Santa Clara County, women

Office of Women’s Policy director reflects on first year

Protima Pandey: An eventful start and ‘miles to go’

Almost a year ago, Protima Pandey landed as head of the Office of Women’s Policy with a strong background and a full inbox. (Maureen Carroll photo)

t was an eventful start for Protima Pandey as she stepped into her role as director of the Office of Women’s Policy for the County of Santa Clara at the beginning of 2018.

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

Midterm elections

So what do you think about the wave of women that just got elected, and what do you attribute that result to?

 It’s not just the number of women who prevailed and were successful. It is the wave of women and other marginalized groups who decided to run for office. And I believe that has a lot to do with the fact that what the federal government wants to do is not inclusive of everybody. They are very clearly demonstrating that what they would like (to do) is only for certain people. And because of that, 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.

The truth is that all of us have voices. The question is who’s listening to us.

What do you make of the Kavanaugh hearings and confirmation?

 After what happened with Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation, that we have a lot of work still to be done. Almost 25 years ago, we heard from a sexual harassment survivor, Anita Hill, who was afraid of the power dynamics (in her accusations against now-Associate Justice Clarence Thomas).

Christine Blasey Ford testifies against U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in November 2018. (U.S. Senate photo)

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

Let’s leave national politics aside now and bring the discussion closer to home. Tell me what the Office of Women’s Policy is all about and how you ended up here. Also, what is your vision for next year or so?

OWP has completed 20 years of service to the County of Santa Clara, to the women and girls and gender-expansive individuals who identify as women. It was created in order to ensure that County policies and programming and includes the gender lens, because as we all know, what might work for the majority is going to leave out the voices of those who are trying to speak up and are silenced.

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

 You have mentioned that another priority is to raise up girls and women into leadership positions. Tell us about how you do that.

We do it through providing practical experience.

The Girls Advisory Team helps girls develop their abilities and provides leadership opportunities. (Office of Women’s Policy photo)

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.

 Another pretty important development happened pretty recently that I thought we should talk about: a new state law requiring major California-based companies to have women on their boards of directors.

 It is an important step philosophically. Those of us who work in the social justice movement have debated whether norms change the law or the law changes norms. I think there’s some “diversity fatigue” out there in the corporate world, the sense that it’s too hard to find qualified women to sit on boards. … This legislation is a step in that process of changing the norms. Diversity, inclusion, all of that, it has to come from a specific, deliberate action. If we’re not deliberate about it, we’re just checking the box.

On gender justice

 Now, you’re also very involved in gender justice issues. What is that all about?

 It is about using the gender lens to impact outcomes in the justice system, outcomes for those who are justice involved and those impacted adversely by the justice system because of their gender.

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

What else is the Office of Women’s Policy doing?

The Office of Women’s Policy and its partner agencies are also helping to implement a County ordinance based on the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women. CEDAW is often referred to as the Women’s Bill of Rights. Although the U.S. is one of the few nations that hasn’t ratified the treaty, the County of Santa Clara is committed to its principles at the level of local policy-making and programming. By being the ninth County in the nation to adopt CEDAW principles, the County emphasized that women’s’ rights are human rights.

Protima Pandey came to her current post from Bay Area Legal Aid. There she was managing attorney and regional counsel for immigration. (Maureen Carroll photo)

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

December 19, 2018

ONE COMMENT ON THIS POST To “Office of Women’s Policy director reflects on first year”

  1. ROSE LUERRA says:

    Protima Pandey: Thank you for the heart you possess for the women in our county. We need more leaders like you to see the great and ongoing need for our girls and women alike.

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December 2018
Santa Clara County