CHICAGO When you look at economic progress in the last 40 years, black women remain at the bottom of the career ladder.
Despite "undeniable improvements in their economic positions, black women continue to be considerably more likely than white women to get stuck in low-wage service occupations," said Marilyn Power, economist and professor at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y.
"Upward mobility from low-end, low-paying jobs that have no benefits nor career tracks means going into clerical work or technical and professional jobs," said Power, who has a doctorate in economics from the University of California at Berkeley. "A lateral move is to factory work."
Some of Power's findings:
In 1960, 60 percent of all employed black women were service workers domestic workers, practical nurses, waitresses, hospital attendants, building cleaners and kitchen workers compared with 20.3 percent of employed white women. In 1989, 27.3 percent of employed black women were in service occupations, compared with 16.1 percent of employed white women.
In 1960, 37.5 percent of employed black women were private household workers, the lowest-paying job, compared with 3.5 percent of employed white women. By 1989, only 3.5 percent of employed black women were domestic workers, compared with 1.3 percent of employed white women.
To find out who gets "stuck" in low-end jobs and why, Power studied 100 black women and 143 white women, all in service occupations, who were from 18 to 28 years old in 1972. Using the National Longitudinal Study compiled by Ohio State University, she tracked their work patterns to 1983.
"By 1983, there was a great deal of movement out of the service category for both black and white women," said Power. "But white women were far more succesful."
She found that 65.7 percent of the white women and 52 percent of the black women left service jobs. White women who left were more likely to be moving upward: 34 percent entered clerical jobs and 33 percent professional or technical occupations. While almost a third of black women became clerical workers, which is a "dramatic improvement" in employment, 34.6 percent became low-wage factory workers; only 23.1 percent went into better paying professional or technical work.
"There's been tremendous improvement in job opportunities for black women," said the economist. "It's clear they left domestic work because the U.S. Civil Rights Act opened up clerical jobs to African-Americans. And clerical work pays better, is more steady and more likely to have benefits and paid vacations. It's head and shoulders over domestic work."
But fewer black than white women managed to extricate themselves from low-end jobs. "Overall, neither white nor black women are doing that great, but white women are doing better," said Power. "But to pit one group against another would be wrong because it's still a struggle for both. Problems of race and gender discrimination are not gone. Both white and black women are disadvantaged, but black women are more disadvantaged and more likely to get stuck. But one-third of white women are stuck, too."
Julianne Malveaux, an economist and associate professor of African- American studies at Berkeley, does research on black women and work. "Little has changed," Malveaux said. "White woman have more job mobility because they are often seen by management as sisters, daughters or wives, but black women )) are seen as outsiders. So white women get to be patronized, and black women get nothing."
One way to give low-wage women leverage to get out is to unionize service-occupation jobs, says Heidi Hartmann, economist and director of the Institute for Women's Policy Research in Washington. Hartmann, whose research on unions and their impact on low-wage workers found that in 1984 minority men and women gained wage increases of 15 percent zTC when their jobs were unionized, compared with 11 percent for white women and 4 percent for white men whose jobs were unionized.
"In addition to unions, equal-employment-opportunity laws and their strong enforcement are important for upward mobility," Hartmann said.
Yvonne Turner, patient-care attendant at Oak Forest Hospital and a member of the Service Employees International Union, Local 73 in Chicago, says that before she joined the union in 1971, she was making $1.76 an hour. After unionization, her salary increased to $4.50 an hour, and she got vacation and health benefits.
"I like my job and am not interested in moving up," said Turner, who now earns $22,000 a year. "But if I wanted to, the union grievance procedure would protect me if I were denied a promotion. If it weren't for unions, we'd all be in bad shape, black and white women alike."