Wallace, Phyllis A. 1920(?)–1993
Phyllis A. Wallace 1920(?)–1993
Economist Phyllis A. Wallace was an academic for much of her life but defied the ivory-tower stereotype by applying her area of research to practical, everyday considerations. Her work centered on studies of the underemployed black population, especially black women, and she upset some of the “safe” conclusions of white economists in her bid to demonstrate that even after the progressive 1960s and 1970s problems of inequality in minority employment had important ramifications for the entire country. Wallace was well known in her field for not only studying previously unresearched topics, but employing new methodologies that produced tangible results. She viewed her scholarship not as an end in itself, but as a tool for social and political activism.
Wallace was raised the oldest of seven children in Baltimore, Maryland. She attended segregated schools, and after graduating from Frederick Douglas High School in 1939, she found that segregation worked both for and against her. On the one hand, Maryland state law barred those of her race from attending the all-white University of Maryland; on the other hand, the state paid full tuition at any out-of-state school for black students who could not study the field of their choice at the all-black, in-state school, Morgan State College. Wallace chose to study economics at New York University, graduating magna cum laude in 1943.
From 1943 until 1948, Wallace was one of few women to study economics at Yale University. Again experiencing discrimination, she was barred by departmental regulations from holding a graduate student teaching assistantship. Fellowship support, however, enabled her to complete her graduate work. She finished her dissertation on international trade relationships and received her doctorate in 1948.
Wallace’s post-doctoral career included both university and governmental employment. Her first position was with the National Bureau of Economic Research, where she continued to study international trade; she also taught at the City College of New York from 1948 to 1951. In 1953 she joined the faculty of Atlanta University but left in 1957 to work as an economic analyst for the federal government.
In response to the growing social awareness and activism of the 1960s, Wallace concentrated on studying Soviet economic growth and development. Soon, however, she moved away from international topics to focus her efforts on problems in the United States. She switched federal departments in 1965,
Born Phyllis Ann Wallace, c. 1920, in Baltimore, MD; died January 10, 1993; daughter of Johan and Stevella (Parker) Wallace. Education: New York University, B.A., 1943; Yale University, M.A., 1944, Ph.D., 1948.
City College of New York, New York City, instructor, 1948–51; National Bureau of Economic Research, economic analyst, 1948–52; Atlanta University, Atlanta, GA, associate professor, 1953–57; U.S. Government, economic analyst, 1957–65; Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Washington, DC, chief of technical studies, 1966–69; New York City Metropolitan Applied Research Center, vice president of research, 1969–72; Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, visiting professor, 1973–75, professor, 1975–86. Member, visiting committee of Harvard University Graduate School of Business Administration, 1977–82, Minimum Wage Study Commission, 1978–82, President’s Pay Advisory Committee, 1979–80, and Economic Advisory Panel of Black Enterprise, 1982–85.
Selected awards: Wilbur Cross Medal, Yale University, 1980; Distinguished Service Award, Harvard University Business School, 1988. Honorary degrees from Valparaiso University, 1977, Mount Holyoke College, 1983, Brown University, 1986, and Northeastern University, 1987.
when she became chief of technical studies of the newly formed Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). There she began to study the economics of discrimination.
As part of the EEOC, Wallace put her research to practical use. She began her efforts to address issues of discrimination by taking a new approach to social research, implementing new methodologies. Building teams of workers from different professions, she gathered lawyers, economists, and even psychologists to study individual cases. Much of Wallace’s work culminated in the early 1970s, when she directed the research for the federal lawsuit charging the largest private employer in the United States, AT&T, with sexual and racial discrimination. The 1973 decision found the company guilty of the charges and led to significant changes in employment practices.
Wallace continued to study discrimination issues after she left the federal government, as she pursued topics previously ignored. Between 1969 and 1972 she acted as vice-president for research at the New York City Metropolitan Applied Research Center, where she focused her efforts on another underrepresented population, teenagers. In 1974 she published Pathways to Work: Unemployment Among Black Teenage Females.
In 1973 Wallace joined the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as a visiting professor, and in 1975 she became the first female tenured professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. She returned to university life specifically to give voice to black issues. “I came to academe,” she told Judy Simmons of Black Enterprise, “because it’s the one place where a person can make a living doing research and writing. I think its very important for blacks to put their own perspective into social science literature, rather than spending their time responding to other people’s view.”
Wallace’s research reflected her opinions. She began not only to report the unpopular statistics on blacks in the economy, ruffling a few feathers along the way, but also to change the way the data was collected and analyzed. Until the late 1970s, researchers in the area focused their attention primarily on married black women in comparison to married white women and had misleading results. In her book Black Women in the Labor Force, Wallace pointed out that almost half of all black families were headed by single black women, and thus the traditional approach to research neglected much of the population. Judith Wilson reported in a review in Essence that the book “[took] the first step toward changing techniques used to gather research data on black women by demonstrating the need for a more effective research methodology, one based upon our specific needs and realities.”
One of those realities was the long-term ineffectiveness of the Equal Opportunity Act of 1972 and earlier government programs set up to aid minority workers. Wallace wrote in an article in Black Enterprise that while “the Manpower programs of the 1960s attempted to enhance the employability of many minority workers who had been restricted to a peripheral role in the labor market, these programs appear not to have had a lasting effect on the relative employment and earnings position of blacks.” Many of the gains made by black workers in the 1960s were nullified in the recession of the early 1970s, which caused layoffs of new workers with low seniority. Thus, Wallace concluded, “after more than a decade of implementation of laws and regulations prohibiting racial discrimination in employment, discrimination in the work place is still pervasive.”
Wallace’s work did not go unchallenged, nor did she refrain from challenging the conclusions of others. Before she published Pathways to Work and Black Women in the Labor Force, many experts believed that minorities were achieving equity in employment. Wallace’s conclusions drew fire from some whites in the profession who had difficulty in acknowledging her work as valid. In 1976 she wrote in Black Enterprise that the subject she had been studying for over a decade was “just becoming a respectable subject for economists.” Despite any backlash, she maintained that “I have decided to say what I see.”
While Wallace was a prolific scholar, she led an active life outside the university. She served on many important committees, including the President’s Pay Advisory Committee, the Minimum Wage Study Commission, and the Economic Advisory Panel of Black Enterprise. She held positions on various boards, such as that of the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., and the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women. In her spare time, Wallace pursued interests in history and the arts, serving on the boards of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Society of Arts and Crafts. After her retirement in 1986, she enjoyed spending time researching her family history.
By the time she died in 1993, Phyllis Wallace had received numerous awards for her scholarly and humanistic achievements. In addition to her service on boards and committees, she acted as mentor to young African Americans in academe and the arts. In 1980 she received the Cross Medal from Yale University, and in 1988, the Distinguished Service Award from Harvard University Business School. She held honorary degrees from Valparaiso University, Mount Holyoke College, Brown University, and Northeastern University. The Sloan School of Management at MIT endowed two funds in her honor: one to support African American doctoral students and one to bring black visiting scholars to the school.
Pathways to Work: Unemployment Among Black Teenage Females, Lexington Books, 1974.
Employment Patterns in the Drug Industry, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1976.
(Editor) Women, Minorities, and Employment Discrimination, Lexington Books, 1977.
(Editor) Equal Employment Opportunity and the AT&T Case, MIT Press, 1976.
(With Linda Datcher and Julianne Malveaux) Black Women in the Labor Force, MIT Press, 1980.
(Editor) Women in the Workplace, Auburn House, 1982.
(Author of foreword) Edward D. Irons, Black Managers: The Case of the Banking Industry, Praeger, 1985.
Notable Black American Women, Gale, 1992, p. 1197.
Black Enterprise, July 1975, p. 8; June 1976, p. 89; October 1979, p. 57.
Essence, July 1981, p. 17.
New York Times, January 13, 1993, pp. A19, B9.
Sloan Magazine, winter 1987, p. 19.
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