Millennial women of color can’t “lean in” when they’ve been left behind by the economic recovery


Young women looking to get ahead are told time and again to “lean in.” But for some female millennials, achieving financial and career success isn’t so simple: New data around economic inequality suggest those same young women who’ve been raised to think they can “run the world” — particularly women of color — have actually fallen behind following the so-called recovery from the 2007-2009 recession.

A decade after many started work and educational careers, young women are mired in joblessness, facing chronically low wages and a deep pay gap separating them from white male peers, as a new analysis by the Institute for Women’s Policy and Research suggests. For black women in particular, the gender pay gap and racial wealth divide persist at a time when their communities are also facing economic and political siege under President Donald Trump.

Despite job growth for Americans more broadly in the years following the Great Recession, not all recoveries were created equal, the IWPR found: Women in all age groups now face higher unemployment levels than before the crisis hit, and, as the report pointed out, “the rates for black women and girls were particularly dire.” Unemployment among black women aged 16 to 19 dropped since 2007, but still sat at nearly 23% in 2016 — meaning the gap in unemployment rates between young black women and their white peers was nearly 10 percentage points.

While it’s important to acknowledge the broad wage gap — which women face in 98% of occupations — and other gendered points of financial inequality, the fact remains that women of color still face very different odds from their peers.

Unemployment among black women aged 20 to 24 is about double that of white and Asian female counterparts, and young Latina unemployment is about a third higher than its is for white and Asian peers. During the recession, black and Latina women aged 25 to 39 suffered higher increases in joblessness than white women did. And both black and Native American women have seen among the largest declines in real wages in the last decade.

Even though economic problems like joblessness remain a persistent challenge for millennials as a whole, employment prospects for young black women lag far behind those for young white women.

Why, amid a continued economic rebound and Trump promising massive job creation, is this happening? What are the forces behind young women of color starting the “best years of their lives” in such bleak circumstances?

Institutional barriers pre-date the Great Recession

The forces and economic barriers holding back young black women are complex. They stem from structural discrimination that pre-dates the recession — and even, in some cases, foreshadowed it.

Generations of residential segregation and redlining that excluded black families from mainstream credit institutions, as well as disinvestment in public schools and the decline of blue-collar industrial jobs have relegated black youth to the lowest rungs of the economic ladder: It’s hard to find financial freedom growing up in a community where a quarter of households have zero net wealth or are stuck in debt — and structural economic oppression is reinforced by the day-to-day oppression of harsh policing and mass incarceration, miring young people of color in the criminal justice system.

Gender wage gaps among millennials are also, in part, a function of institutionalized racism across the social infrastructure: Black women’s employment prospects, for instance, are clouded by gaps in educational attainment, with some 22% of black women over 25 holding a bachelor’s degree, compared to 30% of all women.

According to the National Women’s Law Center, structural racism also shapes the growth in top low-wage sectors like home health aides and retail sales workers, professions known for unstable schedules and extremely strenuous working conditions. Black women’s share of these jobs is estimated to be more than 2.5 times higher than their representation in the workforce as a whole. And overall, nearly half of female low-wage workers — those earning $10.50 or less per hour — are women of color, according to the NWLC.

What does the future hold?

Until institutional forces shift, young women of color starting out in the labor force will continue to run into those more invisible barriers, like systemic job discrimination, along with the same obstacles all young workers face, like unaffordable higher education costs, weakening labor unions and eroding job security. And young women of color face a steeper climb up and have less to fall back on than their more privileged peers.

With a deeply reactionary administration bent on slashing social spending and further deregulating corporations, economic insecurity for the youngest and most precarious workers is only intensifying.

One of Trump’s latest deregulatory rollbacks will almost certainly affect the most disadvantaged young workers: The White House Office of Management and Budget has frozen a key Obama-era rule that would have helped expand access to fair-pay protections for women and people of color by collecting salary data from large employers — to help track sectoral wage disparities.

Trump’s suspension of the executive order could affect young women of color for life: In an email exchange, Chandra Childers, who authored the IWPR report, explained that pay transparency “is especially important for young women just entering the job market, because often it is lower pay at the start of one’s career that can lead to larger gaps later on.”

“For example, when pay raises are based on current pay levels and women’s initial pay levels are lower, the gap in earnings will grow over the course of women’s careers” Childers said. Trump’s latest rollback basically enables employers to skirt even the most basic disclosure requirements for monitoring the systemic, cumulative impacts of pay discrimination for marginalized communities.

Is there hope for women of color?

While Trump’s agenda abets corporate opacity, activists can turn to grassroots solutions for economic justice. These include deeper investment in public schools and higher education, public supports for comprehensive child care and health care, expanded financial and labor protections and unions that enable collective bargaining and strengthen job security to help anchor workers with secure, family-sustaining careers.

And, to revive the unfinished business of the civil rights movement, the government at all levels must move to combat discrimination in the job market by holding employers accountable for wage discrimination and abuse.

Looking beyond Trump’s reactionary regime, labor justice campaigns led by and for people of color — from the movement for black lives to the struggle for immigrants’ rights to the campaign for a $15 minimum wage — have been raising consciousness among today’s youth about how the political landscape is constraining their horizons. The economic recession was not simply a cyclical or market-driven phenomenon for black communities, but a manifestation of a legacy of institutionalized racism.

For each year of income stagnation or uptick in the already unsustainable unemployment rate; every decline in generational black wealth; every delayed college degree; and every added dollar of student debt, the crisis of race and labor requires not just a market correction, but a full-scale societal reckoning — to restore the dignity of young workers in every community and uphold racial justice for future generations.