Why Women Should Be First in Line for Salary Boosts

Historic gender and racial forces have clustered all women into low-wage work and have pushed women of color into the bottom of low-wage positions.

By Imara Jones Feb 26, 2014

Lost in last week’s technical debate over the minimum wage is the fact that raising the hourly earnings for women of color is essential to bringing about a dramatic change in their well-being and that of their children. More than six out 10 low-wage workers in America are women, with a starkly high number of the lowest-wage work at the bottom of the pay scale occupied by women of color. As women of all backgrounds take the economic lead in their households, what’s true for non-white women is doubly true for black women and Latinas. A hike in the minimum wage to $10.10 would narrow the male-female pay gap and combat poverty in historically marginalized communities across America.

To be clear, all women need a pay raise. Despite the fact that women have "leaned in" and made dramatic progress in the workplace unimaginable 50 years ago, the gap in pay between men and women has only approximately come down by 1 cent every other year since 1960.  According to the National Committee for Pay Equity, women now take home 77 cents for every dollar a man earns.

But for women of color the need is even more stark. Black women earn 62 cents and Latinas 54 cents when compared to what white men earn.  According to research by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) these differences can translate in up $10,000 a year in lost earnings [PDF] for women of color.

There are a broad array of structural reasons for these differences in pay between both men and women, and amongst women of different backgrounds.  First to the legal ones.

The defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1980, which would have rendered pay differences between men and women unconstitutional, markedly set back the cause for pay fairness. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, this blow was followed up by lax enforcement in both the Reagan and first Bush Administrations of gender non-discrimination clauses of the Civil Rights Act. The lack of a constitutional amendment, combined with two hostile White Houses in a row, put "equal pay for equal work" out of reach for more than a decade. A series of federal judicial rulings right up to now haven’t helped.  It was just in 2009 that the Congress passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act–overturning a 2007 Supreme Court ruling–which makes it easier for women to sue for the wages they’ve legally earned.

But the truth is that these legal barriers layered on top of existing economic ones. Historic gender and racial forces have clustered all women into low-wage work and have pushed women of color into the bottom of low-wage positions. In 20th Century America, to the extent that women worked out of home, they were almost exclusively permitted to do so in support positions such as those in office administration, education or health care where their were work was valued less. They were paid less as a result. And as a result of America’s even earlier period of slavery and its aftermath of racial discrimination, women of color were steered into the lowest of low-wage work like that of custodians, cooks, household cleaners and hospital attendants.  

The legacy of these of these legal, economic and racial imbalances is why analyses by the Economic Policy Institute and the NWLC [PDF] show that up to 15 million women in some of America’s toughest jobs could receive a pay increase if the minimum wage is raised, with more than two million women lifted out of poverty.

Why is that exactly?

According to Congress’ General Accounting Office (GAO), 60 percent of America’s 20 million low-wage workers are women [PDF].  An hourly rate of $11 and below is considered by the GAO to be low-wage.  On average, men in low-wage jobs earn about 20 percent more than women in similar work.  That’s because men tend to get jobs at the higher end of lower-wage work such as in transportation and construction while women are at the opposite end of low-wage work. This is one of the ways in which the gender imbalances from the last century continue.

Women predominate jobs at the very bottom of the pay scale, basically anything below $8 an hour. These positions in healthcare, social assistance and in the restaurant industry can be among America’s most demanding but least compensated.  Over eight out of 10 workers in healthcare support positions and seven out of 10 restaurant servers are women.

But all of this leads to the place where historic gender and racial differences collide.  

Half of all healthcare and social assistance workers, such as at-home indigent caregivers, are women of color. These women earn up to 30 percent less than their lower-wage male colleagues.  Women of color also are disproportionately sub minimum wage restaurant workers, who are guaranteed only $2.13 an hour with the rest of their salary made up with tips. According to a report by The Restaurant Opportunities Center United, the pay differential for these workers can translate into $400,000 in less pay for black women servers over the course of their lifetime when stacked up against the lifetime earnings of their white male counterparts.

Given the fact that low-wage women of color are in low-wage jobs that pay less it’s no wonder that close to half of all black and Latino female led households–where women are either the primary or only breadwinner–are in poverty.  And its the reason why Congresswoman Maxine Waters called raising the minimum wage, "an economic issue that’s hitting home" As the share of families reliant upon women’s earnings increases, up 400 percent from 1960, it will continue to do so to even greater effect.

The bottom line is that raising the minimum wage for women of color is essential to fighting poverty and improving the life chances for people of color.  As demographic changes forecast that the future of America will be decided by the fate of these communities, such a move would translate into brighter days ahead for us all.