Opinion: Representation Matters in Women’s Fight for Equity

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Despite an increasing nationwide pattern of disrespect toward women, we’re making some progress. But not enough.

Original Posted in The Mercury News

As a young girl in San José, I regularly woke to my mother screaming at night, haunted by her childhood memories. My mother was an immigrant, orphaned at 11 years old in her native Brazil when she watched her mother, my grandmother, die of a self-induced abortion.

My mother was shaped by witnessing what happens when inhumane lawmakers disrespect and disenfranchise women and restrict access to reproductive health care. Indifference killed my grandmother, who lived in poverty and tried to make life better for her four daughters.

That was 1936, in Brazil. Another country in another time. Right?

Fast forward 30 years to 1987. I sat second chair as part of the legal team that argued Johnson v. Transportation Agency before the U.S. Supreme Court. As a lawyer in the Santa Clara County Counsel’s office I had tried the case, defending a woman who agency supervisors didn’t want to hire because she was seen as a “rebel-rousing skirt-wearing” troublemaker for advancing the cause of female representation in the workplace. We argued before Sandra Day O’Connor – the first woman ever to sit on the Supreme Court. We won.

Yet, even in that precedent-setting victory, the case I had tried was argued by a man. It is one of many times that tireless behind-the-scenes work has been discounted because the work was done by a young woman.

Again, that was then and this is now. It would not happen now, right?

Wrong. Today, I am again fighting for women in the workplace as one of the lead counsels in a case to hold Silicon Valley companies accountable to shareholders for their actions around sexual misconduct and retaliation against female employees. The failure of an almost all-male board to protect those who work for them against abuses by those at the highest level is unconscionable.

Sure, despite an increasing nationwide pattern of disrespect and indifference toward women, we’re making some progress. But not enough.

Here in Santa Clara County, it took until 2018 for the Board of Supervisors to ensure that rape kits are tested – despite the fact that cases of sexual assault were on the rise. Yes, the Board finally took a commonsense step forward. But tens of thousands of survivors and victims likely went without justice. That’s not good enough.

At the state level, Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, looking to address increasing allegations of sexual misconduct by those in power, learned that California’s publicly held companies were far behind their Fortune 500 competitors when it comes to the number of women on their boards. So she wrote legislation making California the first state to require female representation on boards. It took a fight for the bill to become law. Currently, a man on an all-male corporate board is suing to overturn it.

No matter the time, no matter the place, we are reminded that equal representation matters. If we have no voice, our needs will not be addressed.

We must speak out. In 2020, I resolve to continue fighting for:

• Guaranteed coverage for a full range of reproductive health services, so no woman has to make the choice my grandmother did.

• Enforcement of equal pay laws, so every Californian is paid what they are due.

• Strengthened sexual harassment and retaliation laws, so no person feels unsafe in the workplace or online.

• An end to pregnancy discrimination in the workplace.

• Expanded parental leave and access to affordable quality childcare, so families have a fair shot.

• Increased female representation in government, on boards, in C-level jobs.

I am calling on everyone – men and women – to join the fight for equity. I hope you’ll join us.

Ann Ravel is the former chair of the Federal Election Commission, former Santa Clara County Counsel and former chair of the Fair Political Practices Commission in California. She is a candidate for 15th District seat in the California Senate.

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