by Freddie Allen
NNPA News Service
WASHINGTON – African-American women are making the most significant gains in employment but still lag behind whites, according to the Labor Department.
The most recent jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the unemployment rate for African-American women, 20 and older, dropped from 12.3 percent in March to 10.8 percent in April, a decline of 1.5 percent. More significantly, the jobless rate for African-American women has fallen 3 percentage points over the past five months, the largest decline for any demographic over that period.
The unemployment rate for white women, 20 and older has remained flat at 6.8 percent from last December to April, but that stagnant rate is still four percentage points better than the current rate for African-American women. The jobless rate for African-American men fell to 13.6 percent to 15.7 percent over the same period, but some economists warn that those figures could be misleading.
"There are two things driving down the unemployment rate," said Steven Pitts, labor policy specialist at the University of California-Berkeley's Labor Center. "The improvement in job prospects and simultaneously some black men dropping out of the labor force."
When people quit looking for work, they are no longer counted as unemployed. Consequently, the labor force shrinks, causing the unemployment rate to go down. The unemployment rate for African Americans fell from 14 percent in March to 13 percent in April.
"The unemployment rate might look like an improvement, but it's really just people giving up," explained Algernon Austin, director of the Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy program at the Economic Policy Institute.
In a 2011 study, the National Women's Law Center found that African-American women lost 233,000 jobs between December 2007 and June 2009, then lost another 258,000, 491,000 between June 2009 and June 2011. African-American men only lost 477,000 over that period.
According to the study, not only are African-American women a majority of the African-American workforce (53.4 percent), they head a majority of the African-American families with children.
More African-American women are the heads of households now, "So they have to work, " explained Maudine Cooper, president of the Greater Washington Urban League. "They'll often accept less money than a man would be making in the same job."
A 2012 study on the pay gap conducted by the American Association of University Women found that women working full-time earned just 77 cents to every dollar earned by a man. African-American women working full-time make just 70 cents for every dollar white men make and 91 cents for every dollar African-American men bring home. White women, on the other hand, received 82 cents for every dollar a white man earns. White men are often used as a benchmark, because at this time they are the largest demographic group in the labor force.
Research by Wider Opportunities for Women found that 62 percent of African-American households and 66 percent of Hispanic households live on the edge of poverty. Even when working full-time, 80 percent of African-American single mothers and 85 percent of Hispanic single mothers don't make enough to make ends meet and they're much more likely to lack economic security than white single mothers or single fathers of any racial or ethnic background.
For Cooper, a college education still remains the African-American community's strongest ally in closing the economic gap.
More than 44 percent of African-American women graduate from college, compared to 33.1 percent of African-American men, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Cooper said it's about sacrificing short-term gratification for what really matters.
"I have friends that are going to school and working," Cooper said. "You have to do what it takes. At some point it's over and you've worked hard, you've sweated, you're exhausted and you've gotten through it and that's the attitude everyone should have."
That means that African-American men have a lot catching up to do in an increasingly competitive job market.
A 2010 study by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce 2018 reported that 63 percent of the jobs newly created or vacated by retiring workers will require at least some college education.
Given that African-American women lead a majority of African-American households and graduate from college at higher rates than African-American men, their success is essential as the African-American community recovers from turbulent economic times.
At a 2011 session at Stanford University titled "Black Women and the Backlash Effect – Understanding the Intersection of Race and Gender," visiting scholar and expert in workplace diversity Katherine Phillips said that African-American women are excelling in education and entrepreneurship.
"Two-thirds of African-American college undergrads are female," said Phillips. "And, between 2002 and 2008, the number of businesses owned by black women rose by 19 percent – twice as fast as all other firms and generating $29 billion in sales nationwide."
Phillips, also a professor of organizational behavior at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., noted that African-American women in the workplace are often viewed as "as independent, competent, and demanding of respect — all classic leadership traits."
During her research Phillips found that African-American women have more latitude in the roles they play at home and at work. One study found that African-American women who worked outside the home were viewed positively while the same behavior by white women evoked negative reactions.