Meet the State Senator Shifting California’s Workplace Culture

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— California State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson

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At age 7, Hannah-Beth Jackson — now a state senator in California — wanted to be a baseball player.

But because she was a girl, she wasn’t allowed to join the Little League, even though she was among the best players.

“At the time, girls were really encouraged to play with tea sets and dolls, which I found incredibly boring,” she said in a phone interview.

Baseball wasn’t to be, but it spurred Ms. Jackson to try to eliminate gender-based barriers over her decades-long career — first as an attorney, and later as an elected official.

In 2015, she wrote the California Fair Pay Act, which has been described by legal experts as the country’s most aggressive equal pay protection law, placing the burden on employers to prove that gender is not the reason for pay discrepancies among employees doing “substantially similar work.”

In 2018, Ms. Jackson wrote a bill requiring companies headquartered in California to add more women to their boards, or risk a fine of at least $100,000. Though that law faced immense pushback, with some claiming it amounts to discrimination, it also set off ripples across the country, prompting other states to consider similar laws, and private companies and established investors, like Goldman Sachs, to push for board diversity. In the months immediately after the law went into effect, more than 90 percent of companies in California had at least one female board director.

This year, Ms. Jackson proposed a new bill that would expand family leave to more workers. It was brought to a vote on Aug. 31, the last day of California’s legislative session, and there were concerns that it might not pass among some lawmakers who were worried it would further burden small businesses already in crisis mode.

It was so close that California Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks, who was on maternity leave and had been denied a proxy vote, traveled from Oakland to Sacramento with her month-old baby to vote in person.

Ms. Jackson’s bill passed at 11:57 p.m., three minutes before the midnight deadline.

At the signing ceremony, over Zoom, “we had dads holding babies, moms holding babies and kids who might otherwise have been at school,” said Ms. Jackson. “It was great.”

In Her Words caught up with Ms. Jackson about her philosophies and how her legislation has shifted California’s workplace culture. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Explain some of the details of the new family leave law.

California, about 16 years ago, created the country’s first paid family leave program. It required that workers be the ones to pay for their own family leaves. We have a paid family leave program where individuals pay into a fund, a sequestered fund, and then when you need it, you’re able to access it for up to 70 percent of your regular salary.

So, in the interim, we’ve expanded the definition of family to include not just parents and children, but grandparents and in-laws and so on, taking into account the reality in today’s world, particularly in California, the second-largest multigenerational state in the country, where grandparents are taking care of grandchildren and sometimes vice versa.

But the problem with the old program is that people were not assured that their jobs were going to be there when they came back.

This new bill provides that job protection for up to 12 weeks.

How much do you think the pandemic played a part in getting this bill over the finish line?

This has been an issue that many of us have been fighting for, for decades. But the Covid situation was really able to shine a dramatic spotlight on just how significant this is. Think about it: Grandparents now aren’t available to take care of grandkids while mom and dad are working and child care facilities have been closed. Covid really made it clear that our infrastructure is totally inadequate.

Women are such a consistent thread running through all of the legislation that you’ve proposed. What are some of your guiding philosophies?

For me, it goes back to my basic fundamental belief in what this country promises people and what has lured generations of people from all over the world to come to this country, and that is, that if you work hard, you play by the rules, and you do your best, there’s nothing that’s impossible.

And yet, the reality is that if you are a woman, those opportunities don’t necessarily exist. When I was just a little girl, I was a better baseball player than anyone on the team, but I wasn’t allowed to play Little League because I was a girl. So these arbitrary barriers, these gender-based barriers, to me, are just totally anathema to what this country’s promise and responsibility is.

When I look at legislation, I ask myself, are we giving everybody an opportunity or the chance to be successful or to get into schools where they are able to pursue their area of interest? Or are they limited by virtue of their gender? Legislation that I’ve done has tried to reduce the likelihood of gender discrimination, to deter it and ultimately to eradicate it.

And we also have to look at the fact that a lot of the basis upon which we decide what is valuable work has a gender lens to it. I used to hear very frequently that women can’t be cops because you’ve got to be tough, you’ve got to be able to risk your life and your safety and get out there and physically go mano a mano. Well, when you think about it, a lot of good police work is in avoiding those kinds of confrontation, and we know that when you send a female police officer out to deal with potentially highly violent activities they have a way of diffusing the tension. That’s valuable work, too.

When it comes to gender discrimination, when should government step in and when should it get out of the way?

It’s always my hope that the private sector will recognize the value of bringing 52 percent of the population into the room where the decisions are being made. But that doesn’t happen.

In 2013, I introduced a resolution in the State Senate calling for companies in California to add more women to their corporate boards. We provided all sorts of evidence demonstrating that when you have women on a corporate board, the company does better — it’s more productive, it’s more profitable, it has better governance, it has better transparency. It just is better. And so we called upon companies voluntarily to add more women to their corporate boards. At the time, women held about 15.5 percent of all corporate board seats in California.

Five years later, I took a look to see how well we were doing, and we had moved the ticker up from 15.5 percent to 16 percent.

I realized at that point that we were going to have to require it. I wish it hadn’t been that way. I believe that companies should be able to do good and still do well. There’s no reason that companies can’t take that level of responsibility, both to the planet and also to society as a whole.

Your legislation has reshaped so much of the corporate culture in California. You must receive a lot of pushback.

Our business culture lives, frankly, in the early-20th century with the Ozzie and Harriet narrative. That’s an old TV show where mom was perfectly coifed and dressed when dad came home from work and he’d pat the kids on the head and they had been bathed and fed and mom would be there to provide a gourmet meal, looking ravishing.

It’s just a false narrative that has for far too long served as a guiding principle of corporate America. And it has to change. So I don’t mind the slings and arrows because we need to move out of that old paradigm and shift into the 21st-century world we live in.

Do you think capitalism is fundamentally incompatible with the ideals of feminism?

I think there’s a place for that capitalist spirit. But I do think it needs to be tempered by reality. We don’t live to work, we work to live. I think it’s very important that the world today be more open to and respectful of the need for working people to be able to prioritize their families, and not just their work.

Up until recently, certainly in this country, and unlike any other industrialized nation in the world, our work persona has been far more valued than our home persona or our personal persona. I think that’s wrong. I think that’s a mistake. We need to recognize that people have responsibility for their own well being and that of their families and communities as much as to their employer.

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