I was a good student in high school, but I didn’t think about college, because no one in my family ever had. I grew up in a working-class Latino neighborhood outside of Los Angeles. My mother worked in a toy factory and my father as a farmhand, a railroad worker, and a Teamsters shop steward in a battery recycling plant. Our neighbors and friends did similar work, often in conditions that were dirty or unsafe.
One day, my school’s career counselor told me I wasn’t college material. He told me I was best suited for office work and suggested that I become a secretary.
It turns out, he was half right. I was suited to be a secretary, and I did become one: the United States Secretary of Labor.
If I could go back in time, I would have told my younger self not to let him—or anyone else—tell me my value. And I would have told young Hilda what I’ve since learned to be true: Women, especially minority women, often have to work twice as hard to get our fair shake.
I learned these lessons, as many women do, through life experience. Today in America, the average woman earns about 80 cents for every dollar earned by men doing comparable work, and the gap is even greater for minority women.
This means that each time the average woman starts a new job, she’s likely to start from a lower base salary. It also means that, over time, the pay gap between her and her male colleagues is likely to become wider and wider. It means $150 less in her weekly paycheck, $8,000 less at the end of the year, and $380,000 less over her lifetime. It also means reduced pensions and diminished Social Security benefits for millions of retired workers.
Pay discrimination is immoral, it’s illegal, and it victimizes entire families. Two-thirds of American families rely on a mother’s wages for a significant portion of their income, so lower pay not only means less economic security for women, but also for the children and spouses who depend on them.
That’s just wrong, and I’m proud to work for a President who is committed to doing something about it. While I can’t go back in time to deliver life lessons to my younger self, I’m fortunate to be able to use my position as a cabinet official in the Obama administration to help other young women know their worth.
The truth is, we’ll never close the gender pay gap unless women have the facts about their pay relative to men. So, last month, my department launched the Equal Pay App Challenge, a national competition to develop new apps and software to help women negotiate starting salaries, raises, and bonuses. We’re encouraging entrepreneurs (or anyone who’s tech-savvy) to use data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and other public sources to create new tools that will allow women to earn a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.
Our hope is that this challenge will inspire Americans to develop creative ways to provide support, information, and guidance to working women, so we can close the pay gap once and for all. If you have software development skills and believe in equal pay for equal work, I’d encourage you to check out our website.
Winners of the challenge will be eligible for five scholarships—including full tuition and housing costs—to participate in an immersive eight-week program in digital product innovation and entrepreneurship in New York City. There is also a $5,000 cash award being offered for a winner who wishes to sell their app to a non-profit organization that wants to broadly disseminate the technology.
We’ve come a long way since President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act in 1963. Back then, women earned only 59 cents on the dollar compared to men. It was President Kennedy who once famously said, “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”
For American women seeking the full promise of equality in the year 2012, that’s a lesson we must all remember.
For more in this series, check out: Lessons To My Younger Self
TopicsInspiring Women , The Gender Gap , Lessons to my Younger Self , Negotiation , Negotiation & Money
Secretary Hilda L. Solis has been the U.S. Secretary of Labor since February 24, 2009. She previously served four terms as a United States Congresswoman representing the 32nd congressional district of California and was the first Latina ever elected to the California state Senate.More from this Author