Hilda Solís, born to immigrant parents in Los Angeles, has managed to push the limits in the predominantly male world of politics.
She began working in the Carter Administration before joining the California State Assembly. In 1994, she was the first Hispanic woman to be elected to the California Senate, and as a Senate member, she tried to improve the lives of people by pushing for changes in education and health care. Today, she is a member of the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors.
Throughout her career, including a stint as Secretary of Labor for President Barack Obama, Solís has been passionate about the issue of gender discrimination in the workplace.
“I entered public life to improve opportunities for women like me,” says Solís. “I grew up in an era when graduating from high school was an accomplishment, and the expectations of young women were low–especially for women of color”.
California’s recently enacted Fair Pay Act is an attempt to close the salary gap between men and women. Signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown on October 6, it aims to ensure that men and women who perform similar work receive equal pay. It also allows employees to discuss their wages without fear of employer retaliation.
Gender discrimination, both in earnings and in hiring, still persists. While women currently make up 57 percent of the American workforce, they still struggle to earn the same pay as their male colleagues. Women have made progress in some industries, yet growth is much slower or non-existent in others.
77 cents on the dollar
According to the Pew Research Center, women earn about 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man in the same position. In the past 30 years, the wage gap has only narrowed by 13 cents. While the gap varies in different parts of the country, and by age and race, at the current rate of improvement, women won’t earn the same wages as men until 2058.
Statistics show women of color are at an even greater disadvantage. Latinas currently make 56 cents to the dollar, while blacks earn 66 cents to the dollar. For immigrant women, the picture is even bleaker.
Surina Khan, CEO of the Women’s Foundation of California, has worked 20 years for the advancement of women. The non-profit organization, along with a coalition of supporters, is backing several policies to address the gender wage gap.
“The way to close the wage gap is to address issues around workplace discrimination; things like retaliation against workers that talk about pay,” says Khan. “That’s called pay secrecy, and it prevents workers from knowing about pay disparities. Another thing we can do is to encourage issues like increasing the minimum wage. Raising the wage is very important, as well as making sure it’s equitable across gender.”
Women are paid less for many reasons. Studies show that women are more likely to take time off from work to take care of family members, causing them to lag in hours worked and overall experience.
Many employers also continue to place more value on the work ethic of a male employee. One of the biggest factors is that a large number of women continue to work at lower paying occupations.
“When women start at a disadvantage, they stay at a disadvantage. Every time a woman starts a new job or tries to negotiate for a pay raise, she is starting from a lower base salary,” says Solís.
According to the Labor Department, the pay gap means that the average working woman gets $150 less in her weekly paycheck than a man in the same job. If a woman works all year, she makes almost $8,000 less a year than a man and approximately $380,000 over a lifetime.
Khan says wage inequity is the major example of discrimination across gender. In addition, women are underrepresented in nearly every industry and in leadership positions.
“Women make up almost half of the U.S. workforce, but only 5 percent are CEOs,” says Khan. “We only hold 17 percent of corporate board seats. Only 20 percent of women make up the U.S. Senate, 17 percent of the House of Representatives, 18 percent of Congress, 12 percent of mayors, 10 percent of governors, and 4.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs,” says Khan.
Hollywood: a boy’s club?
Recently, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California has claimed that one of the biggest industries in Los Angeles has some of the worst discrimination. The ACLU says that Hollywood, with all its glamour, is very biased against women and asked regulators to investigate hiring practices. A recent San Diego State University study, meanwhile, found that less than 2 percent of directors of the top grossing films in 2013 and 2014 were female.
Diana Rodríguez, CEO for Criteria Entertainment, believed that she was very lucky when she first began to work for the music and marketing industry. The Colombian-born immigrant says that, “It was really hard to be a radio promoter in a field that was pretty much surrounded by guys, because for them it was just weird to have a girl be a promoter as well.”
Rodríguez managed to move up the ranks and then start her own company. It’s for that reason that she mentors young women from Boyle Heights and other low-income communities.
Rodríguez says it’s especially important for women to support one another in the workplace. “With time and age you understand you are only as strong as the team around you, and together you can definitely make more noise than individually,” she says.
While women struggle for equality in the workplace, it is not due to the lack of education. Over the past 50 years, there has been an increase in the rate of women attending college. According to the White House Council of Economic Advisers, today women are 21 percent more likely to graduate college than men and are 48 percent more likely to gain an advanced degree.
The numbers are troubling for young women who are currently in college or new to the workforce, as well as to older, less educated and immigrant women, for whom wage discrimination can be even worse.
“Being a woman of color, I will receive less money than the white female, who already receives less than the male,” says Emily Mayoral, 19, a graduate of Bravo Medical Magnet High School. “The wage gap is not in my favor.” She now attends St. Catherine University and is majoring in exercise science.
Immigrants tend to face bigger obstacles due to language barriers and sometimes their undocumented status. These issues limit access to education and job training. “You’re compounding on top of gender discrimination, race discrimination, ” said Khan, noting that that leads to even more disadvantages for immigrant women.
Despite the overall pay inequality, some fields offer more opportunities for women, and some even pay women more than males. Surprisingly, these better wages are sometimes found in predominantly male-oriented fields, such as investment banking and construction work.
For women who have managed to succeed, despite the odds, it is largely due to perseverance, dedication, and hard work.
“My advice to women of color entering the workforce is to pursue a college degree,” says Solís. “Always remember where you came from and believe in your bright future. Work hard and you’ll reap the benefits of your hard work. Consider a life in public service. Giving back to your community is as important as earning a top salary.”