For President Barack Obama, the news out of the Department of Labor seems more like it’s coming from the Department of Bad Timing.
If Obama was already catching heat for not elevating more women or minorities to second-term positions of power, things are only going to get worse for him after Labor Secretary Hilda Solis—a Hispanic woman—announced on Wednesday that she would be resigning from her post.
Solis is the fifth announced departure from Obama’s Cabinet since his reelection, and of those five, only two are white and male (Tim Geithner and Leon Panetta). Couple that with the nominations of Chuck Hagel and John Kerry, and it’s looking like there’s a true lack of diversity in the president’s Cabinet.
Solis sat down with National Journal last February. An edited transcript of that conversation is below.
NJ: Did affirmative-action programs help you?
SOLIS: Absolutely. There’s a big myth about affirmative action. Once you get there, you still have to prove yourself. I have three strikes against me: I am a female; I am a minority; and, in many [jobs], I was a lot younger. You didn’t typically see a lot of Latinas venturing out [into high-profile jobs].
NJ: How big an obstacle is the glass ceiling today?
SOLIS: It has improved from when I first became exposed to better job opportunities and moved up the ranks in [government]. But there are fewer women holding public office, [partly because they need] the confidence and ability to go raise money with folks that are not women. That continues to bother me. There [also] is a glass ceiling in … science, technology, engineering, and math.
NJ: What does it say that women are CEOs in only a handful of Fortune 500 firms?
SOLIS: It’s embarrassing. It says that we still have a lot more work to do. And here [in Washington], the highest-paid lobbyists [are] males.
NJ: How important are mentors in overcoming obstacles?
SOLIS: I give a lot of credit to Nancy Pelosi and others who have given other women opportunities—that is really important. I have tried to do it here at the Department of Labor. More than 51 percent of my kitchen cabinet is diverse—women, women of color and [nonheterosexuals], women of different backgrounds, which is very unusual for the federal government.
NJ: Men continue to earn more than women while performing similar jobs. Should government play a greater role?
SOLIS: We are trying to level the playing field. When there have been instances of discrimination, we are pursuing those cases in court. Sometimes, the issue isn’t just about going to court; it’s about changing the behavior, the culture.
NJ: Why shouldn’t one be cynical—you’re still trying to change the culture in 2012? Do you think things really will improve?
SOLIS: I do.
SOLIS: Because more women are in the workplace now, and there are more [diverse] people represented in places of importance in government. I believe one day, maybe before 20 years, we’ll see a woman president.
NJ: How big a deal would that be?
SOLIS: Big. Big.
This interview orignally appeared in the March 9, 2012 issue of National Journal.
Ben Terris updated this story on January 9th contributed to this article.
This article appears in the March 13, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.