Refreshing the Conversation: Understanding Work-Family Challenges Facing Women of Color

A black woman sits at the reception desk of a hospital or medical office.

Editor's note: Guest author Jocelyn Frye is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. She recently published "The Missing Conversation about Work and Family: Unique Challenges Facing Women of Color."

Award-winning historian Darlene Clark Hine once wrote that she became interested in research on black women after observing how they fell through the cracks of history, because their experiences were assumed to be encompassed by those of black men or white women. Hine’s observation mirrors the challenges faced by many women of color, whose unique experiences frequently are overlooked or pushed to the margins. This problem is particularly evident in the present-day conversation about women, work, and family where the public narrative about women too often is under-inclusive and incomplete.

Policies promoted by the Department of Labor such as paid family leave, investments in affordable child care, flexible schedules, pay transparency, building skills, strengthening workers’ voices on the job, and stepped up enforcement of employment discrimination laws are among the strategies that are critical to create more equitable workplaces that respond to the diverse needs of women and their families − who are too often defined by assumptions, soundbites and stereotypes.

Women are described as a uniform bloc, with the experiences of white women too often used as a proxy for all women and the unique challenges facing women of color left as an afterthought. Work is discussed as if disconnected from workers’ family obligations. Family responsibilities are viewed as personal issues to be handled outside of work rather than policy questions about economic insecurity, inadequate workplace standards, race and gender bias, or persistent employment barriers. For most women of color, the struggle to fulfill responsibilities at work and at home is not new, nor is the lack of responsive policies to meet their needs.

This policy vacuum has deep historical roots that are particularly relevant for women of color. Rather than stay at home, most women of color had to go to work – typically in domestic, service, agricultural, and other low-wage jobs – to help sustain the broader societal infrastructure and make ends meet. The care work they performed was devalued as “women’s work” and deemed not as important as the work primarily performed by men outside of the home. Women of color, because of pernicious racial, gender, and ethnic biases, were relegated to second-class status, as citizens and as women, with little regard given to accommodating their work-family needs or expanding their opportunities.

The historical backdrop is important to today’s conversation about a refreshed, inclusive work-family framework that responds to women’s diverse needs.  Such a framing must begin by recognizing the multiple roles that all women − and increasingly men − play at work and at home and the need for policies that enable them to fulfill these roles without putting their families or their jobs at risk. This means transforming a workplace culture that historically ignored the care needs of women of color into an intentional, solutions-focused environment with baseline work-family protections that create a level playing field for all workers. It also means identifying the different barriers that different women face – such as economic insecurity, racial and ethnic biases, limited training opportunities – to ensure that proposed policies actually address concrete problems on the ground.

This is the conversation that is needed not only to ensure that women of color no longer fall through the cracks, but also to strengthen all working families and position them for success.

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