The XX Factor

The Wage Gap Between White Women and Women of Color May Be Getting Worse

Fewer bills to go around.


Black, Hispanic, and Native American women saw their annual earnings decline by significant margins between 2004 and 2014 when adjusted for inflation, according to a forthcoming report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

An early excerpt from the organization’s analysis, released in honor of Tuesday’s African American Women’s Equal Pay Day, shows that women’s real income declined by 1.6 percent overall in the decade that spanned the great recession. But where Asian and Pacific Islander women saw their earnings increase by just over a percentage point, and white women suffered a 0.3 percent decrease, Hispanic, black, and Native American women took a much larger hit, with their earnings declining by 4.5 percent, 5 percent, and 5.8 percent, respectively. While the gender wage gap has been slowly shrinking—in part due to men’s declining wages—these new statistics suggest that the racial wage gap between women has, instead, gotten gradually worse.

The 2008 recession and the economy’s creeping recovery have left many Americans hurting. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women’s earnings overall have stayed more or less constant in the past decade when adjusted for inflation, “while earnings of men have drifted down slightly.” But in real terms, of course, women make less than men: Current best estimates put the median woman’s earnings at roughly 79 cents on the median man’s dollar. And that hypothetical median woman, as this latest round of research reminds us, is doing better than many women of color. A July Pew study found that women’s “hourly earnings lag behind those of white men and men in their own racial or ethnic group.” So Asian and white men—with median hourly earnings of $24 and $21, respectively—out-earn black and Hispanic men—with median hourly earnings of $15 and $14, respectively. Asian and white men out-earn Asian and white women, who make $18 and $17, respectively. And black and Hispanic women, who make $13 and $12, respectively, are trying to get by on less than anyone.

Why are the fortunes of women of color continuing to decline—in real, inflation-adjusted terms—while the economy gradually improves? The American Association of University Women proposed some reasons for the pay gap for black women last year:

Black women are more likely than women nationally to work in the lowest-paying occupations (like service, health care support, and education) and less likely to work in the higher-paying engineering and tech fields or managerial positions. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the percentage of black women who are full-time minimum-wage workers is higher than that of any other racial group. To make matters worse, there’s an even bigger pay gap in the service industry, where black women are paid on average just 60 percent of what male servers are paid. … On top of being overrepresented at the low-paying end of the spectrum, black women are underrepresented at the top. Black women make up a scant 1 percent of the high-paying engineering workforce and 3 percent of computing. … Among the few who do break into these careers, discriminatory pay and promotion practices and the hostile environment drive many out.

These disparities translate into life-altering sums of money. Perhaps the best illustration came from the National Women’s Law Center, which in April calculated women’s lost wages over the course of a 40-year career using 2014 U.S. Census data. They found that while the median woman’s lifetime loss, compared to the earnings of a non-Hispanic white man, was $430,480, the median loss for a black woman was $877,480; the figure for a Native American woman was $883,040; and the disparity for a Latina woman was $1,007,080. These numbers are a reminder that any discussion about the gender wage gap is missing the point if it doesn’t take the matter of race into equal account. Women of color stand to lose roughly twice as much to discrimination, over the course of their lives, as women overall—and the sides of that already horrendous gap are slowly edging the wrong way.