Fixing 5 Obstacles Facing Women and Girls of Color

The White House makes a $118 million pledge for targeted programs and outreach.

President Obama hosted the first Demo Day at the White House this year, showcasing work by more than 30 start-up teams of women, minorities, and young people, all underrepresented in entrepreneurship.  (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Teen pregnancies. School suspensions. Few role models. Girls of color face a host of issues that other girls generally don’t.

White House staff spent Friday meeting with experts to find ways to create more opportunities for this overlooked group.

Senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and the White House Council on Women and Girls hosted an all-day summit to discuss issues such as economic opportunity, school suspensions, hip-hop, STEM careers, and role models.

“Too often, we do not give girls of color positive views of themselves and a positive vision for their futures,” said Jarrett.

The White House is focusing on the issue after taking heat for leaving women out of My Brother’s Keeper, President Obama’s initiative targeting at-risk men of color. Author Alice Walker, actress Rosario Dawson, and activist Angela Davis were among more than 1,000 women who sent a letter last year asking Obama to include women of color in his program.

“The need to acknowledge the crisis facing boys should not come at the expense of addressing the stunted opportunities for girls who live in the same households, suffer in the same schools, and struggle to overcome a common history of limited opportunities caused by various forms of discrimination,” they wrote in the letter to Obama.

During Friday’s conference, the White House announced that $118 million had been raised to support programs that close the opportunity gap for women of color. Independent foundations pledged $100 million for a five-year program to improve their economic prosperity. Another $18 million was promised to fund academic research on women and girls of color.

Of all the barriers women of color face, here are the top five the White House is trying to tackle:

1. Excessive student suspensions

Girls of color are suspended at school at a disproportionately high rate, according to the Department of Education. Black girls are suspended at a rate of 12 percent—more often than girls of any other race and more often than white boys. Repeated suspensions often affect a student’s academic success and likelihood of dropping out of school.

What the White House is doing: The Department of Justice and the Department of Education have been pushing back against zero-tolerance disciplinary policies, instead urging schools to adopt alternatives to suspension.

2. Juvenile arrests

Girls of color make up a growing share of juvenile arrests these days. About 32 percent of girls detained and committed are black, even though they make up only 14 percent of the United States population, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Native American girls are only 1 percent of the general population, yet make up 3.5 percent of girls who are detained and committed. Skipping school and running away from home are the most common reasons girls are arrested—behaviors that are also symptoms of trauma and abuse, researchers say. Once in the system, girls are often treated as criminals instead of children who need support, keeping alive a vicious cycle known as the “sexual-abuse-to-prison pipeline.”

What the White House is doing: The Department of Justice has recommended that local and state law enforcement agencies stop arresting youth for minor offenses like skipping school, running away, or underage drinking. They urge police and the courts to consider alternatives to detention, such as counseling and parent engagement.

3. Opportunity gaps in STEM education and careers

Girls of color are rarely encouraged to pursue classes or careers in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. In 2012, for example, women of color received only 11 percent of bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering, 8 percent of master’s degrees, and 4 percent of doctorate degrees, according to the National Science Foundation. The Obama administration points out that there are few role models for women of color in the STEM fields and they often face discrimination in the hiring process.

What the White House is doing: The White House launched a website highlighting the untold stories of women in science and technology, and held its first ever Demo Day for entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds.

4. High rates of teen pregnancy

Teen pregnancies have declined in the United States, but girls of color get pregnant at a much higher rate than white girls. Black and Latina teens are more than twice as likely as white girls to become pregnant, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. That often limits their chance of graduating high school and pursuing a successful career. Only half of all teen mothers receive a high school diploma by age 22, and their children are less likely to finish, too. Their children also have higher rates of health problems and unemployment.

What the White House is doing: This year, the Office of Adolescent Health awarded $86 million in grants to programs around the country that focus on supporting teen parents and preventing teen pregnancies.

5. Lack of economic opportunity

Women have long earned less than their male peers, but women of color face an even larger gap in wages. Additionally, black women face the highest rates of poverty for those 65 years and older (21 percent), followed by Hispanic women (20 percent) and Asian women (13 percent).

What the White House is doing: Obama has pushed states to raise their minimum wage, and this year extended minimum-wage and overtime protections to home-care workers, who are often women of color. His budget also proposes tripling the tax credit for families with children under the age of 5 and who earn less than $120,000 a year.