Yes, Women and Minorities Are Making Strides in the Labor Market, But ...

It’s a big but.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

Attempts to remedy America’s dauntingly long history of racial and gender inequity can, at times, feel slow and incremental. That’s why when it comes to narrowing the economic disparities between certain groups, it’s important to celebrate progress—more minorities graduating from college, more female executives, a shrinking gender-wage gap. Those are all certainly good things, but sometimes, dwelling on these achievements means missing the underlying failures that allow inequity and division to persist, and grow.

For instance, recent data released by the U.S. Census showed that small business ownership growth between 2007 and 2012 was highest for women, particularly businesses owned by minority women. On the surface, that sounds great, but the figures can be deceptive. In 2012, women were the owners of about 36 percent of the country’s small businesses, and men, about 54 percent, according to data from Pew Research. (The ownership of the remaining 10 percent of businesses in Pew’s count were either jointly owned by men and women or were owned by large, diverse groups.) And the growth of minority women as business owners increased by 215 percent between 1997 and 2014. That’s impressive, but it belies the fact that the group has historically made up such a small share of the industry, that just about any growth would look astronomical.

And looking at the revenues of women-owned companies, it’s clear that there’s still a substantial gender gap. In 2012, male-owned small businesses accounted for about 79 percent of small-business revenues, while female-owned businesses accounted for just 11 percent. That’s especially important because while additional women-business owners certainly points to a certain type of success, these businesses would also need to capture a more proportionate share of revenues in order for their businesses to actually thrive.

There are similar problems when it comes to measuring the economic progress of black Americans. For instance, though reports have highlighted decreased unemployment and increased educational and career attainment, a troubling gap in the pay of black and white workers remains, according to recent data from the Center for Economic and Policy Research. The paper’s author, Cherrie Bucknor, who tracked the median hourly earnings of young adults ages 25 to 34 between 1979 and 2014, found that though racial groups follow the same general pattern of wage growth and contraction over the years, the gains are smaller and the declines larger for black men. In fact, between 1979 and 2014, the wage gap between black and white men has actually increased—from about $3.90 to around $5.27.

Median Hourly Wages by Race and Gender 1979-2014

And even as women continue to attend college at higher rates than men, gender-pay gaps persist for both black and white women (compared to men of their own race). Among young black workers, the gender-wage gap is significantly smaller than it is among white workers and the nation as a whole, mainly because black men’s earnings are so low. In 1979, black women made about 77 cents for every dollar black men earned, and though earnings for black women have also fallen, they haven’t decreased nearly as much as they have for black men. In 2014, young black women made 95 cents for each dollar their male counterparts made. For young white women that figure was closer to 89 cents, CEPR data showed. Still, white women make significantly more than black women—enjoying a premium of nearly $4 an hour and the fastest wage growth of any group since 1979.

And though there’s plenty of talk about the strides made by the Sheryl Sandbergs and Marissa Mayers of the world, recent research from the New York Fed shows that when it comes to compensation, even female bosses are still falling behind. The study found that in terms of incentive pay, such as bonuses and stock options, women in the C-suite got only a fraction of what their male counterparts received. And they were rewarded less for firm performance: For every 1 percent increase in firm market value, male executives gained $60,000, while female executives got only $10,000.

Progress shouldn’t lead to complacency. While frustrating, these persistent, less visible inequalities are important to remember since progress can be—and usually is—incredibly uneven, boosting the economic standing of only a portion of a group while leaving others struggling.