Four Ways to Lift Up Women of Color in the Workforce

Ensuring the economic success of women of color has never been more crucial to America's future. Though women of color make up a large and growing share of the workers, breadwinners, and entrepreneurs that are driving local and regional economies, they are consistently paid less than all other groups of workers — White women, men of color, and White men [see graph above]. Further, women of color are all too frequently employed in low-wage jobs that fail to provide family-supporting wages or basic benefits such as paid parental and sick leave.

"More than 70 percent of women of color are either the sole or co-breadwinner, making their economic security inextricably linked to that of their family," said Fatima Goss Graves, vice president for education and employment at the National Women's Law Center.

Tackling the disparities in pay and employment facing women of color will require policies at the national, state, and local level that link these women to the education, workforce training, business support, and work opportunities necessary to thrive. Several cities and states have taken pioneering steps to enact the types of policies and programs that lift up women of color workers, providing models for other local, state, and federal initiatives. These local successes center around four policy priorities:

(1)   Improve the quality and wages of low-wage jobs: Because women of color are disproportionately employed in the low-wage sector and live in or near poverty, strategies to raise the floor on low-wage work can have immediate impact for these women and their families. Effective policies to raise the floor include those that encourage workplaces to invest in their workers (e.g., programs that upgrade workers' skills and pay) or make it easier for workers to organize and collectively bargain for better pay and working conditions. "You are seeing some companies recognize the value of investing in their workers — that it is valuable for workers to feel good about their workplace and be able to fill their roles at home," Goss Graves said.

Policies that directly establish higher standards for wages and working conditions, such as increasing minimum and living wages, eliminating the sub-minimum tipped wage, and providing paid sick leave, child care supports, and retirement savings are also vital to increasing the pool of quality low-wage jobs. In September 2014, after a two-year campaign by community, labor, and civil rights groups, the Los Angeles City Council approved a living wage ordinance to raise the minimum wage for the city's hotel workers to $15.37 an hour. This will raise pay for 13,000 low-income hotel workers, most of them women and people of color. 

(2)   Create pathways for women of color to access good jobs: Women of color often face barriers to accessing "middle-wage" jobs that offer career pathways but do not require a four-year degree, such as those in construction or some health care. Targeted and local hiring policies for public investments can increase access to middle-wage jobs for women of color, as can workforce training strategies that connect women of color to apprenticeship programs and workforce training programs in high-growth industries.

The Washington State's Home Care Worker Training Partnership is the nation's first large-scale career pathway program for home care aides, training 40,000 aides a year in 200 classrooms across the state and online, providing instruction in 13 languages. The partnership runs the nation's first registered apprenticeship for more advanced training so that aides can increase their earnings and move up the career ladder.

(3)   Support women of color to become entrepreneurs: Despite many barriers to quality employment, women of color are the fastest-growing segment of entrepreneurs and job creators, numbering 1.4 million workers and generating more than $220 billion in revenues in 2013. At the same time, numerous studies show that women of color have a harder time getting business loans or equity investments than their White and male counterparts. Policies that increase access to affordable capital, support business development for entrepreneurs of color, and leverage government procurement policies to link women of color-owned businesses to government contracts are all effective strategies for supporting these entrepreneurs, and helping them create employment opportunities within their communities.

The New Orleans Regional Transit Authority has dramatically increased contracting with firms owned by women and people of color from 11 to 31 percent as part of a new commitment to equity.  

(4)   Ensure girls of color can succeed in school and access science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education and careers: Higher education (at least an associate, if not a bachelor's degree) is a critical stepping stone for success in the 21st century job market, but girls of color often face challenges accessing high-quality preK-12 public education and are more likely to attend schools that lack STEM-related courses. Many girls of color are also subject to overly harsh school discipline measures that result in disproportionately high rates of suspensions and expulsions, reducing their learning time and ability to thrive in school, according to Goss Graves. Policies to eliminate the use of harsh school discipline measures, increase access to high-quality public education and STEM courses, and supplemental programming that exposes girls of color to STEM-related skills and experiences are key to setting girls of color on a track toward later career success and financial stability.

Black Girls CODE is a San Francisco-based nonprofit dedicated to training and empowering girls of color to become leaders and innovators in computer science and technology. In the three years since its founding, it has served more than 3,000 girls ages seven through 17 and opened seven chapters around the country.

For more data on women of color in the economy, such as the percentage of people of color who earn $15 an hour or more, see the National Equity Atlas.

Read the rest of the May 15, 2015 America's Tomorrow: Equity is the Superior Growth Model issue.