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Progress of Hispanic Women Slowed by Economic Downturn, But Ascent Continues

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Widespread progress for Hispanic women in America was slow to begin, but it has been quick to accelerate.

It took until 1992, for instance, for the first Hispanic woman to be elected to Congress. Today there are six. And from 1970 to 2007, the share of Hispanic women in the workforce rose from 40 percent to 54 percent.

There's still a long way to go. After all, there are 535 members of Congress, and Hispanic women remain the lowest-paid group in America. What's more, the down economy over the past couple years has served to slow the speed of progress.

But in the long view, the steady ascent of Hispanic women in America continues.

Every April, HispanicBusiness Magazine tracks this progress, and recognizes the strides made by some of this nation's outstanding Hispanic women.

This year's Woman of the Year, Thelma Melendez de Santa Ana, is among the nation's highest-ranking education officials. As the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education, Ms. Melendez is the chief adviser to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan on all matters related to preschool, elementary and secondary education. In 2009, she was named California's Superintendent of the year.

She refers to her career as an "occu-passion."

"I never in my life would have imagined I'd be here," she told HispanicBusiness Magazine. "I feel a deep sense of respect for the opportunity that the president and secretary have given me."

The goal of this issue is not necessarily to highlight the achievements of the most widely recognized Hispanic women, such as Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, whose Senate confirmation to the bench last year triggered a frenzy of media attention.

Rather, the idea is to also spotlight some of the unsung heroes -- the Hispanic women whose tremendous achievements belie their relatively low profile.

In addition to Ms. Melendez, the other finalists this year were Alicia Abella, the executive director of the innovative services research department at AT&T; Ignacia S. Moreno, assistant U.S. attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division; Carmen Nazario, Assistant Secretary for Children and Families with the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services; and Carmen Ortiz, U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts.

Through the prism of the lasting economic slump, the rise of Hispanic women in America has been tempered. Unemployment among Hispanic women hit a troubling peak in April of 2009, nearing 13 percent -- up from about 7 percent in 2000 -- though it has since settled back to about 11 percent, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research.

Suffering even more on this measure are Hispanic men, whose unemployment rate surpassed that of Hispanic women for the first time in December of 2007. It remains higher today, at 13.9 percent.

"More and more families are relying on the earnings of women," Jeffrey Hayes, senior research associate with the institute, told HispanicBusiness Magazine. "It's not just supplementary income anymore."

Undeniably, it's been a tough couple of years.

Still, despite the setbacks, the milestones among Hispanic women pioneers are becoming more and more frequent.

They include the first astronaut (1993), the first president of Purdue University (2007), the first leader of a California State University campus (2007), the first U.S. Labor Secretary (2009), and, most famously, the first U.S. Supreme Court justice (2009).

These women are the bellwethers for the future success of others. On a widespread scale, there is still a lot of catching up to do.

In 2008, the median weekly earnings of Hispanic women ($501) was surpassed by that of women of all other races: Asian ($753), white ($654) and blacks ($554), according to a July report by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Also, among women, Hispanics in 2008 were less likely than all other groups to be employed in management or professional jobs, at 24 percent. This is behind Asian women (46 percent), white women (41 percent) and black women (31 percent).

But the 24 percent among Hispanic women represents an increase, from 20 percent a decade ago.

This year's finalists were chosen from a field of 20 remarkable contenders, whom were selected and surveyed by HispanTelligence, the research arm of HispanicBusiness Media.

In this year's survey, about half of the respondents hold an advanced degree; another quarter holds a college degree.

This impressive statistic coincides with how Hispanic women across the nation have made steady gains in education.

Between 1998 and 2008, the share of female Hispanics age 25 and older who have experienced at least four years of college increased from 11.3 percent to 15.5 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

One organization seeking to boost the academic performance of both genders is the Hispanic Women's Corporation, which every year grants scholarships to dozens of Hispanic youth.

The organization often seeks out students who could be considered at risk.

"It's real easy to go after the cream of the crop and say, 'they are wonderful'
-- and they are -- but on the other hand it's also important not to forget the ones that are always forgotten," Linda Mazon Gutierrez, the organization's president and CEO, told HispanicBusiness Magazine.

For instance, one recent scholarship recipient was the daughter of farm workers, who did her homework at night by the light of a propane lamp in a run-down trailer with no electricity. The high school girl from rural Arizona went on to earn her degree in kinesiology, and now works in the area of physical therapy.

This year's HispanTelligence survey also provides a glimpse into the lingering problem of discrimination.

Three quarters of the respondents said they have faced workplace discrimination based on gender. About a third said they've felt discrimination based on race.

"Being Hispanic and a woman, you do have to be twice as good," said Ms. Ortiz, U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts.

As such, the role of diversity and affirmative action programs remains vital. Three quarters of this year's respondents say they have benefited from such initiatives.

Among them is Millie Garcia, California's first female Hispanic president of a California State University campus. For her, the savior was the de-segregation movement of the late 1960s.

Ms. Garcia, president of CSU's Dominguez Hills campus, was raised in a Brooklyn tenement surrounded by factories, where her parents worked. Newly drawn boundary lines seeking to de-segregate the students meant she would attend an upper-middle-class public elementary school.

The only Hispanic student in her class, Ms. Garcia learned French in second grade and played the violin.

"I fell in love with education," she told HispanicBusiness Magazine.

Alas, the movement came too late for her five older siblings, who, unlike her, were born in Puerto Rico. Although her siblings are now successful in their own careers, Ms. Garcia is the only member of the family with a bachelor's degree, which she earned at New York University. She also obtained her doctorate in higher education from Columbia University.

"I'm not smarter than them; I just had more opportunities," she told HispanicBusiness Magazine. "Anyone can do this if they work hard and have a good support network."

Benefiting from financial aid programs in college was Hilda Solis, who in 2009 made history by becoming the first female Hispanic U.S. Department of Labor Secretary.

As a high school student, Solis, who was among 15 finalists for the Woman of the Year issue in 2007 and is on HispanicBusiness Magazine's most recent list of 100 Influentials, had been hoping to land a job as a county clerk or receptionist. But her high school counselor knew she had promise, and told her she should apply to a four-year college.

"I said, 'What are you talking about? I can't afford college," she told HispanicBusiness Magazine in late February. "My parents can't afford it -- there's seven of us."

He helped her fill out a financial aid application, and she went to Cal-Poly Pomona on a full Cal-grant aid scholarship. The rest is history.

Hayes, the senior researcher with the Institute for Women's Policy Research, said Hispanic women still face many obstacles to workplace success.

For instance, he said, "they still have quite high fertility, which puts them more at risk for pregnancy discrimination, and lack of family leave issues."

Meanwhile, this year's survey respondents shared their secrets to success.

One said quality networking is key, which doesn't necessarily mean maintaining connections with everyone in your Rolodex.

"The truth is it is far more important to maintain a relationship with a smaller group of individuals," one of survey respondent wrote.

Another said it is good to "tell people what you want."

"It took me years to learn to do this," another finalist said. "I have found that when I asked for help or guidance, no one ever turned me down. Typically, people want to help each other succeed."

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