By Mariella Hernandez
I have been employed since I graduated from college. Even through the birth of my two children, I have continued to work, for pay, full time for over 15 years. Working in the healthcare industry I thought that “workplace equity” was not an issue for me. After all, I was surrounded by women who managed to balance careers and personal lives. I constantly faced the challenge of managing the ever-elusive work/life balance, but I never thought that I was being disadvantaged by virtue of being female. I was wrong. Being a woman impacted my professional advancement: I was not valued or compensated equitably; I did not have someone in my corner pushing for me, nor pushing me to assert myself to rectify this situation.
Seeking a career change, I enrolled in the Clinton School of Public Service. There, I was part of a team looking at working conditions for women and men in the state of Arkansas and how workplace equity could be improved. While conducting this study, I heard many of the same challenges that have affected me through my professional life and saw that they affect women disproportionately. In Arkansas, white women earn 77 cents per dollar when compared to white males, this is in keeping with the national average of 79.6 cents. Being a Hispanic woman, I was in the category of women who on average earn only 53 cents to the dollar in the state. Prior to this work, I was unaware that being a Hispanic woman affects my earning possibilities so profoundly.
The Women’s Foundation of Arkansas (WFA) research team (L to R): Mariella Hernandez, Christine McCall, Anna Beth Gorman (director WFA), Starre Hass, and Dylan Edgell.
Flexibility also emerged as an important aspect for women looking for employment. I can attest to its importance as I recall using all my vacation time for days when my children’s school was closed, because I had no other options for childcare. My perceptions about work equity began to shift as I conducted the study; I had not considered how women, more often than men, are affected by these family obligations. I had not realized how many women I know that have taken time off for their children’s early years and then are unable to go back to the same employment status, women who accept part-time positions entirely unrelated to their career field just for the convenience of the hours, or women who cannot return to work at all.
Women in the workplace are also affected by unwanted advances, and again, this was also part of my working experience with advances ranging from inappropriate emails, lewd suggestions, and whispers in my ear. In addition, the research shows that women do not enjoy the same networking advantages as their male peers and are often denied this tool of professional advancement. This not only made it challenging to do my job, but it also impacted my long-term career advancement and earnings.
Earlier, I said that I was surrounded by women at work, and while this is true for ‘pink collar jobs’ (i.e. nurses, teachers, technicians) and middle management, women dwindle in top leadership positions. I am lucky to have worked at an institution in which the top leader was female, but this is not enough to bridge the gap in workplace gender inequity. This is reflected by the fact that in Arkansas, median earnings for women are approximately $10,000 less than for men according to the Economic Indicators for Women in Arkansas report from the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas, even after factoring in education, years of experience, and workplace responsibilities. As part of the study, we created a scorecard to help businesses be more equitable. I hope it also serves as a tool for employees looking for places to work that value female talent and work to attract and retain it.
Recognizing workplace inequalities has had a profound impact on me. Understanding my worth and what I value has opened my eyes to what I want and need in the workplace: flexibility, a professional network, and a place that values my work and compensates me accordingly. Through this process, I have also learned what I can do for others by becoming a mentor and sharing the findings of our research, particularly for young women entering the workforce and informing industry leaders, so they can become aware of the barriers that women face and move to a more equitable workplace environment.
The see the research Mariella references in the piece, see “Economic Indicators for Women in Arkansas: State, Region and County.” For additional tools to create vibrant, healthy workplaces, see the B.A. Rudolph Foundation’s White Paper & Fact Sheet on sexual harassment in the workplace “Rise Up.”
Mariella Hernandez, of Guayaquil, Ecuador, is a Master of Public Service candidate at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service. Mariella is a Donaghey Scholar and graduated cum laude from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, where she obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Studies. Mariella is passionate about reducing health inequities by addressing the social determinants of health disparities and hopes to make contributions in this field upon graduation.