Closing The Gap

Sharice Davids: To close the pay gap for Native American women, pass the Paycheck Fairness Act

Democratic candidate for Kansas's 3rd Congressional District Sharice Davids, is greeted by supporters during a rally at a field office on November 5, 2018 in Overland Park, Kansas.
Whitney Curtis | Getty Images News | Getty Images

This year, April 2 marked Equal Pay Day, the symbolic date to which the average American woman has to work each year to earn the same pay her male peers earned the previous year.

But April's Equal Pay Day is representative of the total pay gap, which widens when broken down by race. This year, Native American women achieve symbolic pay parity on September 23rd — on average, they must work nine additional months into the new year before they reach the same pay white men earned the previous year. Black women reached equal pay this year on August 22nd, while Latina women won't achieve parity until November 20th.

Currently, the average Native American woman earns $0.58 to every dollar earned by her white male peers. Over a 40-year career span, this equates to $977,720 in lost wages, according to the National Women's Law Center. For women in some communities, like the Tohono O'odham Nation, this pay gap is even larger — they earn just 46.5% of what white men earn.

Sharice Davids gives her victory speech after winning the state's 3rd congressional district race on November 6, 2018, at her watch party in Olathe, Kan.
Kansas City Star | Tribune News Service | Getty Images

Rep. Sharice Davids tells CNBC Make It that there are many reasons the pay gap Native American women face doesn't always receive the attention it deserves, including "people not necessarily understanding the history of indigenous people in this country."

Davids, a democrat, is the U.S. Representative from Kansas's 3rd congressional district. She says that although "indigenous people were stewards of this land for a long time before anybody else was here," today, after hundreds of years, "there are so few native people as it relates to the proportion of folks in this country."

Jasmine Tucker, director of research at NWLC, says that one of the challenges in bringing attention to the pay gap is the lack of data available about Native American women in the labor force. Today, they make up just 0.33% of the U.S. workforce.

"There were a lot of tribes where we couldn't publish any data because we didn't feel comfortable with the number of folks who were talked to by the census to really make an estimate," says Tucker, who oversaw the development of the NWLC's fact sheet about Native American women and equal pay.

The NWLC found that Native American women disproportionately hold low-wage jobs and are underrepresented in high-wage jobs. Currently, Native American women make up 0.61% of the low-wage workforce and 0.15% of the high-wage workforce. Secretaries, administrative assistants, office clerks and receptionists are common occupations for Native women. In these roles, they earn an average $15.63 per hour. Their white male counterparts earn an average $19.23 per hour.

Democratic candidate for Kansas' 3rd Congressional District Sharice Davids (L) and her mother, Crystal Herriage, celebrate with supporters during an election night party on November 6, 2018 in Olathe, Kansas. Davids defeated incumbent Republican Kevin Yoder. 
Whitney Curtis | Getty Images

Among those who hold high-wage roles, such as lawyers, engineers and physicians, NWLC found that Native American women are typically paid $0.59 for every dollar earned by their white, male peers.

"What we were trying to do with our fact sheet is bust this myth that women make choices that force them into lower-paying situations," says Tucker, who says that even when Native American women obtain advanced education or go into the high-paying roles, "there is still a wage gap that can't be explained by anything other than sexism and racism."

Rep. Davids, who made history last year as one of the first Native American woman elected to Congress alongside Rep. Deb Haaland, says that from a policy standpoint, there are a lot of things that can be done to close the pay gap Native American and other women face. "The Paycheck Fairness Act that the House passed is going to be a big step towards addressing the gender pay gap."

The bill, which was first introduced to Congress in 1997 by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), ensures that men and women receive equal pay for equal work. In March, the act was passed by the House. Now, it's waiting to get passed by the Senate.

"I think having a good policy in place with the intention towards making sure that it's equal across the board regardless if you're a white woman, a black woman, a Native American woman or a Latina woman is important," says Davids. "But we can't get there without everybody recognizing that it's a problem."

She's hopeful that the newest members of Congress will bring more attention to the pay gap.

"Having this historic class of women who are diverse in experience, and race and religion [in Congress] will help get us to a place where when we pass a Paycheck Fairness Act, it really acknowledges the disparities that still exists."

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