Lauren E. Miller is a Community Violence Clinical Advocate at Center on Halsted, and a member of Women Employed’s volunteer activist group, the Advocacy Council. Read below for her perspective on how the issues of Native American working women can be better elevated in the gender equity movement.
Originally published in September 2017, updated and re-released in September 2021.
Recently, I received a notice via Twitter that read “September 8th is Native American Women’s Equal Pay Day.” Oscillating between both surprise and fascination, I immediately clicked on the hyperlink which stated that Native women are paid approximately 60 cents for every dollar paid to a white man.
As a working woman in the USA, I know that generally women across the US earn 82 cents to every dollar men earn. I know as an African-American that African-American woman earn 63 cents to every dollar white males earn. However, I am also a person of Native heritage (Mvskoke in case you’re wondering). I’ve worked for a Native-run agency, and I devote a lot of my free time volunteering for Native-run programs and events held within the community. Yet, until this tweet, I regret to say that I never thought specifically about Native women’s earnings in relation to our country’s labor force.
Being the deductive and inductive geek that I am, I immediately went to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to see what information exists. Sadly, I found a dearth of data specific to Native women. Though, to be clear, there is very little information from the BLS in general on women of color in the US labor force. With the ending of the Obama-era equal pay data collection rule, which at least required businesses with over 100 employees to collect pay data by gender, race and ethnicity, it is fair to assume that even the present small amount of information on Native women, women of color, and women in general, will continue to be insufficient.
What information does exist on women of color tends to focus on African-American, Asian-American, and Latinas/Hispanic women (in that order). All that I could find on Native people (let alone Native women) was :1) American Indians and Alaska Natives make up 1 percent of the labor force, while white workers make up the majority of the labor force (77 percent); 2) in 2019, the overall unemployment rate for the United States was 3.7 percent; however, the rate varied across race and ethnicity groups, with the rate being highest for two groups, American Indians and Alaska Natives and Black or African Americans (6.1 percent) and 3) the majority of data on Native women’s labor force participation and earnings has been aggregated into other cultural groups’, such as Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders, and relegated to the “other” category. This is no exaggeration! In fact, here is a direct quote from the BLS Labor force characteristics by race and ethnicity, 2019:
Estimates for American Indians and Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians and Other Pacific Islanders, and people of Two or More Races are not shown separately in all tables because the number of survey respondents is too small to develop estimates of publication quality.
Wait — how is this possible and why? After all, American Indians and Alaska Natives make up 2 percent of the U.S. population, which is about 5.2 million men and women. According to the National Women’s Law Center the wage gap that Native American women face doesn’t just impact them; it also has damaging implications for their families. Native people face disproportionate rates of unemployment, poverty , and violence as well as limited access to education, and women tend to bear the brunt of discrimination. Additionally, Native women earn less than Native men (who in turn have a pay gap compared with other men).
I decided to speak to Ms. Pamala Silas, a Native woman who is both Menominee and Oneida, to understand the what’s, why’s, and how’s in the information — or lack thereof — -available on Native working women in America. Ms. Silas has a degree in Commerce and Economics and is the former executive director of the National American Indian Housing Council.
On why there is so little data on Native women’s contribution to the labor force, Ms. Silas had this to say: “When it comes to collecting any form of data and statistics on Native women, we are often relegated to the ‘other’ category because our issues are often viewed as relics of the past.”
Also of note is the importance of collar counties, which are those that border the most populous counties in a given state like Illinois. According to Ms. Silas, most Native people live in collar counties, which makes it especially important that researchers include those areas when collecting data.
“Researchers often neglect or just are not aware of this,” she says. “As a result, the Native voice(s) are left out of the data collection. So, we become a part of the ‘other’ category.”
I asked Ms. Silas if within her career, she had experienced or witnessed gender pay discrepancies towards Native women, and she answered yes to both.
“I have run many national non-profit organizations and the first thing I always have had to do is revise a fair wage and salary scale for employees. After doing this, what I often discovered is that there are discrepancies between male and female wages, with women usually earning lower wages.”
So how do we as a society begin to close this wage gap for women, while making sure to also focus on Native women who are so often left out of the conversation? Ms. Silas says the solution must involve Native women ourselves.
“One of the main barriers I have witnessed in my professional career that keeps Native women from advancing within the labor force and economically, is how we constantly underestimate ourselves. We do not always advocate for ourselves, and I think this is often rooted in culture. By culture, I mean we are drawn to the work we do because we are passionate about our community. However, because of the cultural link, we often place money and our own professional values as secondary. This can’t be the case in a career.”
In order for Native women to start closing the wage gap, we need to insist that a fair wage and salary scale is used by our employers, and that partly depends on enough market research being collected and applied. Ms. Silas also recommends Native women take classes or speak with a career coach in order to learn how to become effective salary negotiations. “Overall, Native women need to learn to become a powerful advocate for themselves!”
Ms. Silas’s words ring true. Whether one is Native or from another group, the only way any wage gap will be closed is with a combination of self-advocacy, advocacy from internal and external groups and individuals, laws, and coming together as a coalition for change. Native women’s equal pay issues, African Americans’ equal pay issues, Latina equal pay issues, are all people’s equal pay issues. I truly hope one day we have a world where this is eminently clear to all.
Lauren E. Miller has a Masters of Social Work from The University of Chicago and a Masters in Gender, Rights and Development Studies from the University of Glasgow, Scotland, UK.