African-American Women and Work: Still a Tale of Two Cities
Herman, Alexis, National Urban League. The State of Black America
For more than 60 years, we have lived through and been part of one of the most remarkable social revolutions in history. That revolution has fundamentally changed the relationship between women and work. In 1940, 28 percent of women were in the labor force, compared to 38 percent in 1970, and 60.6 percent in 2007.1 In 1940, one in four workers was a woman, today almost one in two are women.2 However, we must remember that this revolution was mostly about non-African Americans, because African-American women have always worked-in their own homes, in the homes of others, and in the limited areas of the workplace that were open to them. Today, African-American women continue to have the highest labor force participation rate among women at 63.4 percent.
The days of Ozzie and Harriet, a television sitcom family of the 50's and 60s, where Harriet stayed at home with two kids, are long gone, as two-tiurds of married couples have two earners. Further, over 70 percent of women with children are in the workforce and even two out of three women with preschool aged kids work. Harriet has joined the 64.9 million employed women as of 2007, and she not only works, but also she is increasingly likely to make more than Ozzie, as one in four wives today make more than their husbands.
While trends in labor force outcomes are similar for black and white women, important differences exist Another sitcom of the 60s gave us a brief look at some of these differences. Diahann Carroll-like Oprah Winfrey today-made TV history. As "Julia" on her weekly show of the same name, Carroll depicted a widowed African-American woman raising her child alone, while employed as a registered nurse-an occupation few African-American women were held at the time. The experience of African-American women raising children alone has always been a reality, but today it is simply more dramatic. However, even though African-American women have always been heavily invested in the workforce, we are more likely to be found working in education and healthcare where the pay is generally lower.
The plight of African-American women and their overall status in the workplace reminds me still of a tale of two cities. One city sits on the hill-bright and shimmering, reflecting the progress and the promise of tomorrow for women in our economy. The other city sits in the valley, little changed from the reality of our youth, characterized by low pay and limited opportunities.
Some of the shimmer is a reflection of our successes and progress. Women have served as secretary of State and today a young woman is flying her F-14 into combat over Afghanistan helping to protect us from terrorism. Women's tennis outdraws male tennis, and our daughters can dream of playing professional sports. African-American women, in particular, have dominated the world of professional tennis with the advent of Serena and Venus Williams. And, while African-American women have not broken the ranks of governorship, we have held four presidential cabinet appointments; one of us has served in the United States Senate and we hold the mantle of mayor increasingly in cities across the nation. African-American women hold 14 of 435 Congressional seats; and 215 seats in state legislatures, serving 37 states.3 We are gaining ground slowly in leadership positions at institutions of higher education and have ascended to the presidency of major educational institutions-at both historically black colleges and universities, as well as mainstream institutions.
All women, including African-American women, make up the majority of those getting associates, bachelor, and masters degrees. African-American women in particular are acquiring higher degrees in record numbers. For instance, most recently, African-American women were awarded 90,312 bachelors, 38,749 masters and 2,007 doctorates.4 In America, there is an estimated 250,000 women lawyers, 16,000 black; and about 189,000 women physicians and surgeons, of which 13,000 are black. …