By Lito Gutierrez
Philippine Daily Inquirer - First Posted 09:56:00 08/23/2010
SAN FRANCISCO, California, United States - Organization-image specialist Marily Mondejar was doing a pretty good job consulting for a mayoral candidate here several years ago.
Her team had been tasked to dig up dirt on the incumbent administration. One of the sitting mayor’s appointees had allegedly signed a construction contract for a crony. The media had a feeding frenzy that threatened to topple the Hizzoner.
“The name of the official sounded foreign,” she says, recalling the episode. “After further research, I found out she was a Filipina and I began to wonder why she was being hung out to dry.”
The mayor would be re-elected, but at the cost of the job of this Filipina official. Mondejar was appalled, not because her candidate lost, but because she felt the official had been thrown under the bus to redeem the re-electionist’s image. She named the official but requested anonymity for her.
“Very few came to her defense,” Mondejar says.
A support group
Thus, it became the mission of the Filipina Women’s Network (FWN), a volunteer, non-profit organization to “level the professional and business playing field for Filipinas across America.”
FWN was conceived in 2001 over lunch organized by Cora Tellez, then chief executive officer of one of America’s biggest health-care providers, Healthnet. Many in her circle of friends were in management positions themselves. Mondejar, who had taken on image consultancy work for a giant Mexican cement maker, and Virna Tintiangco, then a college student.
Tintiangco was FWN’s first president but when she moved to Oregon in 2003, Mondejar took over.
“We want to open doors,” says Mondejar, 59. “We want to let America know that Filipinas have the skills to compete at all levels in all areas.” She enlisted Filipinas who had proven their mettle in the upper reaches of the different branches of government as well as the private sector.
Today FWN has some 800 active members. Its success can also be gleaned in the names of more than 400 people who have signified their intention to attend the 7th Filipina Leadership Summit in Las Vegas in October. Among them: former White House physician, retired Rear Admiral Connie Mariano; California Appeals Court Judge Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye, who has been nominated by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to be chief justice of the state Supreme Court; California Lieutenant Governor Mona Pasquil; Nevada Judge Cheryl Moss; Davis, California Mayor Dr. Ruth Asmundson; and information technology tycoon Zeny Cunanan.
Over the years, FWN has been associated with such social issues as domestic violence.
Mondejar said major impediments for women seeking to move their careers forward are issues at home, particularly violence inflicted by spouses or partners.
It is an issue close to Mondejar’s heart, having herself been a victim of domestic violence. In fact, the reason she came to America in 1981 was to seek a divorce from her abusive husband. Her tale of woe is typical. When she told her friends about what her husband was doing to her, she would be told: “It is your fate,” and “Try not to make him angry.”
Marily’s own struggle
She initially brought her two sons to the US, but since she could not afford to support them yet, she brought them back home to live with her mother for a few years or until she became financially stable. She recalls the pain the divorce inflicted on her children, one of whom blamed her for not sticking it out. She says it took some doing to make them understand. Now she says she has “a great relationship” with them.
In California, Mondejar found her feet. She got bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Humanities, and is finishing her thesis for a doctorate in Organizational Psychology. After 13 years as an image builder for the cement company, she eventually resigned to run FWN as a full-time career.
It is important for women, Mondejar says, to understand the cycle of domestic violence. “It took me years to understand that,” she adds. “I kept getting into abusive situations and did not know how to break the cycle and seek help.”
FWN has also become known for its women’s rights activities as part of its business networking agenda. Its most popular program is its adoption of “The Vagina Monologues,” the off-Broadway stage phenomenon going into its 15th year, whose theme “the vagina as a tool for female empowerment” has become a rallying point of women the world over. It has been translated into 45 languages and when its Tagalog version, “Usapang Puki,” was staged in Manila in 2002, church groups raised a howl, which helped ensure its success, she said.
FWN will present it again during its Vegas summit in October, which is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
FWN itself does not provide logistical support for abuse victims. What it offers is education and moral support.
For instance, FWN members were at the murder trial of William Corpuz, who was convicted by a jury of murder for slitting his wife’s throat.
Mondejar says she is also mobilizing her members to support the confirmation of Cantil Sakauye, who would, if elected in November, be the first Asian-American Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court. Sakauye is an FWN member.
Not mail-order brides
Despite the number of high-caliber women in FWN?s roster, Mondejar acknowledges that Filipinas have a long way to go in breaking the glass ceiling.
Google “Filipina” and most of the 3.77 million results are links to matchmaking, dating, and adult-entertainment sites.
“Initially, American men thought we were some kind of mail-order-bride organization and we would get requests to meet Filipina women,” Mondejar says. In fact, she adds, “many mail-order-bride and matchmaking groups still link to our website and we would have to back-trace them and remove their links.”
This was why FWN launched its “Shaping the Filipina image” campaign, which, she says, is just another step to create a positive image and open up leadership opportunities for Filipinas in the US.
100 Most Influential Pinays
During the Vegas gathering, Mondejar says she will push FWN’s “womentoring” and leadership program, and the selection of the “100 Most Influential Filipinas in the US.”
She hopes each of the 200 “most influential” Filipino women selected in 2007 and 2009 would take at least one Filipina under her wing and teach her what it takes to make it in the American workplace.
“Can you imagine?” she says rhetorically. “By 2012 (in time for a planned Pinay Power reunion) we’d have 600 more successful Filipinas after the final FWN 100 are selected next year.?
To be sure, FWN faces many challenges. For one, “funding and keeping the FWN mission alive,” she says.
But she draws her energy from FWN’s members and what they have so far achieved. She still remembers the first summit in 2001 when she was selling the idea to a group of women in San Francisco. After her spiel, one of them stood up, saying: “I’m in. I want to be part of this group. I have never been in the same room with so many accomplished women. Here’s my check!”
Then just about everybody else took out their check books and signed up.