By Julia Marsh
Saturday, February 13, 2010
The Women's Bureau has gone for a year without a director but not without a leader, says the group's deputy director. She credits Labor Secretary Hilda Solis with helping connect female engineers with federally-funded green jobs.
WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)--Over a year after President Obama took office, the Women's Bureau in the Department of Labor appears to be getting closer to having a director.
Last fall Obama appointed Sara Manzano-Diaz, 55, to the position. An attorney from Philadelphia, she's worked in city, state and federal government for the past 20 years, most recently as the deputy secretary for regulatory programs for the Pennsylvania Department of State.
A Senate committee approved her nomination without hesitation on Dec. 10 and her name is on the calendar for full confirmation by the Senate.
In the meantime, the bureau, which turns 90 in June and is dedicated to improving the lot of wage-earning women, has been getting what Deputy Director Latifa Lyles calls a strong start under the bureau's chief, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.
Solis made a modest increase to the Women's Bureau budget, raising it from about $10.5 million in 2009 to about $11.5 million in 2010. This year she's requested that Congress approve another $1 million increase.
In 2009, Lyles said the bureau raised the profile of female veterans and worked to increase employment for women in areas like green jobs and nanotechnology through targeted programs.
Nanotechnology, engineering at the molecular level, is a growth industry that has led to new devices like the tiny iPod nano. Lyles, a former vice president of membership for the National Organization for Women, told Women's eNews that the bureau's $280,000 nanotechnology initiative, run out of one of the bureau's 10 regional offices, pairs female college students with mentors to attract more women to the male-dominated field.
At the urging of Solis, who chaired the bipartisan Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues when she was in Congress, the bureau also sponsored 50 seminars around the country on green jobs for female engineers and builders. With about 12 percent of the $787 billion in stimulus funds going to green industries, Solis directed the Women's Bureau to make sure women would benefit.
The bureau has arranged to publish a green jobs guide this fall that will help groups and individuals around the country go after stimulus funds.
Solis also worked to direct stimulus money specifically to under-represented groups, including women, in green industries. In November, the Labor Department announced $5.8 million in grants to train groups, including women, who are under-represented in green industries to obtain more work in the emerging sector.
Ariane Hegewisch, study director at the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit the Institute for Women's Policy Research, said the bureau was severely under-resourced during the Bush administration.
Hegewisch commended the Bush-era work of the bureau for advancing work and life balance issues for women. "They were not in favor of regulations, but they produced helpful guidelines," on topics like telecommuting and flexible scheduling, she said.
In the first year of the Obama administration, Hegewisch has noticed a "sea change" in the Women's Bureau's engagement with women's organizations. She said it has been working "around the clock" to assure that stimulus dollars are being equitably distributed to men and women.
Deborah Frett, president of the Business and Professional Women's Foundation, based in Washington, D.C., applauded the bureau's commitment over the past year to female veterans. She participated in one of many listening sessions the bureau conducted to address the challenges facing female veterans, such as homelessness and child care. Frett said the attention received by the sessions was significant since many female veterans don't even consider themselves veterans because they didn't have a combat role.
Frett said she's anxious, though, for director Manzano-Diaz to make her mark on the bureau.
"This past year has been tough," Frett said. "You can have the discussions, but if you really want to look at pushing things forward and making some changes that is not going to happen until the director gets confirmed."
As a member of the Secretary of Labor's cabinet and a political appointee, the director of the Women's Bureau has a "seat at the table" of an administration's policymaking, said Irasema Garza, who served as the director of the Women's Bureau during the Clinton administration and is currently the president of New-York based Legal Momentum, a women's legal advocacy group.
The Women's Bureau, which was founded in 1920, also operates as a research body and for at least 70 years has routinely gathered data about the female work force and published special reports.
The bureau's tailoring of general Bureau of Labor Statistics data to focus on female workers has declined over the last 10 to 30 years, said Lyles, though one of the current priorities is to restore the data.
During the Bush administration, the bureau not only stopped its surveys and data collection, it also withdrew research.
In 2004, the New York-based National Council for Research on Women found that the bureau had removed 25 publications on subjects such as domestic violence and workplace rights from its Web site between 1999 and 2004.
"If we don't have the data, oftentimes we aren't taken seriously," said Frett, whose Business and Professional Women's Foundation helped publish the council's report on the publications that were removed.
Instead, the site appeared to take a more business-friendly stance, offering handbooks on "Women Business Owners" and "Hot Jobs for the 21st Century."
In 2001 the bureau also drew the ire of women's advocacy groups when it proposed cutting 10 regional offices. The proposed slashing, marked "subject to change" in President Bush's budget, was dropped.
With the administrations of Presidents Nixon, Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the bureau's focus shifted from labor toward business under directors such as Dr. Lenora Cole Alexander, who partnered with private companies to push women into the management ranks.
During Alexander's tenure, from 1980 to 1990, working women saw their annual earnings increase by 11.4 percentage points to 62 cents to the dollar earned by their male counterparts, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Since 1990 the rate has only grown by another 5.5 percentage points. Today women's wages are 80 percent of men's wages.
Julia Marsh is a Washington, D.C.-based correspondent covering domestic and foreign affairs for a Japanese newspaper.
The National Council for Research on Women, 2004 report: