Women of Color and the Wage Gap

By Robin Bleiweis, Jocelyn Frye, and Rose Khatta

A personal care assistant leaves for work to care for an elderly woman, March 2020, in Massachusetts. (Getty/Lane Turner/Globe Staff)

Women of color continue to suffer the most severe gender wage gap in the United States, a reality that reflects the effects of intersecting racial, ethnic, and gender biases that threaten the economic security of them and their families.

As breadwinners, workers, and caregivers, women of color have been the longtime yet unsung backbone of the U.S. economy. This integral role has been front and center during the devastating COVID-19 pandemic that has wreaked economic havoc in every corner of the country and continues to have lingering effects. Not only has the United States relied on women of color as essential workers to help keep the economy running, provide much-needed services, and sustain families throughout the pandemic, but it has also watched these women shoulder disproportionate job losses and caregiving challenges—all while they are earning just a fraction of what their white and male counterparts earn.

The stubborn resilience of the gender wage gap, coupled with intersecting racial bias in the workplace, means that many women of color are perpetually underpaid, and these losses accumulate and grow over time. As a result, women of color are less able to build savings, withstand economic downturns, and achieve some measure of economic stability. The U.S. census data released in September confirmed that the harshest effects of the gender wage gap continue to fall on women of color, with many of them experiencing the largest gender pay gaps among all workers. It is long overdue for the federal government to pursue measures that strengthen equal pay protections, combat bias, and promote worker retention—especially among women workers—which are all critical to reducing economic inequality and securing economic stability for women of color and their families.

This issue brief examines the gender wage gaps experienced by women of different racial and ethnic groups, explores some of the factors driving those gaps, and recommends policy solutions that Congress and the Biden administration must implement to help narrow these gaps.

Analyzing the gender wage gaps for women of color

The gender wage gap is an important measure for evaluating gender equity in wages and workplaces overall. The data consistently show that women of color experience persistent economic inequality in part because they have the largest gaps in wages when compared with their male counterparts. This is largely driven by the undervaluation of work predominantly supplied by women, combined with other forms of bias. The wage gap number that often receives the most public attention is the overall ratio of women’s to men’s earnings among full-time, year-round workers—just 83 cents for women for every $1 earned by men in 2020. But this aggregate number provides an incomplete picture because it treats women as a monolith and obscures the vastly different economic realities experienced by many women of color.

The intersection of race, ethnicity, and gender has always had compounding effects, and these effects most often exacerbate and widen the wage gap.4 Simply put, there has never been a time in this country when there has not been a wage gap that exists along intersecting gender and racial lines. When looking at women’s wages across broad racial and ethnic categories among full-time, year-round workers, Hispanic women experience the largest pay gap, having earned just 57 cents for every $1 earned by white, non-Hispanic men in 2020. (see Figure 1)

Black women also experience wide pay gaps, with data on Black women alone revealing that—despite consistently having some of the highest labor force participation rates5—they earned just 64 cents for every $1 earned by white, non-Hispanic men in 2020. This number dips slightly to 63 cents, reflecting a slightly larger wage gap, when data on multiracial Black women—meaning Black women who also identify with another racial category—are included in the analysis. The data that include multiracial Black women are referred to as data on Black women alone or in combination. These gaps for Hispanic and Black women are much wider than the still-large gap experienced by white, non-Hispanic women, who earned 79 cents for every $1 earned by their white, non-Hispanic male counterparts in 2020.


Drivers of the gender wage gaps for women of color

Numerous factors drive the pay differences manifested in the gender wage gap. Groundbreaking research by economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn estimated that 62 percent of the wage gap could be explained by factors including, but not limited to, differences in industries or jobs worked, differences in hours worked, and differences in years of experience. However, the remaining 38 percent of the gap is not easily explained by such distinct, quantifiable factors. Blau and Kahn, as well as other researchers, attribute this remaining portion of the gap to factors such as the effects of discrimination.16 Women of color, whose intersectional realities can spur multiple forms of discrimination, may experience a larger pay gap in part because they face a combination of biases with escalating effects.

Below is an examination of three major drivers of the gender wage gaps for women of color: jobs worked, hours worked, and discrimination. Jobs worked Women of color disproportionately work in jobs within the service, care, and domestic work sectors—jobs with historically low pay. This is due to occupational segregation, which is the funneling of women and men into different jobs based on gender and racial norms and expectations. Jobs that have historically had majority-women workforces, such as registered nurses and maids and housekeeping cleaners, tend to offer lower pay and fewer benefits, in part by virtue of being “women’s work.” The jobs women of color are most likely to work in largely follow this pattern. (see Figure 4)