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Barbara R. Arnwine Headshot

Breaking the Glass Ceiling

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To commemorate Women's History Month, the Roosevelt Institute's New Deal 2.0 blog asked me to reflect on past accomplishments and explore today's key challenges as part of its ongoing 'Feminomics' series. Here's my take on economic injustice and women of color.

Inspired by the achievements of countless African American women, we march forward, resolute in our mission to achieve equal rights. Sojourner Truth proclaimed, "Ain't I a woman?" as she declared she could work as much as a man. Dr. Dorothy Height has fought for equal rights for African Americans and women for several decades and even encouraged President Lyndon B. Johnson to appoint African American women to positions in government. Later Shirley Chisholm fulfilled this dream and became the first black woman elected to Congress.

But Dr. Maya Angelou asserted, "achievement brings its own anticlimax." Nowhere is this truer than in the lives of women, and especially women of color, as they seek accomplishment in the face of adversity, prominence in the face of marginalization. As a result, economic justice remains as one of the most pressing legal issues for women, as they seek equal job opportunities and equal pay. These burdens are especially present as we incur a great economic recession, which created new challenges for all, but for women of color, tested their ability to navigate economic, social, political and educational status more determinately. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act directly bans employment discrimination against women and lack of access to equal pay for equal work is a clear violation of Title VII. To justify these practices with specious arguments regarding hours, occupation choice and child rearing choice are offensive. The American Association of University Women Educational Foundation (AAUW) reports that even after "[c]ontrolling for hours, occupation, parenthood and other factors normally associated with pay, college-educated women still earn less than their male peers. Both disparate treatment and disparate impact have been recognized by the courts in evaluating legitimate claims of discrimination.

The problem persists despite supposed advances we have made in societal expectations and structure. Unfortunately, unequal opportunities for women have been historically embraced and are still accepted. Until the early 1960s, newspapers published separate job listings for men and women. The struggle for African American women was even more formidable; until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, jobs specified "no Blacks need apply." Although we don't see as much evidence of such blatant discrimination in access to opportunities in the workplace today, they no doubt institutionally exist. Women still are segregated into "pink-collar" jobs that affect their wages, according to an AAUW report. Women comprise 87 percent of workers in the child care industry and 86 percent of the health aide industry. Women of color have especially endured a disproportionate lack of access to jobs in the wake of the recession, as the Center for Social Inclusion (CSI) reports that unemployment has risen faster for young women of color than for white women in the same age range. Unemployment among young black women has increased by 8.6 percent to 20.4 percent this year.

Equal access is just the tip of the iceberg; those women lucky enough to break the barrier to employment lag behind in equal pay. According to the Institute for Women's policy research, the median weekly earnings of female full-time workers in 2009 were $657, compared with male median weekly earnings of $819. Based on these data, the ratio of women's to men's median weekly earning was 80.2%. Black single mothers with children under 18 have a median net wealth of zero compared to $7,970 of wealth held by white women with children under the age of 18. This is especially troubling, as women head more than 40 percent of African American families. These wage inequities effect women prospectively as well. Their retirement, Social Security benefits, pensions, savings and other financial resources are all impacted. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, signed into law this year, is a welcome sign of progress, as it allows the statute of limitations for filing an equal-pay lawsuit regarding pay discrimination to reset with each new discriminatory paycheck. Women, however, continue to endure workplace inequity and we must persist in enforcing the call for justice.

Economic justice is not just a women's issue or a moral issue; it's clearly a legal one. As lawyers, we must promote opportunities and equity in the new economy; we must embrace change and not the historical precedence of gender inequities. As women, we must not allow the patronizing excuses used for decades to deny equal opportunity in the workforce to continue to stymie our progress and expectations. Women should seek to make this economy work for us rather than working for a broken economy.

*Kenneth Chandler, public policy associate, contributed to this article.

Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0.