Chao addressed a delegation of more than 300 executives at the seventh annual "LATINA Style 50 Best Practices in Diversity" awards Thursday. The ceremony, sponsored by Latina Style magazine, honored a reader-selected group of Fortune 500 companies that provide favorable business environments for Latina women.
Chao, who immigrated to the United States with her parents as a child, attempted to draw parallels between her familial experiences and the multi-layered experiences of Hispanics in the United States before outlining domestic Bush Administration initiatives of interest to U.S.-born and immigrant Hispanics.
"I'm so proud of all of you," Chao told the audience. "Latina Style is raising the profiles of working Latinas in this country."
Census figures show that Hispanics make up the fastest-growing and largest minority group in the nation. And as a unit, Labor Department statistics show Latina women holding 50 percent more of management and professional jobs than Hispanic men.
Still, the same statistics show that a majority of Latina women are concentrated in service and support occupations that may or may not pay well or offer substantive opportunities for advancement. And according to the magazine's examination of the top 50 companies, the number of women in management positions still continues to grow at a slower rate, which perhaps explains the dramatic growth in the number of Latina women who've decided to start their own businesses in the last five years, Commerce Department statistics show.
Despite the progress that has been made, this differential begs the question of whether blue-chip companies have tired of diversity.
Conference attendee Rima Matsumoto, a 32-year-old nonprofit executive with the Hispanic Association of Corporate Responsibility, doesn't think so.
"If you're not embracing diversity, I don't know how you're going to make it (in this economy)," Matsumoto said.
Secretary Chao stressed the importance of encouraging companies that have gone the extra mile to provide opportunities that increase the representation and support of Latina women in the workforce.
"Economic empowerment is the key to success," she said. "These employers make our country a better country."
This year's top 50 honorees includes familiar names such as Citigroup Inc., Avon Products Inc., Bank of America Corp., Colgate-Palmolive Co., McDonald's Corp., Marriott International, and Fannie Mae. General Mills Inc., maker of Cheerios cereal and other well-known brands, was awarded company of the year. The criteria on which they were judged ranged from whether the companies provided extensive leadership training, career counseling and mentoring programs to institutional collaboration with Hispanic associations.
In regard to the Bush administration's outreach efforts to Hispanics, Chao noted the administration has helped reverse the upward trend in fatalities among Hispanic workers for the first time since 1995. In fact, fatalities among Hispanic workers have fallen by 11.6 percent since 2001.
The DOL's Wage and Hour Division has also recovered more than $43 million in back wages for nearly 85,000 workers in these industries.
For good measure, Chao also noted the promotion of Hispanic men and women into high-profile positions during President George W. Bush's time in office. The remarks generated energetic applause from different sides of the ballroom at Washington's J.W. Marriott Hotel, although some conference attendees politely stayed silent.
Chao said the Labor Department is committed to programs and protections for Hispanics, including the expansion of services for people with limited English proficiency, the creation of a task force to reverse the number of fatalities among Hispanic workers, and job training grants to two organizations, Esperanza USA and the Latino Coalition, to coach young people for "good paying jobs," although she did not specify what those jobs consist of.
"I know the importance of outside encouragement," she said.