The Audrey Irmas Project for Women and Girls' Rights

Launched in May 2017, the Audrey Irmas Project for Women and Girls’ Rights (WGR) was created thanks to a generous grant from the Audrey Irmas Foundation for Social Justice. The mission of our project is to advance equality, economic justice and opportunity for low-income women and girls in our community through a combination of direct legal services, policy advocacy, impact litigation, and community education. Our project is currently focused on three key areas:

  • Workplace Justice
    • Defending the right of low-wage women workers to a safe and fair work environment free from exploitation, discrimination, and harassment
    • Advancing policies that support working women and their families
  • Supporting Women Entrepreneurs,
    • Working with community partners to help low-income women and women veterans start small businesses and/or worker-owned cooperatives by providing free access to legal information and services
  • Empowerment and Opportunity for Girls K-12
    • Promoting equity, addressing barriers, and supporting at-risk girls to stay in school through participatory research, advocacy, technical assistance and community engagement

WGR also works in partnership with Public Counsel’s other program areas, including homelessness prevention, community development, children’s rights, immigration rights, and the center for veterans’ advancement, to address the unique vulnerabilities and challenges facing female clients and to deepen Public Counsel’s systemic work on gender issues across program areas. This includes, for example, helping domestic and sexual violence survivors, vulnerable seniors, systems-involved youth and female veterans overcome institutional barriers and access available services and benefits to meet their complex legal and non-legal needs.

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Workplace Justice and Opportunity

The issue: Women make up half our state and head two-thirds of our households as breadwinners or co-breadwinners. Yet the vast majority of California’s minimum wage workers are women and one-half of Latina and African American single mothers live in poverty. This has an enormous impact on the wellbeing and economic security of California’s women, children and families.

Studies show that advancing equality and investing in women strengthens families and has the highest return for the health, education and general prosperity of entire communities. Still, working women in California (and particularly women of color) continue to experience pervasive sexual harassment and systemic discrimination in pay, promotions and access to higher-paying jobs. As parents and caregivers, women are further disadvantaged by “family responsibility” bias, lack of affordable child care, and continued resistance to family-friendly work policies such as paid family leave and predictable scheduling rules. Although California leads the country in many areas of women’s employment rights, much more needs to be done to ensure that these rights are enforced and expanded to reach all women, including low-wage employees, domestic workers, immigrants, and single mothers juggling full-time work and family responsibilities.

How we are responding:

  • Direct Services: With support from law students and pro bono attorneys, WGR provides free legal services to low-income women experiencing discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace. We help women file complaints, negotiate with employers, and pursue legal remedies. When clients present with related employment or economic issues, such as wage theft, misclassification, and/or denial of housing, benefits and/or reasonable accommodations, we address those issues too. Our clients include undocumented women, former foster care youth, recent immigrants and single mothers, all of whom have been exploited or abused at work. Our goal is to empower women to stand up and speak out against workplace abuse, and to increase access to justice for those least able to obtain legal representation.
  • Referral Networks: WGR is a member of the National Women’s Law Center Legal Network for Gender Equity and the Times Up Legal Defense Network. Through this network, WGR provides free consultation and advice to victims of sexual harassment and/or discrimination in the military, work or school, and assists women to access legal services through the network.
  • Advocacy: As a member of the Stronger California Advocates Network, Public Counsel works in partnership with community-based organizations and the Legislative Women’s Caucus in Sacramento to promote legislation that strengthens economic security and empowerment for women. Priority areas include poverty reduction, fair pay and work opportunities, family-friendly workplaces, and increased access to affordable, quality childcare, including strengthening laws against sexual harassment, increasing funding for child care, and enforcement of the domestic workers bill of rights. WGR also advocates with local bodies such as the City Counsel and Los Angeles Homelessness Services Administration (LAHSA) to promote the rights and interests of low-income women and bring a “gender lens” to economic and policy debates. Our current efforts focus on strengthening policies and services for women who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, working with local unions to address unfair scheduling practices which disproportionately impact women caregivers, and supporting Public Counsel’s broader efforts to legalize street vending in Los Angeles. 
  • Community Outreach and Education: Finally, WGR recognizes the need to increase awareness of women’s rights and the legal resources and remedies available to low-income workers whose rights have been violated. To this end, WGR is building partnerships throughout the community and working with local unions and worker centers to educate women workers about existing State and local protections. Our activities include outreach to community organizations, presentations, and the development and dissemination of “know your rights” materials on a range of issues, from pregnancy discrimination and sexual harassment, to pay equity and wage theft.

Supporting Women Entrepreneurs

Entrepreneurship can provide a viable alternative to low-wage work and a path to economic security for women and their families. Building on the work of Public Counsel’s Community Development Project, WGR has established a new program to provide free legal services to low-income women seeking to start and/or expand small businesses. Working closely with community partners, the program links qualifying women entrepreneurs with Public Counsel’s network of pro bono transactional attorneys for help in areas such as formation, patents and copyrights, contracts, leases, and employment issues.  Current referral partners include the Women Veterans Entrepreneur Network (WOVEN), PACE Women’s Business Center, the California Association for Micro Economic Opportunity (CAMEO), Pilipino Workers Center, and the Jenesse Center/Domestic Violence Intervention Program.

Empowerment and Opportunity for Girls K-12

The issue: Failure to receive a high school diploma often places girls on a pathway to low-wage work, poverty and/or incarceration. Teen parenting, sexual harassment and bullying, trauma from family and/or community violence, and unfair disciplinary policies in public schools, are all well-known risk factors for girls – especially girls of color – which negatively affect educational attainment and opportunity. To address these issues, WGR is partnering with girl-serving organizations and advocates across Los Angeles to conduct research, review policies, and advocate with schools, school districts and policy makers to better meet the needs of girls in K-12.

What we are doing:

  • Alliance for Girls: Public Counsel is working with six other founding member organizations to establish a local Los Angeles Chapter of Alliance for Girls.  Guided by the core values of Community, Empowerment, Impact, and Self-Care, this initiative will harness the collective power of girl-serving organizations and advocates in Los Angeles to amplify girls’ voices and partner with school districts to better meet the needs of girls. Strategies will include participatory research with middle school and high school girls, review of school and district policies, advocacy, professional development and technical assistance.
  • Title IX research: As a starting point in working with schools, WGR has undertaken to review school district websites to assess compliance with basic Title IX requirements such as designation of a Title IX coordinator, a published sexual harassment policy, and a clear procedure for reporting and investigating grievances and complaints. We are also collecting sexual harassment and discrimination policies to review for basic compliance with California and federal law, as well as evidenced-based best practices.
  • Impact Litigation: WGR is supporting Public Counsel’s Opportunity Under Law project to litigate a case against a school district and the California Department of Education involving discriminatory practices against elementary school girls of color with learning and/or behavioral challenges.

Women Veterans

In partnership with Public Counsel’s Center for Veterans’ Advancement and the LA Veterans Collaborative, WGR is expanding Public Counsel’s work with female veterans and active members of the military. Activities include: establishing a new legal clinic for justice-involved female veterans at the California Institute for Women (CIW), advocating with the Public Defender’s Office for more inclusive use of alternative sentencing statutes for women veterans in LA County Courts, and researching satisfaction with VA Health services by survivors of military sexual assault.

For information, please contact:

wgr@publiccounsel.org