Emory Report

April 12, 1999

 Volume 51, No. 27

Black women face own challenges in labor market, Browne says

The nation's booming economy--a "rising tide"--should raise everyone's boat, right? Not necessary, said Irene Browne at the 18th annual Southeastern Undergraduate Sociology Symposium sponsored by the departments of Sociology at Emory and the University of Georgia. For many black women, especially those who are poor or former welfare recipients, employment opportunities are not as bountiful as one might think, the assistant professor of sociology noted.

Browne's April 5th lecture, titled "Women, Race and the Labor Market," took issue with scholars who claim that black women are making strides in employment at the expense of black men. She also questioned the assumption that the "subordinate social status" of women will continue to equal race as one of the economic hurdles facing black women.

That's because gender may become less of an issue for white women as they close current salary and education gaps, Browne noted. "White women are [now] earning as much as black men, and the trajectory for white women's wages is up, while the trajectory for black men is down.

"If trends continue, white women will be earning higher wages than white men," she added, conceding, "White men still earn the most money of all, but the male-female wage gap among whites is closing." That and other measures show that white women are finding advantages in the labor market not shared by black women. "In fact, white women's wages kept rising in the 1990s, while black women's wages started going down," Browne said.

Researchers Mary Corcoran and Sharon Parrott echoed this fact. "In the mid-1970s it looked like race was no longer going to predict women's economic fortunes. This has changed. Race is now an important predictor of women's employment, wages and unemployment," they wrote.

This has been especially true among women going from "welfare to work." Browne cited a recent New York Times article which reported that black women are having much greater difficulty than their white counterparts in finding jobs when welfare benefits run out. The Times found these racial disparities result from many factors, including lower education and skill levels for black women as well as residential segregation that makes it more difficult to get to suburban jobs. Racial discrimination also played a role, the newspaper found.

Browne noted similar findings in a study she conducted with Ivy Kennelly at UGA. "Black women who are heading families alone fit employer stereotypes of the 'welfare queen,' and these stereotypes are often negative," she said. One employer noted dissatisfaction with the labor pool available to him because it carried the earmarks of an "inner-city family structure"--meaning single women with children. Another employer said of workers heading these types of families: "I would tell you it is more a need to work than it is a real true work ethic."

"With remarks such as these, it is not surprising to read about the dificulties black women are now facing when they try to leave the welfare rolls to comply with the new, stricter rules," Browne said.

So, Browne concluded, it's simplistic for scholars to downplay gender on one hand and race on the other when talking about economic opportunities for black women. "Unemployment rates for black men and women are approximately the same--I don't see a big edge for black women's employment," she said. "I think that race and gender combine to create a unique constellation of disadvantage for black women and another unique constellation of disadvantage for black men. But for both groups the whole of the situation is greater than the sum of its parts, the parts being race and gender."

--Stacey Jones

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