Women are advancing in the workplace, but women of color still lag behind

October 2020

A little over 100 years ago, the U.S. Congress ratified the 19th amendment, which ruled that women could not be denied the right to vote because of their sex. This amendment was the result of hard-fought efforts from many women (and some men) who recognized that disenfranchisement then, as now, was a blight on the nation and hindered the U.S.’s potential to achieve its stated goals of becoming a functioning democracy. The 19th amendment was especially significant for Black women who, despite the 15th amendment’s promises of voting rights regardless of race, still could not vote because of their gender. The fact that it took two different constitutional amendments—passed a half century apart—to secure Black women’s right to vote underscores how both race and gender have always mattered in significant ways when it comes to women of color.

A century later, race and gender continue to create divergent and uneven outcomes for women of all races and for men of color. This is particularly evident in the underrepresentation and experiences of women employed in professional occupations. An oft-cited statistic, for instance, reveals that as a result of factors including, but not limited to, motherhood penalties, gender discrimination, and occupational segregation, women make 79 cents for every dollar men earn. But Black women earn only 64 cents on the dollar, and for Latinas it is a dismal 54 cents. As it was in the early 20th century, women of color continue to experience occupational and economic disadvantages that reflect the ways both race and gender affect their work experiences.

How do racism and sexism impact women of color in professional settings? Research indicates that both factors adversely affect women in a variety of occupations through stifled leadership opportunities, the ongoing persistence of specific forms of sexual harassment, and subtle but pervasive doubts about competence, intelligence, and skill that are unrelated to actual performance.

For instance, in today’s professional occupations, networks, mentors, and connections play important roles in advancement. Research indicates that Black women are more ambitious and more likely to say that they want to advance in their companies than their white women counterparts, but are less likely to find mentors who will aid their climb up the corporate ladder. As sociologist Tsedale Melaku points out, sometimes this is a function of white executives’ unfamiliarity and discomfort with Black women. As one attorney in Melaku’s study notes, executives who rarely, if ever, have Black people in their personal or professional circles may be uncertain or uncomfortable interacting with them as peers. Other times, this lack of mentoring is a consequence of intentional exclusion when leaders make it a point not to include Black women in teams, as mentees, or on important projects. But either way, these patterns thwart Black women’s mobility in organizations and their ability to realize ambitions and secure leadership roles. And Black women are left to struggle harder to access and advance in these professions, with occupational underrepresentation and wage disparities to show for it.

It is important to note that these issues are not limited to Black women. In a recent study, sociologist Margaret Chin finds that Asian American women experience racialized and gendered forms of sexual harassment that leads to isolation and results in exclusion from leadership opportunities. Latinas, too, find that coworkers may interact with them based on stereotypes that they are unintelligent or illegally in the country, depictions that then require extra work to disprove.

Women of color are usually underrepresented in professional, high status jobs in law, medicine, academia, and business. When they do make it to these rarified roles but are the only ones in an organizational setting, they are more likely to doubt the company’s commitment to inclusion and equity and thus are more likely to want to pursue opportunities elsewhere.

Yet we know that when companies put measures into place that focus on achieving more gender diversity, women of color often lose out unless there is an explicit focus on race as well as gender. Affirmative action policies put into place in the wake of the civil rights movement have disproportionately benefited white women, and this is certainly true in today’s workplaces. This is not to say that white women face an easy road, particularly in professions that are disproportionately dominated by men. But race and racism create specific, unique challenges for women of color that are too easily ignored with broad platitudes that seek to advance women’s representation without questioning which women are most likely to benefit.

My recent book, Flatlining: Race, Work, and Health Care in the New Economy, highlights how some of these intersections of race and gender impact health care professionals. Black women doctors in my study observed that both race and gender were key factors that shaped the challenges they face in the field. Despite being 7% of the U.S. population, Black women are a paltry 3% of medical doctors today, a disparity that has devastating consequences for health equity in a rapidly diversifying society. Working in a profession dominated by men, Black women doctors are very attuned to the ways that sexism impacts their lives. For instance, nearly every Black woman doctor with whom I spoke shared accounts of being mistaken for a nurse rather than a doctor, so much so that they argued that when it came to their everyday interactions, gender was a much more significant factor than race. As Ayana, a neonatologist, put it, “I see my coworkers that are males and the race doesn’t matter. If you’re male, they will call you a doctor. If you’re female, they will call you a nurse. But it’s regardless of your race. I see my white coworkers, even just because they’re female they still call them nurse.”

Race and racism create specific, unique challenges for women of color that are too easily ignored with broad platitudes that seek to advance women’s representation without questioning which women are most likely to benefit.

However, this unfortunately common microaggression—and the fact that, for women doctors, it transcends race—does not mean that Black women were oblivious to or shielded from racism in the medical profession. In fact, they astutely noted that structural factors also established a context that perpetuated racial disparities in the field. Bella, a geneticist, pointed out that she entered into her field with the intention of reducing racial health disparities. However, the extremely low numbers of Black doctors in her specialty area put her at a disadvantage when it came to finding mentors who could guide her in that goal, as most of her white senior colleagues did not share her focus on providing genetic services to Black populations who might otherwise be overlooked and ignored. Bella told me, “I find it difficult to identify mentors or people who are familiar with those populations, people who are also passionate about educating those populations about genetic services or resources. So I have not really had much luck identifying people who are working with those populations who can help me better address some of the needs or some of the disparities that I see.”

Black women in other health care professions faced different challenges. In fact, one of the most interesting findings from my study was how much Black workers’ experiences varied depending on the occupations in which they were employed. While Black women doctors encountered persistent, daily gender biases that occurred in the context of structural, racialized barriers—both of which made advancement in the profession difficult—Black women nurses reported few instances with gender biases and instead described routine, frequent, and explicitly racist encounters with colleagues. Nurses were not employed in a culturally masculinized space like Black doctors, but in the absence of overt gender bias, they dealt with racist interactions with white coworkers. Melinda, a nurse who primarily tended to new mothers in the postpartum unit of a hospital, recounted one such interaction with a colleague. While discussing an upcoming after-work gathering, a coworker informed Melinda that she would only be welcome in this colleague’s home if she was there to clean it. As Melinda shared, “[She] actually said to me, we were talking about after work getting together, hanging out, and said, ‘Oh, you can come to my house, but you’d have to be carrying a pail and wearing a rag on your head to come to my home.’”

And these experiences still varied from those of Black women technicians, who did not describe overt, explicitly gendered biases in their work. Rather, they described friction with (mostly white) women nurses who, stressed out by policies that encouraged overwork and emboldened by a lack of organizational restraint, assigned them extra work that was not delegated to white colleagues. Amber put it this way: “The nurses are always full throttle. When they answer the phone, I can guarantee you, there’s always an attitude.” Though Amber experienced tensions with nurses, these difficulties were not synonymous with what Black women nurses and doctors described. Thus, even in spaces where Black workers are underrepresented, it is critical not to assume that they all share common experiences.

These intersecting factors help highlight some of the common challenges Black women workers encounter, but they also underscore that policies designed to improve gender parity in workplaces will not be successful if they ignore the ways that the issues women face in the workplace are also shaped by race, as well as other factors—citizenship, occupational status, sexual identity, and more. This also applies to companies that profess their commitment to achieving racial equity and state their opposition to systemic racism, as many are now doing in the wake of national protests against racial inequality. It remains to be seen whether these companies will take the long-term, sustained, comprehensive actions that would be necessary to make the changes they now say they wish to see. But it’s also clear that without a comparable commitment to identifying and resolving the challenges women of all races face in the modern workplace, these efforts cannot succeed either.

The good news is that there is some research that documents ways that organizations—both in health care and in other industries—can become more equitable. Changing hiring practices so that organizations pair with institutions that are known for training workers of color is a first step. For instance, universities like Meharry Medical College and Xavier University in New Orleans produce a disproportionate number of Black students who go on to become physicians. Organizations can partner with places like these that are renowned for training skilled Black workers. Additionally, collecting data to understand what challenges and obstacles their employees are facing, particularly those from underrepresented groups, is important as well. Companies can also directly involve managers in developing solutions, rather than tinkering around the edges of existing policies. Organizations can also enact paid leave for all workers—or better yet, lobby for federal policies ensuring paid sick and parental leave policies, so that these policies are available to all workers regardless of their place of employment. And companies can change aspects of their culture that allow sexual harassment to flourish, since, as the #MeToo movement has shown us, this is a major problem for many vulnerable workers in virtually every industry.

Ultimately, race and gender continue to matter in complicated, intersecting ways for women workers today. While the U.S. has undoubtedly made some key social progressions since women finally achieved suffrage in 1920, we run the risk of hindering further gains if we fail to learn the lessons from that time. As we continue to develop various initiatives and policies to reflect a rapidly diversifying population, it’s important to not to repeat the mistakes of the past by again leaving women of color ignored and overlooked.

This piece is part of 19A: The Brookings Gender Equality Series. Learn more about the series and read published work »

About the Author

Adia Harvey Wingfield

Adia Harvey Wingfield

Professor of Sociology – Washington University in St. Louis
Adia Harvey Wingfield is the Mary Tileston Hemenway Professor of Arts & Sciences and Dean for Faculty Development at Washington University in St. Louis. Her research examines how and why racial and gender inequality persists in professional occupations. Dr. Wingfield has lectured internationally on her research in this area, and her work has been published in numerous peer-reviewed journals including Social Problems, Gender & Society, and American Sociological Review. She is currently President of the Southern Sociological Society, the largest regional sociological association in the country, and is a regular contributor to Slate, The Atlantic, and Harvard Business Review. Professor Wingfield is the author of several books, most recently Flatlining: Race, Work, and Health Care in the New Economy (University of California Press, 2019), and is the recipient of the 2018 Public Understanding of Sociology award from the American Sociological Association.