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Race/Gender Wage Study Finds Surprising Difference

Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release April 8, 2005

Race/Gender Wage Study Reveals Surprising View of U.S. Work Force

Interview with Avis Jones-DeWeever, Institute for Women's Policy Research, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

Listen in RealAudio: (Needs RealOne player or RealPlayer)

A new report released in late March by the U.S. Census Bureau on the average earnings of workers with a four-year college education reveals that African American and Asian women earn significantly more than white women. Asian American women average almost $44,000 a year, while black women make $41,000 and white women just under $38,000. The survey also shows that white women earn just 58 percent of the $66,000 that white men with a bachelor's degree earn. Among men, whites earn the most, followed by Asians, then Hispanics with African Americans in last place. Far fewer black men than black women have college degrees.

One explanation for these disparities offered by economists and sociologists takes into account the fact that minority women tend to hold more than one job at a time, work more than 40 hours a week and return to the work force earlier than other groups after child birth. Racial discrimination on the job continues to create obstacles in hiring and advancement to management positions among men.

Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Avis Jones-DeWeever, a researcher and Study Director with the Institute for Women's Policy Research in Washington D.C., about the survey results. She says that while more analysis is needed to fully understand the numbers, one thing is clear: Higher education benefits men and women of all ages in the job market.

AVIS JONES-DEWEEVER: The big story here is that education works, and education pays, particularly if you look at, for example, comparing the earnings of women who don’t have a college degree across race, you find then, that while Asian Americans are still on top, they are followed by white Americans and then African Americans. So having a college degree pays for everyone, but it’s particularly important to women of color and especially important to African Americans. Unfortunately, at both extremes of the educational ladder, Latinas are on the bottom.

Let me also put those numbers into context, because the numbers cited in that article looked at means, or averages. Typically, economists tend to use medians, and let me tell you the differences and why that’s important. Averages or means, include people who are at the far end of the spectrum … it could include Oprah, you know what I’m saying, which could really throw off what that number is. Medians are the numbers that we kind of like to use because they provide a more fair representation of what the typical person makes. And while the general relationship is still there, in terms of Asian American women earning the most, then white women, and African American women, then Latinas, there is a big difference there in what people actually earn. Using those figures, African American women don’t make over $40,000 a year; their earnings are just $37,000 a year, while white women’s are only $36,000. It’s definitely nowhere near, for example, the $41,000 that’s attributed to black women when you look at the averages. And I think that’s pretty important when you talk about what’s really a fair representation of what the typical person makes.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Oh, absolutely. And I guess that would also apply to the average of white men’s earnings of $66,000, right?

AVIS JONES-DEWEEVER: Exactly. When you change that and look at median instead, for example, the typical earnings of white men, that drops all the way down to $51,000, for a bachelor’s degree. And then if you look at black men with a bachelor’s degree, it’s $41,000; for Asian American men, it’s $46,000. And if you were to compare, for example, bachelor’s degree holders with master’s degree holders, if you’re going to compare them, particularly between blacks and whites, white women with a master’s degree, their median earnings actually exceed that of black women with a master’s degree. So it’s a lot more complex than we can really tell from the focus it’s getting today .

BETWEEN THE LINES: And I guess these data also don’t include people who go to law school, or medical school, or business school, right?

AVIS JONES-DEWEEVER I do have those numbers. That would be considered four years or more. If you look at four years or more, the same sort of relationship exists that we see when we just look at the bachelor’s degree; it’s just that the extremes between the two aren’t as much. For instance, the difference between what white and black women earn is only about $1,000.

And interestingly, one more thing; unfortunately, that aren’t enough women who hold professional degrees and doctoral degrees to even do those statistics. Those statistics don’t even exist for that particular cohort. They only exist for white women and Asian American women.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So, what do you make of the data in this report, then?

AVIS JONES-DEWEEVER: I think what we’re seeing here is the context of what’s going on with people culturally, what’s going on with people in terms of their choices, particularly after they have children, and what’s going on with people once they get into college ? what they choose to major in. In terms of cultural choices, I think it’s important ? particularly if you want to compare the black/white dynamic ? I think it’s important to note that African American women have a long history of work. From the days they set foot on these shores, they have worked, historically agriculturally, domestically, and it’s only been in somewhat more modern times that other avenues of opportunity have opened up for them. And the reason that’s important is that black women come from a tradition where it’s not unusual for your mother to have worked, and given that that’s the case, black women are less likely to see working after having children as something that’s abnormal, or bad in a sense. Contrast that with a white woman’s experience, who was largely just introduced to the work world during World War II, taking the place of men who had gone off to war, and then re-introduced after the women’s movement. So that is a cultural dynamic that perhaps does not have as long of a history that working is normal after having a child.

So I think part of what we’re seeing here in terms of these earning differentials can be reflected in the likelihood of African American women to go back to work sooner and work longer hours after having children than her white counterpart does, particularly among women who have higher levels of education. Another aspect of that is, what are her choices given her household dynamics. As you mentioned earlier, white men still outpace everyone else in terms of their earning power.

And because of that, white women perhaps have more options after she has children in terms of whether or not to decide to go back to work or stay at home a little longer with her child. Black men, though, earn much less than white men, and there are far fewer of them, numerically speaking, than black women, who have at least a bachelor’s degree. And so, because of that, black women’s earning power is larger in her specific household than it is for a white woman’s earning power. Because of that, that might be another pressure that black women feel to go back to work, because she sees it not only as a cultural norm, but as an economic necessity.

Contact the Institute for Women's Policy Research at (202) 785-5100 or visit their website at


Melinda Tuhus is a producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 35 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending April 1, 2005. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Melinda Tuhus and Anna Manzo.



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