The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
March 8, 2018

Visibility for women of color is the crucial first step toward equality

March 8, 2018

In March, Urban Institute researchers writing on Urban Wire will discuss the achievements of and challenges faced by women in the United States.

“All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men,” is the framing quote for a seminal book on black women’s studies. The quote speaks to the invisibility of black women in scholarship and some social movements, but it easily applies to other women of color within the broader discussion of equality.

The intersection of race or ethnicity with gender often erases some people from the conversation, the way a storm can sometimes absorb another without growing stronger. For women of color, this obscuring occurs partly because we often use the wrong comparison group to measure their place in society. 

Women of color are either compared with men within their same racial or ethnic group or compared with white women. When viewed this way, their unique challenges are often hidden. In three broad issue areas, women of color need better visibility and questions tailored to their unique circumstances:

1. Visibility in education

Women’s progress in education is often held up as evidence of their movement toward equality. If we compare women with men within the same racial or ethnic group, women look good. Each group is completing college at a higher rate than men.

Asian American women as a group are the only women of color whose college completion rate is higher than that of white men. But their success in school does not translate into higher wages, in part because of occupational segregation that restricts women, especially women of color, to occupations that tend to pay less.

2. Visibility in the job market

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research calculated that if current trends continue, black women will reach wage equality in the year 2124, and Hispanic women will reach equality in 2233.  For Asian women, the picture is mixed because of diverse circumstances within the Asian population, with the lowest earners making only half as much as the highest earners.

But even when women of color are in the same field as white men, they are not as successful. A recent study on African American women who graduated from Harvard Business School found they were only one-third as likely as non–African Americans to attain senior executive status in corporations. They also reported being “invisible.” They were often not recognized as executives in their own companies and were sometimes mistaken for secretaries or wait staff.

3. Visibility in wealth inequality

The gaps in women’s wealth holdings are even more severe. Data on women’s wealth are difficult to obtain, but a seminal study by Mariko Cheng gives us an indication of the chasm between white men and women of color. 

White women have wealth holdings that are just over half of those of white men, but wealth holdings for women of color are hardly a blip on a graph. 

median wealth by race and gender

Cheng’s study found that black women had about two-thirds the wealth of black men but had 0.7 percent of white men’s holdings. Hispanic women fared even worse, with wealth holdings about 10 percent of those of Hispanic men but 0.3 percent of those of white men.

Women of color’s economic status is of special concern because they are less likely to be in households with ample resources to share. Based on my calculations of 2016 Census data, 51 percent of white women are married with husbands present in the household, but only 26 percent of black women and 36 percent of American Indian women are in that position. 

In most cases, this places the economic burden on the woman who heads the household. With lower earnings and smaller nest eggs (or none at all), it can be a struggle for women to provide for themselves and their children.

Many social structures contribute to women’s plight, including workplace discrimination, sexual harassment, and mass incarceration, which removes so many men of color from their communities.

We must acknowledge that the intersection of race or ethnicity with gender compound the problems women of color face. If we don’t, their struggles will continue to be overlooked, absorbed by the larger groups to which they belong.   

Illustration by Jamie Jones/Getty Images.


As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.