You began your career as an assistant state attorney in Florida in 1985. How have things changed for women in the legal profession since then?
When I started my career, there were not a lot of women in the public sector. Now there are more women in law school, more women in general counsel positions and slightly more women in the public sector. There are more women in the workforce, but I’d like to see more women in leadership roles.
I think women often equate success with working in a private firm, but you can be just as successful working in public agencies. Using your legal acumen to enhance other people’s lives is extremely important.
We need to have qualified and diverse individuals — both men and women —who choose to work in the public sector and take on leadership roles.
How did you handle gender bias?
A number of times early in my career I was called “sweetie” or something similar. How you handle yourself in a situation makes a difference.
In Georgia, where I grew up, calling someone sweetie is sometimes just a way to say hello. So I would simply introduce myself, “Hello, I’m Ms. Tamayo, and I’m the assistant state attorney assigned to this case. You’re welcome to call me Josie.”
Another challenge was so many people thought all Hispanics were Mexican. When I was asked if I spoke Mexican, I saw it as an opportunity to educate the person that there are many people of Hispanic origins who speak Spanish.
How did that affect you?
It just made me work harder. My family immigrated to the U.S. when I was three years old. I grew up in a small Southern town, and many people there had never met people from Cuba. My parents always said, “It is your responsibility to teach people who you are; it is not their responsibility to find out who you are.” So I brought that into my career. I showed people my work ethic and what I bring to the table. I also encouraged questions. I was thankful to be bilingual because it provided me opportunities throughout my career.
There were ups and downs, but overall my experience was positive. I learned a lot, and they all learned with me.
Your successful career, including being the first Hispanic judge on the Second Circuit Court in Florida, has made you a role model for many.
I think my career path shows people, young women specifically, that you can attain your dreams. I wanted to be a judge since I was fourteen, and one of the greatest days of my life was when [then] Governor Charlie Crist appointed me.
You have to be passionate about what you do, you have to have a plan and sometimes you have to take risks. My whole life, I’ve tried to be the one knocking on the doors. If you were going to be given special cases, or given the opportunity to be in the room with the decision-makers, you had to do the work.
It’s also important to realize things may not go according to plan and to be open to other opportunities.
Many people want to have it all now, but it’s not always possible to get everything you want at the same time. I got married at the age of 38 and had my son. I’m still evolving as a lawyer, a mother, a wife, as a professional and as a member of society. You never stop growing.
I am a keynote speaker at a naturalization ceremony each year, and I love sharing my story so others know what’s possible. The American Dream lives and breathes in each one of us. Here I am, this immigrant from Cuba, this little girl from Milledgeville, and through my career I got to be involved in some of the most fascinating legal issues of our time.
Josefina Tamayo (J.D. ’85) has served as general counsel for six state agencies in Florida: Department of Children & Families, Department of Business & Professional Regulation, Department of Health, Department of Management Services, Department of Transportation and the Florida Lottery. She also served as a circuit court judge in the Second Judicial Circuit of Florida from 2010–13. A Florida Supreme Court–certified mediator, she started Tamayo Mediation and Consulting in 2018.