Black Women in the Labor Force

As Black History Month comes to a close and Women’s History Month begins, it’s a good time to take a look at the progress we’ve made toward equality in the workplace for black women and the challenges they still face.

We’ve undoubtedly made substantial progress over the past few decades. Black women earn more than ever and continue to be more likely than other women to participate in the labor force. In 2015, six in 10 black women were employed or actively looking for work.

However, we still face significant challenges, including a stark wage gap. The latest data on annual earnings shows that black women earn nearly 20 percent less than white, non-Hispanic women and 40 percent less than white, non-Hispanic men. This wage disparity has a detrimental effect on black women and the families they support. Black women are raising families, often alone, or at least as a primary breadwinner. In fact, four in 10 black families with children were headed by a single working mother in 2014.

graphic about families with children headed by a single working mother. Black mothers are more likely than white, non-Hispanic mothers to be the primary breadwinner for their families.

The good news is that history has shown how effective policies can make a difference. Equal opportunity and affirmative action policies put in place since the 1960s have been particularly effective in the public sector, an important source of employment for black women.

For the past several decades, women and blacks have been employed in the public sector at rates that are higher than their share of workers in the private-sector. In 2015, black women were 6.0 percent of private-sector workers, compared to nearly 1 in 10 government workers. The public sector has typically offered higher wages and more stability and upward mobility than jobs held by black private sector employees. These jobs also have a smaller wage disparity between racial groups. For black women, employment in the public sector historically has meant greater opportunity and a pathway to the middle class.

Graphic showing wage gap for black women is significantly greater than for white women when compared with men.

The public sector also created opportunities for black women to rise through the ranks and meet their full potential as leaders. Women like Alexis Herman, who was the youngest person to serve as director of the Women’s Bureau and the first black woman to serve as the secretary of labor. I am proud to be among those public servants, having worked in the public sector on the local, state and federal level. And now, as the deputy director of the Women’s Bureau, I’m passionate about my work to ensure all women are treated fairly on the job.

The enduring inequality we see in the latest data is why our work at the Women’s Bureau is so important, and why we continue to conduct research and policy analysis to inform policy change and increase public awareness on issues disproportionately affecting black women. During Black History Month, Women’s History Month, and every month, it’s my privilege to be part of the administration’s efforts to expand opportunity and advance equity for women of color

To learn more, check out the Women’s Bureau’s fact sheet, The Economic Status of Women of Color, as well as recent White House reports on Advancing Equity for Women and Girls of Color and Addressing Challenges and Expanding Opportunity.

Joan Farrelly-Harrigan is the deputy director of the Women’s Bureau.

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We can and must do better.

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