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Women, especially African Americans, still battling for workplace equity

Barbara R. Arnwine | 3/7/2012, 5 p.m.

Women's History Month, celebrated in March, presents a special time to reflect upon both the achievements and challenges women across the country continue to face.
During this continued jobs crisis where African Americans/Blacks and Latinos/Hispanics continue to experience high unemployment rates, women, particularly those of color, continue to battle issues of workplace equity and economic opportunity.
While acknowledging the persistent disparities and concerns of the past, we must also look to the future for continued advancement opportunities for all. Gender-based issues of increasing unemployment, job silos, unequal pay, sexual harassment and the "Old Boys Network" continue to haunt the American workplace and denigrate the economic status of women.
Just as we have not achieved a post-racial society, we have also yet to reach one that is "post-gender." According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' January 2012 figures, the nationwide unemployment rate decreased to 8.3 percent. However, as the National Women's Law Center (NWLC) cites, despite a modest recovery, women still lag behind men:
* During the recovery, women gained just 8 percent of the 1.9 million net jobs added to the economy.
* Over the course of the recovery, women's overall unemployment rate increased from 7.6 to 7.7 percent while men's dropped from 9.9 percent to 7.7 percent.
* Women's small net job gain in the recovery has been driven by the loss of public sector jobs--women lost 414,000 public sector jobs during the recovery (note: nearly 23 percent of African American women work in federal, state and local government jobs).
The unemployment situation is more dismal for African American/Black women with a January 2012 rate of 12.6 percent. More than 150,000 Black women, categorized as "discouraged workers," gave up looking for work in January.
Women of color, already facing large pay gaps, are in danger of falling still further behind as bargaining rights disappear. Steven Pitts, Ph.D., of UC Berkeley's Center for Labor Research and Education notes that Black women in public sector jobs earn a median wage of $15.50 an hour, while the sector's median wage overall is $18.38 (White men make $21.24). The wage gap remains an important civil rights crisis for women.
To date and on average, full-time working women receive only 77 cents for every dollar paid to men. Full-time African American women are paid only 61 cents and Latinas only 52 cents, for every dollar paid to White, non-Hispanic men. This disparity translates into a loss to American families of financial resources totaling $10,622 a year or $431,000 over a woman's lifetime.
Such discrimination, coupled with unfair credit and background checks for those trying to get into the workforce, only serves to relegate women of color and their families to a lifetime of poverty.
Women also continue to face disproportionate effects of credit checks. In fact, the Lawyers' Committee and I were extremely vocal in applauding the Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Department of Justice for taking a stand against these discriminatory practices.
According to the EEOC:
Inquiry into an applicant's current or past assets, liabilities, or credit rating, including bankruptcy or garnishment, refusal or cancellation of bonding, car ownership, rental or ownership of a house, length of residence at an address, charge accounts, furniture ownership, or bank accounts generally should be avoided because they tend to impact more adversely on minorities and females. Exceptions exist if the employer can show that such information is essential to the particular job in question.
In December 2010, the EEOC filed suit in federal district court against Kaplan Higher Education Corporation which claimed that Kaplan's use of credit histories as a screening tool discriminated against a class of Black job applicants. The lawsuit confirms the EEOC's current focus on this issue.
The active enforcement of workers' rights, including women's rights, by DOJ, EEOC and the Department of Labor has not gone unnoticed. Ongoing regulations and enforcement remain necessary to continue tearing down these barriers.
We must all work to address and systemically dismantle vast unemployment and economic disparities. It is especially incumbent upon women to find our voices and be active in advocating for real equality in these times.
Continue to call upon Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act. Continue to press for extended federal emergency unemployment benefits through this year and for greater investment in job creation for everyone; to reject more funding cuts for public services.
In addition, we must continue to demand an increase in the federal minimum wage, which has not increased since 2007.
I agree with the NWLC that increasing the federal minimum wage and the tipped minimum is vital for women, who made up about two-thirds of all workers who earned minimum wage or less in 2010.
In addition, we must empower women and protect women's rights. We must continue to educate and uplift girls and young women, ensuring that they have equal access to knowledge, skills and abilities for a brighter future.
Minorities, including women, should not lag economically, politically or otherwise. We should not accept it as an inevitable standard, but, instead, an inevitable opportunity. Every one of us has a right to equality and justice in all aspects of our society.
Our time for a fair shot and a level playing field remains overdue.
Barbara Arnwine is executive director of the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
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