Looking to close the wage gap

Women at career fair mull opportunities on Long Island

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State Sen. Elaine Phillips welcomed about 100 local women to the “Avenues of Opportunities: LI Women’s Career Opportunity Event” at Belmont Park on April 12. With help from the Long Island branch of the Workforce Development Institute, a state nonprofit that facilitates projects to strengthen employers’ ability to hire and promote workers, Phillips brought together more than a dozen employers to network with Long Island women and let them know about the jobs available to them.

“I want to give you a tool to add to your tool chest,” Phillips told the attendees. “These are tools to make us a better potential employee.”

Nearly all of the companies represented at the career fair came from the retail, manufacturing, health care, hospitality or services sectors. Rosalie Drago, the Workforce Development Institute’s Long Island regional director, explained that those were the best industries for female employment on Long Island. Drago said she was moved by the work of the event’s guest speakers, women who all found success in the workforce.

Leah Rambo, who attracted much attention when she revealed that she was a sheet metal worker, said the stereotypical image of a construction worker is outdated. “When people think of construction worker, they imagine a big, strong guy, but that’s not true anymore,” said Rambo, of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers Local 28. “We need to dismiss that idea.”

Rambo, who began her career in 1988, is now the director of training for SMART Local 28, and runs the apprenticeship program that had once helped her. She also developed the union’s Respect for Workforce Diversity Curriculum, which teaches members how to identify and prevent discrimination in the workplace. She described the old construction industry as a closed-off field in which jobs were passed down from father to son, but added that times were changing. Since 2011, the percentage of female apprentices in Local 28 has risen from 3 to 13 percent.

“Our female students do exceptionally well,” Rambo said, “especially in fields like welding.”

Increasing the number of women in the workforce and promoting them to leadership positions can improve companies’ financial performance and reduce employee turnover, according to New York Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul and Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon. In their report, “Closing the Gender Wage Gap in New York State: Pay Equity and Advancement,” produced this month, Hochul and Reardon argued that while women continue to advance in the workforce, pay inequality persists and acts as a drag on local businesses and the economy.

“As co-chairs of the New York State Pay Equity Study, Commissioner Reardon and I heard the voices of countless women who get up every day, put their heart and soul into their jobs, and at the end of the day still earn less than men,” Hochul said in a statement.

Citing the study as well as recommendations from the state’s Department of Labor, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation on April 10 that will prohibit employers from asking prospective employees about their salary history and compensation. The practice was found to contribute to the gender wage gap in New York state, where women earn about 89 cents to a man’s dollar.

“The gender pay gap exists across the economic spectrum, across all industries, and can follow women throughout their entire careers,” Cuomo said in a statement. “By banning salary history, we can break the weight of this unfair, unequal cycle and work to achieve fair pay for all women in this state.”

The state’s pay inequality report also found that African-American and Latina women were the lowest-paid demographic when compared with a white man’s earnings. Women of color are also found more rarely in high-ranking corporate positions, something that reminded Brigitte Wynn, PSEG Long Island’s director of revenue operations, of her first day of work in the computer-coding field in 1990.

“I was the only woman there, in what was a male-dominated field,” Wynn recalled. “And I was an African-American woman. I was like an alien who appeared out of nowhere to them.” Wynn managed to persevere among the men with the help of a mentor, who encouraged her to believe in herself and pushed her to leave the field and apply for a position with a title.

Nearly all of the guest speakers at the career fair stressed the importance of finding a mentor. Mary Hauptman, president of the Long Island Center for Business and Professional Women, was one of them. The Long Island Center helps advance women’s equal participation in leadership roles in business and professional industries. At its next meeting, on April 24, a guest speaker will teach members how to successfully market themselves and their businesses.

Phillips said that support systems could go a long way toward helping women become equals in the workforce. She agreed that in order for Long Island women to succeed, they need to work hard, have courage and have the help of a mentor.

“We meet every month to help each other and give peer advice,” Hauptman said. “We have guest speakers who come in and teach our members how to succeed and handle various problems in the workforce.”