By ELAINE ALFARO
From their first published study in 1885 disproving the prevailing myth that college impairs a woman’s fertility, to their first grant recipient, Marie Cury, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) have had the goal to advocate for economic and educational equality, and leadership to support racial and social justice, according to AAUW president of the La Mesa-El Cajon branch Joan Camana.
2021 marks the 70th anniversary of the AAUW branch in La Mesa and El Cajon. On Nov. 13, the local AAUW members met in person to recognize their 2021 scholarship recipients and foster a panel discussion on the challenges and rewards for women in non-traditional roles.
“Our advocacy efforts over the last 140 years have propelled many laws that you women all enjoy today,” said Camana. “Many of us worked, marched, lobbied, and donated.”
Members of the association represent cross-generation activists who took part in bringing about the Equal Pay Act first proposed 1945 and passed in 1963, the Title 9 amendment in 1972, the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993, and the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009.
In their most recent meeting, the AAUW continued its efforts for recognizing injustice and inequality by hearing from a panel of female law enforcement and public safety leaders on their experiences in the male-dominated field.
The panelists represented the multi-faceted components of law enforcement with Lt. Katy Lynch from the La Mesa Police Department, U.S. Border Patrol Agent Katherine Griffith, Catie Casciari from the San Diego Fire Department, and mother, daughter, dispatchers from San Diego Police Department, Ann Claret and Tawnya Ross.
The commonality these women recognized about their diverse careers was the fact that they had to fight to prove their capabilities in their fields.
“The border patrol is one of the only federal agencies that have physical abilities testing (PT) standards that are the same for both genders,” said Griffith. “I’m proud to say men and women have the same PT standards; I can say we are equals. But, someone told me this when I was in the academy: ‘You have to hit the ground running as soon as you get to the station. In a very heavily male-dominated workforce, if you come in and you’re meek and you show your weaknesses, that, unfortunately, stays with you for the rest of your career.’”
Casciari’s experience working in the fire department resonated with Griffith’s statement.
“There’s a special dynamic of a female put through a fire academy because not only does she have to be physical she also has to have the right mentality to deal with a male-oriented profession; She has to have a heart,” Casciari said. “No female is going to put up with what we have to put up with in a fire academy without the passion to become a firefighter.”
In addition to the physical demands both men and women have to endure to get into the field, the panelists mentioned that women face an added underlying societal pressure that emphatically impacts females’ careers.
“We have a lot of young women who give us a solid five to ten years of a great career but then they have kids and we lose them,” said Lynch. “They decide, ‘I want to stay home and take care of the kids.’ Which, if that’s what you want, that’s totally fine. But, is that because of societal expectations, or is that truly what you want? That’s where you really see the challenge of getting women into these leadership positions.”
Casciari mentioned there are specific areas within the fire department that should be improved.
“In all reality, the [fire fighting] gear is not made for a female’s body. The self-contained breathing apparatus that we have to wear is for a long torso of a man. The belt will be down below my hips. For me, my movement is restricted. We are getting a little bit better but the numbers are so low that companies don’t want to change what they’re doing because they won’t make a profit on female firefighters.”
The panelists spoke about individual efforts that have been developing over the past few years to help females within the academy such as the LMPD’s informal female mentorship group, the women’s fire prep academy started by Casciari, and the women’s task force within border patrol.
However, one area that was recognized as a place where women have made significant strides is the role of dispatcher.
“To hear the officers yelling that stuff over the radios is very traumatic,” Ross said. “Our department is very big on debriefs. All these cops are sitting here and trying to keep composure; I’ve kind of opened the floodgates. Most of the time I’ll start talking about [the incident] and then I think they see, ‘Oh, she’s being open about it and that allows me.’”
Additionally, Claret recognized that women specifically play an essential role within the SDPD dispatching department as only six out of the 50 dispatchers are men.
“I believe the challenge in dispatching is actually for the male dispatcher,” said Claret. “I’m a trainer. I find that when men come to me, they can’t multi-task as women can.”
The discussion of the issues within these departments continued after the panel was over when they spoke with individual members, but scholarship recipients had the opportunity to be celebrated and reflect on what they learned from these panelists.
Grossmont Community College student, Celia Pirita said, “This event meant a lot to me just because I grew up in a household with three brothers so there wasn’t very much [discussion of] women empowering. Being able to see the dispatcher and the firefighter in these powerful positions was very inspiring for me. It keeps me hopeful to see that we’re moving forward and see the progress that has happened so far.”
The education of current female college students is something the AAUW hopes to continue to support through their scholarship program with the hopes of inspiring a new generation to rise up, according to Camana.
“My daughter-in-law frequently says, ‘Aren’t you a little disappointed with what’s going on after all your hard work?’ I say ‘Yes, but it’s your turn to pick up the mantel.’”
“It’s so uplifting to have some support that’s for empowering women specifically,” said scholarship recipient Amy Martinez (another GCC student). “I am honored and inspired. They’re paving the way for women. It’s something I needed.”
The next AAUW general meeting will be on Dec. 11 and is open for the public to attend. For more information, visit www.lamesaelcajon-ca.aauw.net/
— Elaine Alfaro is a journalism stident at Point Loma Nazarene University and a former intern for San Diego Community News Group.