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This article presents an initial exploration of the comparative labor market situation of black women in the United States and in Great Britain, with a focus on occupational distributions and segregation. As many readers are aware, Hull, Scott and Smith's book title, All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us are Brave, too aptly captures the thin state of the literature on the economic status of African-American women in the United States. Economic research on black women in Britain is all but nonexistent. The purpose of this article then is to build a basic understanding, particularly among readers in the United States, of the similarities and differences in the experiences of women of African descent in the United States and Great Britain.
Data limitations drive the exclusive focus on occupations. The one large British data-set with information on earnings by ethnicity is the 1991 British Census, which is available only to researchers working inside the U.K. However, occupation is important in its own right. Several studies support the claim that occupational segregation itself, distinct from education and geographical location variables, is the largest single identifiable source of race and sex differences in earnings in the United States.(1) Inferences about future pay, employment and mobility are much more informed by an understanding of occupational distributions than by variables sometimes considered more fundamental such as education or earnings.
Section I of this article briefly outlines a current understanding of the labor market status of African-Americans and white women in the United States. Section II does the same for Great Britain, ending with a brief summary comparison of the two countries. Section III focuses on the occupational distribution of blacks and whites in each country, drawing out patterns and similarities. Section IV presents measures of occupational segregation by race and gender for both countries, broken out by age, educational attainment, sector of employment and region, constructed from data from the 1988 U.S. Current Population Survey Annual Income Extract and the 1989 British Labour Force Survey. Section V concludes the article.
I. ETHNICITY AND GENDER IN TIlE AMERICAN LABOR MARKET
African-Americans comprised 11.6 percent of the population and 11.1 percent of the United States labor force in 1994, proportions which have shown slow steady growth.(2) The African-American population is located disproportionately in the South and in urban areas of the Northeast and Midwest. The African-American community is the group of people of color that has been most important in the United States labor force historically. It is now being met in size by the growing Latino labor force, and joined by a smaller but significant Asian one. Native Americans have not had as great an impact on the labor force as have the three foregoing groups during recent American history.
Economic research on the meaning of ethnicity in the United States labor market has concentrated on the experience of the African-American community, particularly on black men. Economic progress for black men in the twentieth century has occurred in spurts, coinciding with periods of tight labor markets connected with major wars.(3) This point of view is not undisputed; scholars also attribute black men's economic advances variously to improvements in the relative quantity and quality of their education, to the passage and enforcement of civil rights legislation and to the political power of the black community in concert with the labor movement.(4) However, the significant advances in the earnings of black men relative to white men have come during the 1910s, the 1940s and the 1960s. The 1980s and 1990s have been years of retrenchment, despite the near convergence in educational levels between blacks and whites.(5)
Several scholars have investigated the male black/white earnings gap. This literature concludes that the differences in earnings may be attributed about equally to differences in human capital characteristics and to differences in the return to these characteristics. The differences in the return to characteristics are now growing, after having shrunk through the 1960s and 1970s to the point that some authors were proclaiming the end of race-based earnings differentials. Now not only are unexplained wage differences increasing, but unemployment and poverty differentials are growing as well.(6)
The earnings, unemployment and poverty trends for African-American women have been similar to those for African-American men. However, occupational access has played an especially important role in determining economic outcomes for black women. Agricultural labor and domestic service accounted for the vast majority of black working women for nearly one hundred years after emancipation. Domestic service was the single largest occupational category for black women from the early twentieth century until the 1960s, when manufacturing, other service work and clerical jobs opened up. Now black women, especially black professional women, are significantly underrepresented in the private sector and overrepresented in public sector and nonprofit employment.(7) Educational acquisition and migration have played a much smaller role in improving black women's relative earnings than has access to occupations other than domestic and agricultural work.(8)
Claudia Goldin has aptly noted that "each generation of Americans, at least since the mid-nineteenth century, has claimed to be on the verge of an unprecedented and momentous change in the economic position of women," yet in many respects little has changed.(9) While the proportion of women in the paid labor force, particularly that of married white women, has grown tremendously and women have moved into occupations long closed to them, the gender wage gap and the level of occupational segregation have changed little over the past fifty to one hundred years!
Women's hourly wages, after hovering for a very long period at about two-thirds those of men - popularized as 59 cents on the dollar - have recently risen to 70-75 percent those of men. Though much touted, about half of this "progress" is the result of falling male earnings; the other half is attributable to increases in pay to college-educated women.(10) Further, the gender wage gap in the United States is quite large relative to that found in Northern Europe and Australia despite …