October 11, 2017 — Several years ago, when I was contemplating leaving my job in academia, I wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told me that someday soon I would land my dream job working with corporate America to help companies increase their Latinx representation. But it’s true, and that’s what I have been doing for the past five years. And while we’ve seen some progress—such as PG&E’s appointment of Geisha Williams as its CEO, making her the first Latina CEO of a Fortune 500 company—Latinas continue to be underrepresented in positions of power and to face challenges in the workplace. Why is this, and what can we do about it? These are two important questions that I hope to address in this post, but first let’s back up a step to understand why this is an essential conversation to have.
It’s essential not just because we find ourselves in the middle of Hispanic Heritage month, and not just because according to the US Census Latinx people are the largest non-white population in the United States, or because the United States is second only to Mexico in its Latinx population, or even because we have a collective buying power of over $1.5 trillion—although these are all important things to know. This is an important conversation for us to have because a company’s bottom line is linked to its ability to compete in an increasingly global environment, and in this day and age companies need whatever advantage they can get. So if built into the United States population there is a group who could potentially provide the necessary leadership for continued success in today’s global environment, why wouldn’t you want to bring them to the table? And that, my friends, is the million—multi-million—dollar question.
According to research by the Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility (HACR), Latinas represent less than 1% of executives in the United States, yet these women control 86% of the decision-making in Latinx households, make up the fastest-growing segment of the entrepreneurial sector, and are leading the ambicultural movement.
Yet in the context of their day-to-day work environments, many of these women are plagued by micro-aggressions such as the deliberate mispronunciation of, or requests to Anglicize, their “too ethnic” names. They are also bombarded with stereotyping comments referencing drug deals or even the number of children they have. One has to wonder what work-life is like for Latinas facing these types of micro-aggressions on a regular basis; if colleagues and workplace leaders really think these things about Latinas, how will they view their work in the office? My guess is not favorably, which is why we continue to see Latinas lagging behind at the top.
But what is perhaps the most difficult challenge for Latinas in the workplace is what to do when two cultures clash. There is no doubt that there is a corporate culture in the United States that is largely based on that of white men and their behavioral norms, which is very different from Latinx culture. So how do Latinas navigate that? What do you do when you spend over 40 hours a week in a place where the norm is work first and family second, but you’ve grown up in an environment where family comes first? Does that automatically mean that you’re less committed to your work? To your career? To your organization? Should you be penalized for that? Or should you be made to feel like you have to sacrifice your cultural identity in order to succeed?
Many Latinx people, both men and women, report having to “hide” who they are to be successful in corporate America. While that repression of their culture has made their careers flourish, their success is not without consequences, such as increased levels of stress and unhappiness.
So what can we do? Here are a few actions we can all take:
Listen to what people are saying. Hear, and I mean really hear, what we’re saying. If you’re already thinking about how you’re going to respond to my comments about my experiences, then you aren’t really listening to me—and that’s a problem.
Advocate for us. If you’re in a position where you are the decision maker or can be an influencer and you agree with what a Latina is saying, then say so. Have her back, because sometimes that’s all it takes for someone else to recognize her talent.
Hold others accountable. Correct employees when they make an inappropriate comment, or mispronounce someone’s name or shorten it because “it’s easier.” It’s important for people to know others are paying attention and will call coworkers out on something when it’s not right.
Establish a connection to the community to help build a pipeline of talented Latina executives. Nonprofit organizations, such as the Association of Latino Professionals for America, HACR, and Prospanica, as well as Employee Resource Groups, are just a few examples of places we can look to fuel that pipeline. We need to move beyond tokenism.
Require diverse slates for open senior positions. Perhaps simply creating something in corporate America similar to the NFL’s “Rooney Rule,” which requires that minority candidates be interviewed for head coaching and senior positions, would go a long way towards facilitating the inclusion of Latinas.
Latinas, share your stories. There’s something to be said about sharing your experiences. I think it’s extremely important for people to hear that someone else went through some of the same experiences—and they made it anyway.