently earn less than men of color: Both African-American and Hispanic women make 88 cents for every dollar paid to an African-American or Hispanic man, respectively.

“This report is really highlighting the double burden that women of color face,” said Katherine Gallagher Robbins, a senior policy analyst at the National Women’s Law Center. “What we really wanted to highlight was just how important it is to look at the intersection of race and gender and ethnicity to drill down to how all of these levels of inequality are hurting women’s economic security.”

Those intersections can be complex and unexpected. For example, Gallagher Robbins said, the gender wage gap overall in Washington, DC, is the smallest in the nation. But in wage gaps for women of color, DC is among the ten worst in the country.

In particular, she said, the report zeroed in on “discrimination for women in occupations that already are accompanied by fewer benefits, less security, less flexible worker hours,” such as fast food, home health aides, housekeepers and servers. Because few of these jobs offer health care or paid time off, the loss in pay through the wage gap makes a real impact on the living conditions of women in these occupations, Gallagher Robbins said.

One of the realities of the wage gap experienced by workers all along the pay scale, Gallagher Robbins said, is “it becomes really difficult to run a secure life for yourself and your family.”

The importance of a higher – and fairer – wage to help bring low-income families out of poverty has been the cornerstone argument of a growing low-wage workers movement, which seeks to take up issues of health insurance, minimum wage and overtime pay.

Organizing campaigns like the Fight for 15, a mostly SEIU-backed initiative to raise the minimum wage for fast food workers to $15 an hour has mobilized a heavily female and low-income work force to stage strikes and walkouts to fight for higher wages and an end to discrimination based on gender.

In Chicago, the group has taken up the case of Shakita Moore, a former Jason’s Deli employee who says she experienced racial and gender harassment from managers and co-workers, including inappropriate touching and verbal harassment. Some local organizing offshoots, including the one in Chicago, also created women’s caucuses, where women can strategize about how to fight against sexual harassment and husbands who discourage them from being involved in the union.

“There are wage gaps in a whole host of occupations,” Gallagher Robbins said. “What is particularly troubling is not just the wage gap but the distribution of people in those occupations. Two-thirds of minimum-wage workers are women.”

Real world results

The National Women’s Law Center study lays out several real-world results of the wage gap. One is a rise in poverty rates because of unequal wages faced by women of color and their families.

In fact, even full-time work at a low wage would not be enough to lift a family out of poverty, the report found:

In 2012, the Federal Poverty Level for a family of four was $23,283.17. In 2012, a Hispanic woman working full time, year round who was a relatively low-wage earner (at the 25th percentile) for her ethnic group and sex did not earn enough to bring a family of four above the Federal Poverty Level. The same was true for an African-American woman working full time, year round who was a relatively low-wage earner for her ethnic group and sex.

The wage gap puts an “undue burden” on families with one female earner only, the study notes. In many communities, African-American and Hispanic women are likely to support families on their own, meaning that a lower annual wage translates to more woman-headed families in poverty.

One woman’s story

Elizabeth Grant, a 26-year-old litigation support analyst at a prestigious law firm in Los Angeles, says she gets paid an estimated $30,000 less than her male coworker with the same job title. Grant, who has been at her job six months longer than her better-paid co-worker, asked that the name of her law firm not be mentioned for fear of losing her job.

When asked why her male co-worker should be getting paid more, Grant, who is African-American, said it may be because he has more experience. But she also notes that, were she being paid more, she could use the additional money to take classes to improve her skills.

“I do wish the gap were smaller,” Grant said of the difference in pay between herself and her co-worker. “I’m not given the opportunity to prove myself.”

The lack of upward mobility offered to women of color in all industries also was noted by the NWLC report. “Median annual earnings of minority women are also increasing more slowly than those of women overall,” the report found.

Post-recession blues

It’s been more than five years since 2008, commonly known as the marker of the most recent recession. It’s not surprising that an economic downturn would hit low-income families the hardest, but, Gallagher Robbins said, the recession has not changed income gaps for low-income families as much as people commonly assume.

“What the recession has done is continue a long trend of earnings stagnating and exacerbated the way that income is structured in America,” she said. “The wage gap for Hispanic women has closed by just over 5 cents in the last four decades. These are dire circumstances.”

A recently released analysis by The Washington Post found that while the country has seen notable recovery from the recession, most of the growth has occurred on the wealthy end of the spectrum. “The middle class has been shrinking while households have been added in the lowest and highest income brackets. In many states and nationally, the highest income brackets saw more growth than the lowest, but households in the middle brackets continued to decline,” the Nov. 18 article said.

Looking ahead

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, which codifies that women must be paid equal wages for the same work. Despite this, and a bevy of other equal-wage legislation enacted since, women continue to earn on average only 77 cents to a man’s dollar.

Gallagher Robbins says that while paying two individuals differently for the same work is clearly illegal, there are countless ways employers can justify continuing to pay female workers less. For example, she said, workers doing similar jobs often are classified as different types of workers, or not all workers are paid tips.

The most recently passed fair-pay legislation – the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 – went some way toward addressing the wage gap by allowing woman to challenge past pay disparities in the workplace, Gallagher Robbins said.

But a Bloomberg Businessweek analysis of gender-based wage discrimination cases after the signing of the Ledbetter Act found that the number of lawsuits actually had gone down – and that the wage gap was wider in 2010 than it was in 2007.

Gallagher Robbins ties this failure to the fact that for women to use the protections enshrined in the Ledbetter Act, they would have to know they were being underpaid. In most workplaces, discussion of salaries is heavily discouraged. “If people don’t know they are being paid less, they can’t do anything about it,” she said.

A few proposals for narrowing the gap are being floated, but so far, they haven’t gained traction. Gallagher Robbins mentions that the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill that would cover women who sue for being paid less than their male coworkers, has been voted down several times.

NWLC public policy fellow Lauren Frohlich proposed another idea: Simply raise the national minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. “Women are currently a majority of minimum wage workers,” she said. “A raise would go a long way.”


IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to enhancing the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. and globally to achieve cultural, social, economic and political equality and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.