Phyllis A. Wallace

Professor Phyllis A. Wallace

In the 1970s, economist Phyllis Ann Wallace, who dedicated much of her professional life to studying data on discrimination in the workplace, joined the faculty of what is now called the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research and became the first woman to receive tenure at MIT Sloan. "She is a true hidden figure of the empirical literature on race in America,” James J. Heckman, a Nobel laureate who was influenced by Wallace, said in a recent article about Wallace's work and impact.

It has been more than 25 years since the education/management/labor world lost the extraordinary light shed by Phyllis Wallace on all who touched her 40-year sphere of influence – time enough, we believe, to consider again her many distinguished achievements and contributions.

One colleague who knew her well, Alice Rivlin, offered her unique perspective on Wallace:

I think of Phyllis as a scholar/activist, one of the best…. She got her Ph.D. from Yale in 1948, … a year of hope for many…. But poverty was widespread, especially in the South. Black soldiers came back from defending freedom to face segregated schools and colleges, menial jobs, constant humiliation. In Washington, DC in 1948, a black citizen could not eat in a restaurant, go to a downtown movie, or work or shop in a department store. Women with professional and intellectual aspirations weren’t taken very seriously, whatever their race or background.

I don’t know exactly what impelled a young black woman named Phyllis Wallace to break through all this prejudice and these low expectations for her race or sex or whether she felt like a pioneer, but she certainly was one. For the next four decades, she taught and wrote, did research, managed research, and served on policy-making groups and boards and committees.”

Phyllis Wallace was born in Baltimore, Maryland. She received a BA degree in 1943 from New York University, an MA from Yale in 1944, and a PhD from Yale in 1948. After receiving her PhD, she joined the National Bureau of Economic Research as an economist/statistician, while also teaching part-time at the College of the City of New York. From 1953 to 1957, she served on the faculty of Atlanta University while also becoming a senior economist for the US government specializing in Soviet economic studies.

She became chief of technical studies at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) Office of Research from 1966 to 1969. A former student, Annette LaMond, recalls:

During her time at the EEOC, she’d been involved in research. They began looking at AT&T and requesting a lot of data. She was in charge, and the company dumped a warehouse-load of data. Phyllis was dogged in arranging for people to go through it. I think the company was anticipating that it would be a racial discrimination case, possibly. But the focus turned out to be on discrimination involving women. The case was successful, from the government’s point of view, and fro the company’s because it opened up a whole new resource for them.

Through her scholarship, Wallace spearheaded a precedent-setting legal decision in the federal case against American Telephone and Telegraph Co., then the largest private employer in the United States. That suit led to a 1973 decision that the company had discriminated against women and minority men, and the company agreed to pay millions in back wages and make other pay adjustments. The verdict also brought about changes in transfer and promotion policies and recruitment criteria. She wrote about the case in her book, Equal Employment Opportunity and the AT&T Case (MIT Press, 1976).

From 1969 to 1972, Wallace was vice president of research for the Metropolitan Applied Research Center. After serving as a visiting professor at MIT Sloan School, in 1975 she became the first woman to hold the rank of professor at the School. There she continued her work in these areas. After her retirement, she agreed to spend six months helping then Sloan School Dean Lester Thurow improve the School’s response to sexual harassment problems.

When Mount Holyoke College conferred an honorary Doctor of Laws degree on Professor Wallace in 1983, the citation said that as an educator, public servant, and scholar, “your career has taken you from the university to government to the corporate boardroom.” The citation continued: “Beginning your career at a time when neither blacks nor women had a fair chance, you have witnessed great progress toward equal employment opportunity-progress due, in no small measure, to your scholarship on the economics of discrimination in the labor market.”

When she retired in 1986, scholars in industrial and labor relations and economics from around the world gathered at MIT for a conference in her honor. In addition, the Sloan School endowed the Phyllis A. Wallace Doctoral Fellows Fund, which provides support for Black students admitted to the School’s doctoral program, and the Phyllis A. Wallace Visiting Scholars Fund to provide support for Black visiting scholars at the School.

Phyllis Wallace died of natural causes in January 1993, in Boston. In February of that year, MIT and the Sloan School organized a conference in her honor, attended by many of her friends and colleagues. They spoke eloquently about their interactions with Phyllis:

Lester Thurow: Dr. Wallace was an example of how an individual can overcome obstacles and how she can work to change the obstacle course for others. She finished first in her high school class, but being black she was not eligible to go to the University of Maryland. After finishing NYU, she was not eligible to be a teaching assistant at Yale where she got her Ph.D. because she was female. Neither handicap stopped her. I don’t know how many black, female, Ph.D. economists graduated in America before Phyllis, but I would not be surprised to learn that she was the first. There couldn’t have been very many.

Having made it over the obstacles in her course, she turned to removing the obstacles for others. No court case helped more people than the AT&T case that she was instrumental in framing. It is one of the landmark decisions in equal opportunity. The title of her book, Pathways to Work, in many ways was a fitting title for her academic career. She wanted to understand existing pathways to work, change pathways to work, and help those who were discriminated against find pathways to work. She was concerned, understood discrimination, and at the same time was hard-nosed about the need to make an effort regardless of the fairness or unfairness of the obstacle put in one’s way.

Lisa Lynch: I’ve known Phyllis as my teacher, my mentor, my hero, my colleague, and most importantly, my friend. I met Phyllis in 1975 when I was a spunky little undergraduate, trying to change the world in two days. I encountered Phyllis in a labor economics course she was teaching at MIT. She was inspirational. She was wise. She was wonderful, and I was totally entranced by this woman. I wanted to be like her in every possible way.

If I had to describe one characteristic about Phyllis that sums up her philosophy of life and her own research work, I think it’s not what Alice Rivlin used to describe her on the day of her retirement. For those of you who were at the dinner honoring Phyllis, Alice referred to Phyllis as a “scholar/activist.” I actually think she was more of a quiet revolutionary in what she did. Phyllis had an amazing ability to pull people together from diverse communities and to set up a process for people to meet, discuss, exchange ideas, and set up new institutions that would work to the continuation of what she called in her last book, “the human revolution.” which was taking place in society. She was often in the spotlight but she never took the spotlight. She was an individual who liked to set up a process, get people moving, and then move on to the next task, the next process, the next set of institutions.

Julianne Malveaux: She became more than my mentor; she was my friend, my confidante, my role model, an intellectual sparring partner, a surrogate mom, a bridge over troubled water, and a window to African-American history, which I wouldn’t have had, had it not been for her.

What Phyllis did for all of us was open a door, light a path, offer a pillow to people whose heads were too close to the rock. She helped everybody, not just African-American women. She helped African-American men. She had protégés who were Asian men and women, just people. Anyone who asked Phyllis for help, she was willing to help, and not the kind of help of, “I’ll write a recommendation but you have to sign the part that says you don’t get to see it.” Instead the kind of help that said, “What would you like me to write? What do you want?” She’d go out on a limb for you, and she’d do it again and again. Even if you disappointed her—and people did—she wouldn’t diss you. I never heard Phyllis say anything mean about anyone. Very often she’d say, “Let’s move on and change the subject.” That was your hint that she didn’t want to say anything ugly about somebody.

Bill Edgerly:

At State Street Bank, Phyllis was someone whom every State Street person knew was concerned for them. People thought of her as a role model. They looked to her for advice in matters having to do with their own careers. Phyllis will be remembered by all of us a colleague, a person of charm, dignity, integrity. This was one of the many roles she played in her life, and I can say from personal experience she played it with great distinction. She’ll be remembered by all of us who had contact with her, and we will think of her fondly as a colleague and as a friend.

Alan Shestack: All of us at the Museum of Fine Arts mourned the death of Phyllis Wallace. Some years ago, Phyllis was MIT’s designated trustee on our board, but she was later elected on her own merit, and throughout she served our institution with tremendous distinction. She devoted vast amounts of time and wisdom and experience, and contributed to the success of the museum in extraordinary ways. Although she always acted very quietly, with grace and a very light touch, and she was always mindful of the feelings and opinions of others, she was also firm and steadfast and single-minded in her devotion to the cause of democratizing the museum and making it available to all. One could say that in significant respects, Phyllis was the museum’s conscience.

Phyllis co-chaired our Standing Committee on New Connections. That was a name she made up. She concocted the title of the committee, and I love it for the way it implies the contact made with the organizations and segments of the community in Boston and the region. But that was her title, and it’s a committee that is now a very active, central committee on our Board of Trustees. In that role, as co-chairman of the New Connections Committee, at the time of her death she was hard at work developing new strategies to, on one hand, make the museum more sensitive to community needs, and on the other to reach out and engage a broader and more diverse audience.

Phyllis Wallace will be remembered through her many writings, which include Pathways to Work: Employment Among Black Teenage Females (1974), Equal Employment Opportunity and the AT&T Case (1975), Women, Minorities and Employment Discrimination (1977), Black Women in the Labor Force (1982), MBA’s on the Fast Track: The Career Mobility of Young Managers (1989), and Social Issues in Collective Bargaining 1950-1980: A Critical Assessment (reprinted, 2015)