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Saturday, Sep 24, 2022

Women’s Leadership Awards: Study Examines Corporate America’s Latina Leadership Crisis

Senior-level Latina talent is heading for the exits of corporate America at an alarming rate, according to a study released this past May by the Network of Executive Women (NEW) and Hispanic marketing platform Latinarrific. At a time when annual Hispanic buying power is approaching $1.7 trillion, yet there are no Latina CEOs within the Fortune 500 and Latinas represent the fastest growing sector of small business entrepreneurs, the study provides essential insights into the drivers of Latina career advancement and ways in which companies can better identify, promote and retain Latina leaders for a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

“We’re seeing gains in equality through middle management, but there’s still a sparse pipeline of women of color, especially Latinas, for senior leadership positions,” said NEW CEO Sarah Alter. “Once we understand why, we can begin to shift the tide, knowing that diversity and inclusion is not just the right thing to do, it’s an imperative business strategy in today’s multicultural landscape.” 

The newly-released study, Latinas in Corporate America – A Foot in Two Worlds: Elevating the Latina Experience, examined a wide body of research, centering its primary findings on a focus group of 36 senior and mid-level Latina executives. The group included a cross-section of first, second and third-generation Latina-Americans from multiple countries and cultures of origin. 

“The report represents the broad experiences that the majority of focus group participants shared,” said study co-author Arminda Figueroa, Latinarrific Vice President of Strategy and Audience Engagement. “Within any ethnic group is a heterogeneous set of experiences, worldviews and backgrounds, so identified trends cannot be viewed as reflective of every Latina’s journey.” 

Many of the Latinas interviewed said they don’t feel they fit easily into the typical corporate culture of the United States. While this could be celebrated from a differences-add-strength perspective, study insights show far too many companies quashing Latina diversity. With the current standard for everything from promotability to executive presence based on white male norms, Latina executives have generally succeeded despite their corporate culture, not because of it. 

Prejudice and discrimination for being “different” – speaking a different language, having an accent, not having a degree from “the right school” or living in “the right area” were common themes among the group. Many Latinas have had to learn code switching to master the corporate cultural script, adapting a work persona and keeping their more natural persona at home. While not how they think it should be, all acknowledged doing it, from fashion and expressiveness to boundaries of personal space. 


Factors hindering Latinas from seeing an opportunity for authentic advancement in large corporations include: 

Collectivism vs. Individualism – Many Latinas are raised in a collectivist culture where the good of the group trumps individual pursuits. Latinas are praised by their parents for being selfless, generous, and helpful, and respecting authority figures. When a Latina enters the very individualistic culture of U.S. businesses, where assertiveness, independence and appropriate “push-back” are valued, the dichotomy can be confusing for the Latina and her manager.  

Some Latinas’ reluctance to self-promote, their support for end-result versus individual accomplishments, and their hesitation to challenge authority figures, including their boss, can be misconstrued. Instead of being coached on how to turn these behaviors into strengths, complementing them with what their corporate culture values, many very qualified Latinas are overlooked for promotions or fast-tracking because their team spirit and cultural values make them look less “hungry” or personally qualified for advancement. 

“Latina-ness” vs. reserve – Some Latinas in the focus group described their “Latina-ness” as “too much” for their corporate culture. Latinas are told they’re “too colorful” or “too expressive” and asked to “tone it down.” Corporate poker-face is in direct contrast to the use of hands and passionate expression most Latinas learned as essential to communication. Participants described being perceived as having a “Latin temper,” being a drama queen or overly sensitive – all while trying to discern what their coworkers’ neutral expressions meant in meetings. 

Personalismo vs. “too familiar” – Being friendly, open, and physically close is natural for most Latinas, but can be misunderstood by coworkers from less open cultures. Touching and close physical proximity are common ways to connect personally and respectfully with someone when conducting business in Latin cultures, but sometimes go beyond the American norm of friendliness at work. 

Prioritizing family vs. “whatever it takes” – Many Latinas place a significant emphasis on spending time together as a family – something corporate America says it values but often does not accommodate well. While work/life balance is a critical consideration for most women, Latinas face the added complication of a cultural view of institutional daycare that differs from that of many non-Latina-American women. Having children at home with a trusted family member, close friend or nanny is the prevailing preference in Latin culture. 

Furthermore, some Latinas are dealing with machismo and receiving little help at home. Others feel pressure from relatives to get married and have a family, and in more traditional settings, added family pressure to step back from career growth. 

The Latina executives interviewed rejected the notion that prioritizing family diminishes commitment to career and described themselves as clear and focused in taking on a variety of responsibilities and roles, showing up consistently with integrity and reliably getting the job done. They may do it differently than their traditional white male counterparts, making it home for dinner more often or taking a couple hours to visit their child’s classroom. But that balanced approach is part of the diversity and value Latinas bring to the table. 

“Interestingly, many of the traits cited by the focus group as drawbacks within the traditional, white male dominated workplace – making time for family, empathy, expressiveness – have become celebrated assets in the COVID-19 work-from-home landscape,” said study co-author Karianne Gomez, NEW Vice President of Strategic Value. “What remains to be seen, as the country reopens, is whether a newly enlightened C-suite will embrace the unique attributes Latinas bring to the table, or revert to its old ways, forcing an emboldened Latina talent pool to flee corporate America even faster.” 


To date, advice on attracting and retaining women of color has been largely generic, yet women of color’s career development needs are very diverse. The study authors urge corporate leaders to look to Latinas as individuals, so they can build a more robust talent development plan, addressing the isolation and bias participants described. 

“Companies need to shift the expectation from knowing to genuinely caring about the Latina’s hopes, fears and dreams,” said Mary Mathis, Latinarrific Founder and CEO. “If they can build confidence and trust, and keep their Latina executives motivated with enthusiasm for a project, they’ll unearth Latinas’ true potential to be powerful networkers and game-changers.” 

Recommendations include: 

Embrace diversity and inclusion as “smart business” –  Study after study show diverse companies outperforming their competitors. Companies with culturally and ethnically diverse executive teams are 33 percent more likely to see better-than-average profits, according to a McKinsey & Company report, and when that diversity extends to a company’s Board of Directors, the competitive advantage increases to 43 percent. Leveraging the thinking of diverse groups leads to smarter ideation and decision-making that reduces a company’s risk of being blindsided by something a diverse team would have flagged.  

Brand loyalty is exceptionally strong among Hispanics. In an economic crisis, brands that stay relevant and vested in their engagement with their Hispanic customers have proven to bounce back sooner and stronger. 

Recognize bias – Latinas are subject to a range of bias in the workplace, both conscious and unconscious. Focus group participants referenced the “manana” stereotype, presuming individuals from Latin cultures put things off until tomorrow rather than addressing them head-on today, and employers’ assumption they are somehow less intelligent because they have an accent. Some described being disparaged not only by native English-speakers, but sometimes by Latin co-workers for their regional dialect. The study authors encourage companies to continue, or enact, unconscious bias training, noting that building the empathy and emotional intelligence of managers helps build better relationships with all employees, but especially multicultural ones. 

Practice inclusive leadership – Without inclusion, diversity walks out the door. True cultural competence means understanding and valuing the uniqueness of diverse others, while also accepting them as members of the group. Companies that celebrate differences and identify how those differences are making a positive business impact will win and retain Latina talent. 

Create sponsorship programs – Unlike a mentor who can provide advice and perspective, a sponsor is a connected individual within the organization who uses that power to help make a mapped career path happen. Latinas interviewed said they had multiple mentors, but sponsors were few and far between. While most women struggle to find sponsors, it’s even harder for Latin women because of the absence of Latinas in senior level positions. If Latinas are to be able to look up and see people who look like them in the C-suite, companies need to enact deliverable interventions to help attract, develop and retain Latina talent. 

Instill a culture of accountability – To significantly move the needle, companies need to hold leaders accountable for diversity and more importantly, inclusion. This means putting measures into place that are tied to performance reviews and ultimately executive compensation. 

To view or download the complete Latinas in
Corporate America – A Foot in Two Worlds:
Elevating the Latina Experience report, visit newonline.org/latina.  


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