By Congressman Kweisi Mfume
As a distinguished Black economist and activist, as well as the first African-American woman to earn a doctorate of economics at Yale University, Dr. Phyllis A. Wallace paved the way for women of color to enter the field of economics. Her endeavors were largely based on racial and gender discrimination within Fortune 500 companies, a pursuit aimed to ensure no one felt invisible within these colossal organizations.
Dr. Wallace holds an important place in history as her work developed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) into the civil rights backstop it is today.
For Dr. Wallace, her entry into the field of economics and ensuing lifelong fight against discrimination arose from a cruel facet of her own upbringing – she herself was a victim of discrimination.
Growing up in segregated Baltimore, Dr. Wallace was valedictorian of her all-Black school Frederick Douglass High School, the same institution I attended along with Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson, Thurgood Marshall, Cab Calloway, and countless others. Yet, despite being at the top of her class, she was barred from studying at the all-white University of Maryland. Steadfast in her pursuit for higher education, Dr. Wallace instead selected New York University and decided to major in economics.
In the 1950s, after earning two more advanced degrees from Yale University, Dr. Wallace began her professional work as an economic analyst. Following stints with several organizations and brief teaching positions, Dr. Wallace joined the newly created Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as their Chief of Technical Studies.
At the time, the EEOC was demeaned by some civil rights advocates who labeled it a “toothless tiger.” However, the EEOC could still collect information, and it soon required large companies to disclose the sex and racial data of their workers.
Dr. Wallace knew that employment issues faced by women and minorities were deeply rooted in the socioeconomic disadvantages of their backgrounds. And with her newfound position, Dr. Wallace revamped her EEOC team and recruited smart, young social scientists. Her team set its marks on quantifying how segregated jobs were disadvantageous to women and minorities. Her efforts laid the groundwork for monumental discrimination cases such as Griggs v. Duke Power in 1971, which checked the use of seemingly neutral barriers in hiring.
Dr. Wallace’s strategy to assemble teams spanning across different disciplines was well respected and continued to progress the EEOC into a formidable force. In 1970, the EEOC requested Dr. Wallace recruit top social scientists to support the Commission’s sex discrimination case against one of the nation’s leading telephone companies. This collective effort ultimately became one of the most substantial civil rights case settlements in American history, directing $45 million to minority and women employees along with another $30 million the next year from a subsequent settlement. These decisions compelled the company to completely remodel its hiring practices into an equitable and fair system.
Dr. Wallace left the EEOC for the Metropolitan Applied Research Center in New York where she was the vice president for research until 1972. She then became the first female tenured professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sloan School of Management in 1975. Dr. Wallace would go on to publish several books including Pathways to Work: Unemployment Among Black Teenage Females and Black Women in the Labor Force.
Dr. Wallace retired from MIT in 1986 and became the first female and first African American president of the Industrial Relations Research Association.
Our entire nation owes a debt of gratitude to the matriarch of the modern day EEOC, Dr. Phyllis A. Wallace. Dr. Wallace revolutionized an agency that now gives a voice to those who in the past would have been neglected or overlooked in the workplace. We will always remember her as a trailblazer for equal opportunity, employment, and economic empowerment.
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