Jaime Gloshay grew up on the Navajo and White Mountain Apache reservations, and experienced firsthand the effects of poverty in Indigenous communities. Determined to be a cycle breaker, she followed the advice of her family and mentors to go to college, eventually earning a master’s degree and a job at a community development financial institution, with access to $30 million in loans for Indigenous entrepreneurs.

“I started to grow in my role and do more than just be a loan officer, but also design, programming, and deciding how we were going to support the entrepreneurs in the lending process,” she recalls. “As I was looking at the economic inequities that they were experiencing, I realized I was making a poverty wage myself, according to MIT's living wage calculator. That was pretty sobering.”

Her experience is not uncommon. Native women face one of the largest pay disparities of any group in the U.S., due to a legacy of racism and sexism that persists into the present day, says Sarah Javaid, a research analyst at the National Women’s Law Center.

In 2022, according to the most recent data available, Native women who worked full-time, year-round were typically paid just 59 cents for every dollar paid to White, non-Hispanic men. Broken down by Tribal nations, some Native women are paid even less. It would take almost a full additional year of work for Native women to catch up on earnings, but their Equal Pay Day is observed on November 30, the last day of Native American Heritage Month.

The gap continues even as Native women climb the educational ladder. Native women with a bachelor’s degree earn less than White, non-Hispanic men with some college—but no degree. They need to earn a master’s degree to be paid more than White, non-Hispanic men with an associate’s degree, according to NWLC data.

Over the course of a 40-year career, that disparity adds up to a massive wealth gap. Native women working full-time with a professional degree stand to lose nearly $3 million.

“It really goes to show that for a lot of women, it's not about how hard you work, or what prestigious occupation you choose, or what level of education you get,” Javaid says. “They are just continuously being cheated by the wage gap.”

Why Pay Disparities Persist for Native Women

There are a number of reasons why Native women continue to earn less than their White peers—many of them rooted in “the historical oppression and economic exclusion that Indigenous people have essentially faced for 500+ years since the colonization of this country,” says Gloshay, who now works as the managing director of impact investments at Common Future, an economic justice nonprofit.

In the United States, Indigenous peoples were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands and relocated to reservations in remote areas. Today, only 13 percent of Native Americans live on reservations, and finding specialized jobs on or near a reservation is challenging. It often forces Native women to make an agonizing choice between seeking economic security elsewhere or preserving their family ties and cultural traditions, and those who move away leave behind a community of support.

Caregiving responsibilities are also a big driver of the wage gap for Native women, just as it is for women overall. Native women have traditionally cared for multiple generations at once, and 64% of Native mothers are breadwinners in their families. The weight of these responsibilities makes it more challenging to jump from job to job in pursuit of better pay and benefits.

One consequence is that Native women are disproportionately represented in the low-paid workforce. In 2022, 38% of Native women were employed in one of 10 low-paid occupations. The most common occupation for Native women is cashiers and retail salespersons. They were also paid less than White, non-Hispanic men working full time, year-round in the same job—illustrating that racism, sexism, and a lack of workplace protections still play a big role in perpetuating the wage gap.

What Company Leaders Can Do

“We have the power to ensure that women of color are financially secure and that they're being paid equitably,” Javaid says. There are a few key steps that will help make that happen, Javaid and Gloshay say.

  • Examine your pay policies. Conduct a compensation audit to ensure all employees are paid equally and fairly. “It needs to be a thriving wage where women are not just financially scraping by to put food on the table or pay their rent,” Javaid says. This is particularly important for women of color, since they are disproportionately represented in low-paid work.
  • Promote pay transparency. Dismantle a culture of secrecy and fear around discussing wages. There are now 10 states with pay transparency laws on the books, requiring employers to disclose salary information to job candidates and current employees. Similar legislation has been introduced at the federal level.
  • Don’t ask about salary history. “All that does is perpetuate the wage gap and the underpayment and undervaluing of women of color,” Javaid says.
  • Support caregivers. From flexible work policies to caregiver stipends, Gloshay says leaders should enact policies that enables Native women “to show up as the mothers that we are, as the daughters that we are, as the matriarchs that we are, and ensures that we can continue to care for our communities, our families and our cultures.”
  • Advocate for a stronger safety net. “I think it's really important that we recognize that income security doesn't just have to do with money,” Javaid says. “It's about nutrition. It's about quality housing. It's about good health, physical and mental. It's about access to education. It's about access to retirement. It's so much more than just what women are taking home in their paycheck, and by underinvesting in public benefits and workplace protections, we're perpetuating a lifetime of problems for women of color.”