Five Ways to Fulfill the Economic Promise of Women of Color

28 May 2014 |
Five Ways to Fulfill the Economic Promise of Women of Color
Despite continued barriers to accessing higher education and the race and gender pay gap, women of color are earning more college degrees than ever before, and launching businesses at a faster pace than any other group. In 2013, women of color entrepreneurs employed 1.4 million workers, and generated more than $220 billion in revenues. The economic potential of women of color is enormous —and tapping into it is not just good for them, it is critical for national prosperity. Within just a few decades, the majority of all women will be women of color. As Angela Glover Blackwell argues in the new Shriver Report: A Woman's Nation Pushes Back from the Brink, linking advocacy for women with advocacy for racial equity is key to reversing skyrocketing inequality and building an economy that works for all. Here are five policies that can increase economic security for low-income families, strengthen communities and the economy, and support the success of all women, including women of color.
  1. Require basic work supports. Women of color are overrepresented in low-wage sectors like retail, food service, and home health care that often do not provide basic work supports, such as paid sick days and job flexibility. New research highlights how these job characteristics make a major difference in whether or not low-income families of color can build wealth over time. Job flexibility, for example, helps women balance holding a job and caring for children or elderly parents. And when workers have paid sick days, they don't need to choose between their health and their livelihoods — and the workforce becomes healthier and more productive. States and localities are leading the way in providing basic work supports. Connecticut passed a statewide paid sick day initiative in 2011. In addition, cities from Portland, Oregon, to Jersey City, New Jersey, guarantee access to earn paid sick days, and there are currently over 20 active paid sick days campaigns at the state and local level. And, while the United States is far behind the vast majority of other countries when it comes to paid maternity leave, three states —California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island —now offer paid family leave, and several others have pending legislation or are considering it.
  2. Raise the minimum wage. Raising the minimum wage is an urgent concern for women of color: 22 percent of minimum wage earners are women of color, compared to 16 percent of all workers. The federal minimum wage should be raised to at least $10.10, which would make it comparable to the level that was maintained in the mid-1960s, and should be indexed to inflation so it adjusts automatically. A $10.10 minimum wage would raise the wages of more than 5.7 million women of color. Tipped workers should also receive the full minimum wage directly by their employers, with tips in addition. Seven states already require that tipped workers receive the full minimum wage instead of a separate tipped minimum wage. To maximize economic security for women of color and all low-wage workers, cities and states should follow the lead of places like Seattle and work to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour and index it to inflation.
  3. Encourage entrepreneurship.  Women of color have a proven track record of entrepreneurial success. Between 2002 and 2007 (the most recent data available), African American women-owned firms grew at a faster rate than any other group of firms, Asian American women-owned firms grew at the second-fastest rate, and Latina-owned firms grew at the third-fastest rate. By effectively halting lending, the recession stopped this progress. But targeted supports, such as small business loan programs that make capital available to women of color, can allow their entrepreneurial spirit and success to flourish again. In addition, federal, state, and local governments should help women of color-owned businesses access government contracts and grow their businesses through active recruitment and targeted contracting policies, if allowed under state law.  The business community can also play an important role. Women's associations, such as Walker's Legacy and the Women's Chamber of Commerce, and initiatives like the Women of Color Foundation's Women's Entrepreneurial Initiative can provide important mentorship and support for enterprising women of color. Alternative business models, such as women of color-led cooperatives like Beyond Care, are also creating jobs and building wealth and leadership within communities.
  4. Create pathways to 21st century careers. Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education and training offer a pathway to well-paying jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities in the fastest-growing fields. Women in STEM jobs earn 33 percent more than non-STEM occupations. And while women earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn, in STEM occupations, women earn 92 cents for every dollar men make. Women of color are severely underrepresented in STEM occupations. Targeted outreach to young women of color through organizations like Black Girls CODE, mentorship programs, and increasing the number of women faculty of color in STEM programs can boost the participation of women of color in science and technology. Increasing participation in STEM fields is critical because America needs a qualified workforce, as well as STEM leaders, and innovators to maintain a competitive edge in a tech-driven global economy.
  5. Support equal pay for equal work. It is an unacceptable reality that in the 21st century, African American women earn just 64 cents and Latinas earn only 56 cents for every dollar paid to white men. As more and more women become primary breadwinners, this pay gap hurts millions of children and families. Recent federal Executive Orders seek to combat this wage disparity by increasing wage transparency among federal contractors. Congress should join in the campaign for wage parity and pass the Paycheck Fairness Act to provide additional tools to fight wage discrimination.
America cannot afford to delay action on these policies and continue to suppress the potential for women of color to lead the nation toward a more equitable and prosperous future. The upcoming White House Summit on Working Families will be an important opportunity to advance these and other policies that support the economic success of working women of color.