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Discrimination by the numbers

To economist Phyllis Wallace, employment discrimination was everywhere—but the numbers proving it weren’t.

Phyllis Wallace
Phyllis Wallace
Phyllis Wallace (center) at the International Conference on Input-Output Techniques in Geneva, October 1961.PHYLLIS WALLACE PAPERS, DEPARTMENT OF DISTINCTIVE COLLECTIONS, MIT LIBRARIES

When Phyllis Ann Wallace reached Yale University, in the mid-1940s, she was used to facing obstacles and proceeding anyway. Women weren’t expected to go into economics, especially at the graduate level, and for Black women like herself, breaking into the field decades before schools, buses, or workplaces were legally integrated was practically unheard-of. 

At the time, Black women had just started entering US doctoral programs. The first African-American women to earn PhDs in the US graduated in 1921, 60 years after white men were doing so—and no Black woman had ever earned a PhD in economics from Yale. Some systems that kept women and minorities out were unspoken, but many were obvious and codified. Female graduate students, for example, didn’t compete for fellowships—leftover money went to women only after male students were funded. Women didn’t work alongside senior professors, and they were relegated to grading papers instead of teaching classes like the men.

“It wasn’t until I stood up in front of a class and started teaching some night courses at City College in New York that I got rid of that fear that I couldn’t do it,” Wallace told the Boston Globe in 1975. “I guess I was able to make it by forcing myself not to be afraid, to just go ahead and do, and luckily, I was good.”

Wallace, who died of a heart attack in 1993, spent her career fighting against systems that kept (and still keep) minority groups from thriving in the labor market. Her work would change the way discrimination was studied and quantified. 

Discrimination was what led Wallace to economics. Growing up in segregated Baltimore, she was valedictorian of her all-Black high school—the same attended by Thurgood Marshall and Cab Calloway years before—but was barred from studying at the all-white University of Maryland. State law offered out-of-state tuition support for Black students who wanted to major in a subject offered at the University of Maryland but not at Morgan State College, a nearby all-Black institution. Wallace grabbed catalogues from both schools and chose economics as her ticket out. Soon, she’d be at New York University, where she gained a reputation as the girl who brought schoolbooks to parties. She graduated magna cum laude.

Wallace planned to teach high school after NYU, but a professor encouraged her to apply to Yale and continue studying economics. That tiny career push, and others that would follow, solidified her realization that economic mobility is often determined by unspoken mechanisms that give certain people advantages in their professions—including, at times, her. After completing her dissertation on international and domestic sugar agreements and earning her PhD in 1948, Wallace landed her first economics job after a professor made a call to the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). 

Her book MBAs on the Fast Track chronicled how the experiences of men and women with equal education differ, and why women work longer hours for the same compensation.

“Women and Blacks starting out in businesses usually write a letter to personnel and in six months they get an answer saying that there is no job,” Wallace later said. “They don’t know the informal ballgame the way their white male counterparts do.”

Wallace continued researching international trade while also teaching at City College of New York. She took a faculty position at Atlanta University in 1953 but left four years later to help an unnamed “defense-related federal agency”—rumored to be the CIA—tackle the world’s biggest economic issue at the time: the Cold War.

Just what Wallace did during the nine years she spent analyzing Soviet economiesfor US intelligence is largely unknown, but as the Civil Rights Movement swept through the country, she turned her attention stateside, joining the newly established Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in the mid-’60s. The chance to do the research showing exactly why minority workers rarely made it into powerful corporate positions wasn’t far behind.

To many, the EEOC was a joke. Underfunded and understaffed, the organization didn’t have a way to investigate charges or enforce punishments. Civil rights organizations called it the “toothless tiger.” But the EEOC could collect data, and it soon required large companies to disclose the sex and racial breakdowns of their workers by job category.

Armed with this new data, Wallace, then deputy director of research, designed the EEOC’s research agenda. Believing that employment issues faced by women and minorities are “every bit as psychological as economic,” she recruited social scientists as well as bright young economists, offering them valuable opportunities to publish research early in their careers. The goal was to figure out just how segregated jobs were—and identify the formal and informal practices that perpetuated that segregation. 

The papers published under Wallace quantified patterns of bias in the textile and drugindustries and showcased how policies like hiring tests hurt minority candidates. Though Wallace left the EEOC in 1969, reportedly in part because she was frustrated that someone with less research experience was chosen to head the organization’s research division, her work served as the basis for landmark discrimination cases, including Griggs v. Duke Power (1971), which limited the use of aptitude tests in hiring and set the legal precedent for “disparate impact” cases, where seemingly neutral policies disproportionately hurt a protected class of workers.

Wallace’s talent for bringing together interdisciplinary teams continued to pay off as well. In the early 1970s, when the EEOC launched a sex discrimination suit against AT&T, then the largest company in the world, they brought her in to recruit top economists, psychologists, and employment discrimination researchers as expert witnesses. The case resulted in one of the largest civil rights settlements in US history, funneling $45 million in back pay and wage adjustments to women and minority employees, plus an additional $30 million from a second settlement the following year. It forced AT&T to redesign its recruitment and hiring policies.

But by then, Wallace was at MIT. She arrived as a visiting scholar at the Sloan School and quickly moved up to become the school’s first female professor,in 1975. In her office overlooking the Charles River, she wrote books and papers on women in the labor force, particularly Black women, often inviting students to coauthor or co-edit. She worked to ensure that male MIT students were aware of equity issues, believing that “if you can really educate them now, hopefully they will go out and bring about the revolution wherever they are.”

She also documented how the privileged advance in the working world by analyzing the career paths of 380 Sloan students in their first five years after graduation. The resulting book, MBAs on the Fast Track, chronicled how the experiences of men and women with equal education differ in their early careers, and why women work longer hours and endure more stress for the same compensation. 

Even after she retired, in 1986, Wallace continued working to make the world around her more inclusive. She helped rewrite Sloan’s sexual harassment policies and worked to establish the Nubian Gallery at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, serving as the only person of color on its 57-member board. After her death, students remembered her as a “quiet revolutionary” who would “go out on a limb for you … again and again.”

She believed that her students, especially the women, were themselves revolutionaries who were steadily pushing academia to be more equitable.

“When they enter the academic arena, they force the university professors to look out to the real world,” Wallace said. “I see this as a very good and a very healthy sign.” 

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