The painful cost of workplace discrimination


Women Have Made Slow Progress. The national furor over Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill and sexual harassment has forced Americans to re-examine the roles of gender and race in the workplace. The institution that Thomas once headed, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, was created to narrow the economic gaps between men and women and whites and nonwhites. When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, overt racial discrimination in hiring was still widespread and prejudice against women was almost universal. These biases were accompanied by sharp economic inequality: Black households earned only about 60 percent as much as white households, and female workers earned only about 60 percent as much as male workers. What has a generation of antidiscrimination efforts achieved? The answer is somewhat disturbing. American women have made measurable progress toward economic equality, especially over the past decade. Their progress has been slow -- many would say inadequate -- but there is no question that women have improved their relative position. Blacks, on the other hand, have made little if any relative economic progress over the past 20 years.

The earnings of women stagnated during the 1970s, remaining stable at about 60 percent of men's wages. To some extent, this may have been due to the rapid increase in the number of women working. The female labor-force participation rate jumped from 37 percent in 1965 to 51 percent in 1980. This temporarily depressed women's earnings for two reasons: Women who entered the labor force were often inexperienced and the relative wages paid for traditional women's jobs were squeezed by competition. Since 1980, the opportunities for women have widened and there has been a modest spurt in relative earnings. Over the past decade, women's wages have jumped from 64 percent to 72 percent of men's earnings. Big differences remain -- especially among male and female executives. Women now hold 38 percent of all managerial positions in America, but these female supervisors are paid only 64 percent as much as their male counterparts.

Blacks Are Still Struggling. The dismal experience of blacks stands in contrast to the qualified success recently enjoyed by women. While some blacks have achieved success, the overall figures are grim. In 1970, the median income of black families was 60 percent of white family income; by 1990, the ratio had actually fallen to 58 percent. Over the past 20 years, unemployment among blacks has risen higher in each successive recession and fallen less with each recovery. In 1970, black unemployment was 8.2 percent; by 1990, it had reached 11.3 percent. Black impoverishment hasn't fallen either. In 1990, almost 32 percent of blacks lived in poverty, up from about 30 percent in 1974. And black men who work full time earn 30 percent less than white male counterparts, a gap that has grown since the 1970s. Working women are an exception. Black women who hold full-time jobs earn just 10 percent less than white women.

Discrimination remains a real issue for both blacks and women in the workplace. But to explain the limited progress of women and the actual decline of blacks, one must analyze a complex social environment in which the shared interests of these two groups are less obvious. For women, the key issues have become the problems of reconciling the demands of children and family with those of the workplace. For blacks, the problems are far more painful. Racism is still a key factor in their economic woes. Yet few observers would attribute the growth in poverty to an actual increase in racism over the past generation. It is virtually impossible to look at the economic state of blacks today without turning to issues of family and social cohesion -- and it is next to impossible to raise those issues without touching raw nerves. And, with 45 percent of black children living in poverty and 62 percent born out of wedlock, these problems are likely to get worse.

Increasing Political Tension. Given these vastly different experiences, it has become increasingly difficult for blacks and women to form a common economic front. And this growing schism may have contributed to the heightened political tension of the past few weeks.


Earnings ratio in percent

Black-to-white Female-to-male

1970 61.3 pct. 62.3 pct.

1971 60.3 pct. 61.7 pct.

1972 59.4 pct. 63.1 pct.

1973 57.7 pct. 61.7 pct.

1974 59.7 pct. 60.8 pct.

1975 61.5 pct. 62.0 pct.

1976 59.5 pct. 62.2 pct.

1977 57.1 pct. 61.9 pct.

1978 59.2 pct. 61.3 pct.

1979 56.6 pct. 62.5 pct.

1980 57.9 pct. 64.4 pct.

1981 56.4 pct. 64.6 pct.

1982 55.3 pct. 65.4 pct.

1983 52.6 pct. 66.7 pct.

1984 52.9 pct. 67.8 pct.

1985 54.5 pct. 68.2 pct.

1986 54.5 pct. 69.2 pct.

1987 55.9 pct. 70.0 pct.

1988 57.0 pct. 70.2 pct.

1989 56.2 pct. 70.1 pct.

1990 58.0 pct. 71.8 pct.

Women are slowly closing the wage gap with men, but black family incomes have fallen further behind those of white families.


Unemployment rate

Total Black

1970 4.9 pct. 8.2 pct.

1971 5.9 pct. 9.9 pct.

1972 5.6 pct. 10.4 pct.

1973 4.9 pct. 9.4 pct.

1974 5.6 pct. 10.5 pct.

1975 8.5 pct. 14.8 pct.

1976 7.7 pct. 14.0 pct.

1977 7.1 pct. 14.0 pct.

1978 6.1 pct. 12.8 pct.

1979 5.8 pct. 12.3 pct.

1980 7.1 pct. 14.3 pct.

1981 7.6 pct. 15.6 pct.

1982 9.7 pct. 18.9 pct.

1983 9.6 pct. 19.5 pct.

1984 7.5 pct. 15.9 pct.

1985 7.2 pct. 15.1 pct.

1986 7.0 pct. 14.5 pct.

1987 6.2 pct. 13.0 pct.

1988 5.5 pct. 11.7 pct.

1989 5.3 pct. 11.4 pct.

1990 5.5 pct. 11.3 pct.

1991 6.7 pct. 12.5 pct.

Black joblessness remains nearly double the unemployment rate for all workers.


Percentage of persons below the poverty line 1990

White 10.7%

Black 31.9%


children 44.8%

Nearly one third of blacks and almost one half of black children live below the poverty line.

Originally published, 11.4.91