As Native American History month draws to a close, November 30th is Native Women’s Equal Pay Day – a day that highlights the vast pay gap that Native women face compared to white men. Native women must work nearly twice as long as white men to earn the same amount. The impacts of the United States’ history of native genocide, displacement, and persecution are still prevalent today, and ongoing systemic failures and neglect mean that Native women continue to face the consequential brunt of both anti-native sentiment and misogyny. As a result of generations of state-sanctioned violence and poverty, Native women are among the country’s lowest wage earners.

According to IWPR’s analysis, as of 2021, Native women were paid just 51.4 cents for every dollar earned by white men. This 48.6 percent wage gap results in Native women earning $25,253 less than white men in a year. The calculation includes anyone with earnings, whether they work full-time, part-time, or part-year. Because of care responsibilities and unpaid work, women are less able to do full-time year round paid work than men. But the wage gap narrows slightly when only those who can work full-time year-round are included, to a wage gap of 43.2 percent (an earnings ratio of 56.8 percent). Native women are not a monolith, and wage gaps vary across Native communities, meaning the wage gap can be even larger and more harmful.

IWPR’s analysis of the most recent state data available (2016-2020) shows that Native women earned less than White men in each of the 40 states with sufficient data, and that in 11 of these states, they earned not even half of what White men made. The two worst states are Minnesota and California, with earnings ratios of 43.1 and 43.5 percent respectively.

Numerous factors contribute to and result from the pay gap for Native women. Underfunded schools, generational poverty, and overrepresentation in low-wage jobs with little to no workplace protections are a few factors that contribute to this crisis. Economic opportunities are especially restricted for the one in five Native women who reside on reservations. Native women are also particularly unlikely to have union protection. While unions cover 11.5 percent of all women, only 5.8 percent of Native women are represented by unions. The issues of workplace discrimination and the absence of workplace protections add to the cycle of poverty and disenfranchisement that Native communities face.

Additionally, Native women face heightened levels of violence. More than four in five Native women experience intimate partner violence, sexual violence, or stalking. Such violence is devastating and destabilizing with harmful consequences both at the individual and community levels; for example, making it difficult for women to support themselves and further exacerbating the wage gap. Furthermore, healthcare services on reservations are underfunded and inadequate. Almost one-in-four (23%) of Native women lack health insurance; this is more than three times as high as the share of White women (7%) who are uninsured.

Native women face the consequential cascade effect of numerous neglected issue areas. The harsh reality of systemic unequal pay has dire impacts on Native families. More than a third of Native households with children depend financially on single mothers.

We must work tirelessly to reverse the violence and damage enacted by the U.S. government on Native communities, specifically on Native women. Policy interventions must be multifaceted and intersectional, as women of different tribes and regions have varying experiences. Above all, policies must center the lived experiences of Native women, and policymakers must take the time to hear and learn from Native communities.  Overarchingly, policy interventions should include the following steps, which would benefit Native women and other workers from historically marginalized groups:

  • Workplace policies and protections: policymakers at the federal and state levels must prioritize legislative solutions that would help to close the pay gap for Native women. These include increasing the minimum wage, ensuring paid and sick leave, addressing discrimination, and enforcing adequate protections.
  • Childcare: policymakers must prioritize legislative solutions to make quality childcare universal and affordable. More than one-third of Native households are financially reliant on single mothers. Quality and accessible childcare allows parents to do paid work and invests in the next generation.
  • Education: Investing in education in Native communities is fundamental to student retention and increased graduation rates. By increasing investment in education, Native women will have a fighting chance to access higher-paying jobs.
  • Addressing additional factors that harm Native women’s economic wellbeing and ability to fully participate in the economy. This includes issues like intimate partner violence, which is particularly pervasive within the Native communities, and requires specific, expert interventions. It also includes ensuring access to affordable and quality healthcare.