Protima Pandey: An eventful start and ‘miles to go’
Women and their supporters throughout the country had recently marched in protest of the anniversary of Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration as Pandey assumed office. The #MeToo movement was still seeing a steady stream of new revelations. Pandey’s Office of Women’s Policy was in hiring mode as the Board of Supervisors had just funded seven new positions, to double its size to 14. The office had just hosted a national conference on gender justice. Voters had just ousted Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky for a lenient sentence he imposed in a sexual assault case against Stanford swimmer Brock Turner.
And since then, things have only continued to boil. More recently, there was the confirmation hearing for now Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Brett Kavanaugh. That came amid a midterm election campaign that ultimately sent a huge number of new women and candidates of other marginalized groups, including Muslims and American Indians, to Congress.
Recently, Pandey caught her breath long enough to sit down for an interview with Santa Clara County Newsbeat right after the midterm election. Here is some of that conversation, edited for brevity and clarity. In addition to her observations on the issues mentioned above, Pandey also laid out some of her plans for the Office of Women’s Policy.
The Office of Women’s Policy is housed in the County Executive’s Office — a sign of significant clout. Long before she was appointed to head the office, Pandey was already focused on economic justice as managing attorney of Bay Area Legal Aid’s San Mateo County office and as Legal Aid’s regional counsel for immigration.
We’re seeing communities that are marginalized — women, the trans community, foreign-born immigrants — coming out of the shadows and saying, ‘This is my country.’ It’s a backlash, essentially. — Protima Pandey, on the outcome of the midterms
The truth is that all of us have voices. The question is who’s listening to us.
She decided to let go of all of that and to be brave for the future of our country. She took it upon herself, and the results were not what we were hoping. Twenty-five years later, the fact that the same story was repeated verbatim — verbatim — is testament to how much more we need to do.
I want to acknowledge the doctor (Christine Blasey Ford) for being very clear in her opening statement — and if people have not watched it, I would recommend them watching it — because she was trying to save all of us. All of us deserve our constitutional rights, and she saw it as her civic duty as a woman who was a victim of sexual assault to testify against Kavanaugh. But, like Hill, she was not believed, either. We still have miles to go before we sleep.
She saw it as her civic duty as a woman who was a victim of sexual assault to testify against Kavanaugh. But, like Hill, she was not believed, either.We still have miles to go before we sleep. — Protima Pandey, on Christine Blasey Ford’s decision to testify against Brett Kavanaugh
At the Office of Women’s Policy
My journey has shown me to have tools in my wheelhouse that I believe I can bring to policy-making. When I looked at the stories of those who are marginalized, I thought I could work to the change the norms of attitudes toward women. So this seemed a perfect transition for me.
My vision going forward for the next few years for the Office of Women’s Policy is to focus the administrative lens on the needs of women and girls. There are many changes that we can make, big and small.
For example, right now the County contracting policy requires that County contractors submit, every five years, information about any wage theft or violations of equal pay. The Office of Women’s Policy is to work closely with departments that give our contracts to businesses to find out how many independent women-owned businesses are we contracting with, how can we increase their representation and how to do raise their economic status.
So with that approach, what are we doing to erase the wage gap, which we all know is very high for women, that there is a change in the wage gap between men and women? What a fundamental shift that would be! It’s not going to be easy.
On female leadership
One of the things that the Office of Women’s Policy started early on, in 2011-2012, was the Girls Advisory Team, which is a group of high schoolers that are recruited by the office through an open application process. They are interviewed and then they’re part of a cohort that works on issues that impact women and girls through sessions once a month for nine months. Our work together culminates in our annual Strong Girls, Strong Women Conference in March, and the agenda, the substance and nature of what will happen at this conference is all crafted by the group of students.
We believe that no matter what they end up doing, they have the skills to make an impact on their lives professionally and personally, especially in terms of using the gender lens, whether it be when they are able to speak up against harassment or sexual assault or the wage gap. And this is the time for that, right in the midst of the #MeToo movement. If we don’t do this, we’re failing our young generation.
On gender justice
So, for example, the County’s women jail facility does not have as much of a population as the men’s jail does. And so there’s a bureaucratic tendency to think that what works for the men, we can do the same thing in the women’s jail. That doesn’t not adequately account for women’s special needs. So for example, we fail on a simple thing like providing enough sanitary products for women, so they were rationing them. They’re not needed in the men’s jail at all. So what happens is that that issue doesn’t even cross the minds of jail administration.
We documented problems like this in the women’s jail through a survey. We advocated for basic human dignity for incarcerated women. These are human beings that are behind bars. These are not nonhuman beings. We have to remember the basic dignity that is afforded to an individual, even behind bars.
On eliminating violence
As part of that, the County is taking a leadership role on a task force comprised of women from all walks of life that’s going to be presenting the results of a deep dive into six substantive areas that impact outcomes for women, girls, and gender-expansive women. The first area was homelessness and women. Again, when it comes to looking at what causes women to be homeless and what causes men to be homeless, there is a huge gap. And through research, we know that there’s also a gender gap in policy approaches and services in part because women are greatly undercounted. Solutions that help men keep stable and affordable housing will be looked at for numbers to see how they helped women. And if they didn’t, we’ll look at what we can do differently to enable positive and — sustainable outcomes for women?
Centennial of women’s suffrage
Another thing we’re focused on next year is the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. It’s a good occasion to celebrate and remember that white women got the right to vote. Make no mistake, that was a watershed moment in the work of women’s rights, but as I said, we still have a long way to go. And so it’s only fitting that the Office of Women’s Policy takes charge of working through how we as a County make sure that we are part of the national movement that’s happening.
We put together a centennial task force that includes a broad spectrum of voices we need on this commemoration and celebration. There are LGBT folks on this commemoration task force, there are people representing limited-English-speaking populations, there are working women and those who are not working outside the house. We can only succeed if we continue to talk about the challenges all women face. Even for me personally, it’s a very important two-step process: You celebrate the strengths that you have, the victories that you have gained, the steps that you climb. And that celebration gives you the strength to keep going.
By Chuck Carroll, Newsbeat editor