The U.S. economy has bounced back at a stunning pace since 2020's coronavirus recession – yet this recovery has largely left behind Black women.
Throughout much of the pandemic and consistently since December, Black women's unemployment (5.8%) has been significantly higher than that of Latinas, Asian women and white women, according to research from the National Women's Law Center.
Experts point to several possible factors widening the recovery gap, with hiring discrimination, burnout and a lack of substantial benefits in lower-paid industries at the top of the list.
"If you look at the experiences of Black women in corporate America, the pattern is really clear: the workplace is worse for women of color than white women, and Black women consistently stand out as having the worst experience of all," Rachel Thomas, co-founder and CEO of Leanin.org, tells CNBC Make It. "So Black women have been hit especially hard by the pandemic's economic downturn."
CNBC Make It spoke with Thomas and other experts about the main issues driving this economic gap and how employers can better support Black women in the workplace.
Burning out in front-line jobs
Black women have shouldered a disproportionate share of front-line jobs throughout the coronavirus crisis that have put them at a higher risk of contracting the virus. More than 1 in 3 Black women have worked in front-line jobs, the NWLC reports, including roles as personal care aides, nursing assistants, cashiers and retail salespeople.
These industries have been the hardest hit by the pandemic and continue to be vulnerable to coronavirus restrictions and shutdowns. The recovery of these jobs remains sluggish and uneven: in January, women only gained 52,000 jobs in leisure and hospitality, or about 34%, despite making up about 53% of the industry's workforce.
Most of these jobs have required employees to show up in person, even at the height of the pandemic. Such conditions have put Black women in a compromised position as they tend to live in regions with higher transmission rates and are more likely to fall ill, Jasmine Tucker, the NWLC's director of research, says. "A lot of these jobs don't offer fair paid leave or even sick leave policies, so every time you get sick, you risk losing your job," she explains.
According to research from Lean In, 47% of Black women have gone to work during the pandemic when they had a good reason to stay home, whether that was being sick or not having child care. These high-risk, low-reward jobs have led Black women to a difficult choice: quit, or show up to work at the expense of their — and often their family's — well-being.
Lack of child care
The ongoing child-care crisis has hit Black mothers especially hard during the pandemic, pushing a lot of women out of the workforce.
Black mothers tend to shoulder more child-care responsibilities than their white counterparts, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research, and are also more likely to be the primary wage earners in their families. Without access to affordable child care, many have had to quit their jobs.
More than two thirds of working Black mothers are also single. "Large numbers of Black women have left the workforce because they are mothers, or single mothers, and had to make a difficult choice to leave their jobs to take care of their children during the pandemic," Thomas says. "The lack of affordable child-care and flexibility within their jobs has just created a very untenable, unstable situation for mothers, especially mothers of color."
These barriers have not only made it difficult for Black women to find meaningful full-time employment, but also to re-enter the labor force. The NWLC reports that nearly 30% of Black women who are unemployed have been out of work for six months or longer.
Although the 2020 murder of George Floyd and the pandemic brought a renewed focus on diversity, equity and inclusion practices at companies, Black women – and other people of color – continue to experience racism and microaggressions in the workforce.
"Black women are still facing hiring discrimination, and if they've been unemployed for long periods of time, they could feel even more discouraged from applying to jobs," Tucker notes.
The barriers for securing a job are higher for Black women because "as a Black woman, you're facing all of the biases that go with being a woman, along with the biases that go with being a woman of color," Thomas explains.
Black women also experience more – and more acute – microaggressions than other groups of women.
In its annual "Women in the Workplace" report, Lean In and McKinsey & Company found that Black women are more likely than white women to be on the receiving end of disrespectful and "othering" behavior. About 17% of Black have been confused with someone else of the same race/ethnicity, compared to 4% of white women.
What companies can do to help
Employers can help mitigate this economic gap by reviewing their benefits, hiring and promotional practices and updating them to be more equitable for women of color.
Such meaningful changes could include including more women of color in the workplace planning and hiring process and broadening paid leave policies, as well as designing clearer, structured promotion and mentorship opportunities for Black women.
"A lot of companies don't truly know how many women of color they're hiring or promoting," Thomas says. "To make sure your hiring and promotion processes are fair, you need to track how women of color are moving through your organization."
While the past two years have spurred some leaders to pay closer attention to the challenges Black women face in the workforce, it's important to recognize that Black women have been dealing with these issues long before the pandemic – and it could take a long time to see sustainable progress.
"We like to find the silver lining, but the reality is, things have been really bad for Black women," Nikki Tucker, the head of social at Leanin.org, says. "The pandemic has just finally opened a lot of people's eyes to the things Black women have been going through all of our lives."
Sign up now: Get smarter about your money and career with our weekly newsletter