Study: Michigan Native women earn 60¢ on the dollar

Pay gap likely increased during pandemic

By: - September 20, 2021 3:23 am

Indigenous people support the Black Lives Matter protest against police brutality in Lansing, June 29, 2020 | Laina G. Stebbins

Indigenous women around the country are still facing the same annual wage gap that they did a decade ago, including in Michigan, according to a recent report issued by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR). 

The new data highlights the historic economic inequalities for Native American and Alaska Native women that remain just as prevalent today. The figures released this month use the most recent data from 2019, so the nonprofit notes that the reality is likely worse now that the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disproportionately impact women of color. 

In Michigan, Native women earned an average of $33,292 per year, in contrast with the average white man’s $55,000 in 2019. This comes to an annual earnings gap of $21,708, or a 60.5% earning rate — ranking Michigan the 11th worst out of 32 states.

The other 18 states excluded from the study and the District of Columbia did not have population sample sizes large enough to calculate the statistics.

The study stands out, as many reports examining equal pay exclude Native women.

In the United States, women of all races, on average, currently earn about 82 cents for every dollar paid to men. According to data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Black women earn 63 cents for every dollar, Asian-American and Pacific Islander women make 85 cents out of the dollar on average (although the wage gap varies greatly within this demographic), and Latinx women make 55 cents for every dollar earned by white men.

Holly T. Bird, a Traverse City-based Pueblo/Yaqui/Apache attorney and longtime Indigenous activist on the federal Task Force on Research on Violence Against American Indian and Alaska Native Women, told the Advance that she is all too familiar with the issue.

Holly T. Bird speaks at “Enbridge eviction” celebration, Conkling Park, Mackinaw City | Laina G. Stebbins

“As an Indigenous woman who’s been working in what was traditionally a male-dominated field … I have always been paid less than my white male co-workers,” Bird said.

While Bird was working as a judge for a tribe — she declined to specify which one — she said she eventually discovered that she was being paid $20,000 less than her white male co-worker.

“I think it is a form of discrimination, and I think it’s been very pervasive because we’re still working within a framework of male-dominated white supremacy,” she said.

Low earnings for Native women can be attributed to a number of systemic factors. Those include disproportionately lower union coverage, concentration in low-wage jobs, heightened presence of violence, limited health care and safety services access and more.

Michigan is one of 19 states examined where Native American or Alaska Native women are paid at least $20,000 less per year than white men.

Jason Oberle, superintendent of the Michigan Agency of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, did not provide comment to the Advance but forwarded the request for comment to the BIA’s federal office.

The state’s data lines up roughly with the average of all states examined. Nationally, Native women were paid about 60 cents to every $1 paid to white, non-Hispanic men in 2019, averaging about $24,000 less per year. The average median earnings for full-time Native women in 2019 was just $36,000.

New Mexico, which has a large Native American population, has the lowest earnings share for Native women out of the 32 states, with Native women making just 51.6% of white men’s earnings. California has the highest number of Native women but also has the largest gap in actual dollars between Native women and white men, with Native women averaging $37,220 less per year (just 52.4%).

The lowest annual median earnings for Native women in full-time, full-year jobs of any state are in Mississippi ($26,471), followed by Nebraska ($28,472) and South Dakota ($29,830).

The best two states in terms of pay equity for Native women are Alabama and Arkansas. Both states boast the highest average earnings for Native women compared with white men, and are the only two where that percentage is at or near 80% (80% and 79.2%, respectively).

The IWPR notes that there has not been much progress toward closing the gap nationally over the last decade. Although the percentage dipped down steadily to about 58% from 2011 to 2015, then back down to that level in 2017 and 2018, the percentage of a Native woman’s earnings compared to a white man’s in 2019 is exactly the same as it was in 2009 at 60%.

Pay gap for Native American women | Institute for Women’s Policy Research graphic

“These lower earnings made it particularly difficult for Native women and their families to weather a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic and its related ‘she-cession,’” the study reads, noting that well over one-third of Native households with children are headed by single mothers and and over one-quarter of married mothers contribute at least 40% of household income.

“The gender pay gap for Native women takes a devastating toll not only on today’s workers but also on future generations — with few signs of improvement,” researchers write.

Aside from simply being paid less than her white male peers, Bird also ran into other issues as the first female attorney at a small Chicago-area law firm. No maternity policy was in place and Bird eventually won a discrimination lawsuit against the company as a result of her employment being terminated shortly after she became pregnant.

“I’ve experienced it firsthand, and I know many, many women that have, as well,” Bird said.

Bird said that supporting single mothers, opening up educational opportunities to Indigenous women, bringing more women into the workplace and giving more women positions of leadership would all work to address the root causes of the economic inequities at play.

The IWPR also points to equity-focused policies to address these problems by tackling the root of the pay gap, such as ensuring all workers have access to living wages, paid leave, health care, childcare and elder care.

The report’s release coincided with Native Women’s Equal Pay Day, or the day Native women must work (on average) into the new year to earn what their white male counterparts earned in the previous year. Essentially, Native women need to work eight additional months to earn what their male counterparts do.

New data for 2020 will be released this fall.


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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).