Inequality Barriers Women Face in Workplace, Especially Women of Color

Dr. Sabrina Valpone is an assistant professor at the Leeds School of Business of the University of Colorado at Boulder. She holds a Ph.D. in human resource management and a master’s degree in IO psychology. Her research focuses on the lived experiences of employees within workplaces – specifically, on topics of employee diversity and identity management to understand the barriers that keep social identities marginalized.

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Dr. Valpone talked about solutions to the long-standing issues of inequality in the workplace for women and how this is a story that has not changed much in recent years.

“We know that things like structural sexism or structural racism, which also, of course, impacts women of color specifically, lead to policies, procedures that just present multiple barriers for women to overcome in the workplace,” says Valpone.

The percentage of workers – manicurists, pedicurists, maids, housekeeping, home health aides, nursing assistants, medical assistants – are the occupations with the largest percentages of women of color. In the past year, those jobs have changed the most and women of color have lost their jobs or significantly lost hours or career status after being out of work for months – some still are.

Although these issues are nothing new Dr. Valpone says conditions have only gotten worse with COVID.

“Once the pandemic hit and Governor Polis ordered places to temporarily close, women of color were hit the hardest because they were the most vulnerable,” says Valpone.

Jobs like health aides, nursing assistants, medical assistants, are needed in the healthcare industry. Workers in those professions experienced job changes that led to significant consequences such as burnout because they were so overworked within the medical field. It was even more dangerous for women and women of color who disproportionately have these jobs as medical assistants and nursing assistants.

For Dr. Valpone, the pandemic is providing an opportunity to implement structural changes that could make the labor market more equitable.

“So, as the pandemic has really instigated this need for economic recovery, it’s also given us an opportunity to take those inequalities for women that have been exacerbated by COVID to implement structural changes that make the labor market more equitable across the board.”

According to Valpone, women have had to make big sacrifices during the pandemic, and not just because the burden of childcare falls more commonly on women. COVID has hit elderly populations the hardest in terms of hospitalization rates and death rates. Valpone says that not only does this responsibility of childcare fall on women, but elder care as well.

Recent legislation in Colorado is addressing some of the historical inequalities. However, this may not be enough, says Dr. Valpone.

“We have the paid family and medical leave act, the equal pay for equal work that just a few months ago in Colorado have gone into effect that really address some of the historical inequities. So, basically what we see is that there is work being done that can really light the way in terms of us knowing there’s an opportunity for a better future, but then at the same time organizations, as they’re rebuilding the economy changing their workplaces to reflect the changes that COVID has put into effect, we also need to make sure that women are a part of that conversation, so we don’t create new problems, and we really have the opportunity to kind of move forward in a way that redefines and restructures our jobs and our workplaces,” said Valpone.