Arriba La Latina: Supporting The Rise of Latino Leaders

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As we conclude Hispanic Heritage Month, we are reminded of the significant contributions that Latino leaders have had on the fabric of American society. From Cesar Chavez to Lin-Manuel Mirando, Latinos have increasingly strived to ensure their voices are heard. Some immediate names that come to mind include Sonia Sotomayer, the fist Latina member of the US Supreme Court, Rita Morena, the groundbreaking Puerto Rican actress famous for her role in West Side Story, and Ellen Ochoa, the first Latino woman to travel to space. Each of them, in their respective fields, have shattered barriers and served as inspiring role models to countless women and men. However, despite their successes, there has been limited research about the cultural traditions that influence Latina leaders and the unique challenges they face that inhibit them from strong representation in leadership roles.

Latinos are the fastest growing demographic in the United States. As of 2019, Latina women comprised 18% of all women in the United States, and it is expected that, by 2060, that number will increase to 27%.  However, despite this growing number, Latina women only hold 4.5% of management positions as compared to 32.8% held by White women (Catalyst, 2021). This disparity represents both an opportunity, and a call to action, to better understand the types of support Latinas can benefit from to increase their representation in leadership roles.

To understand any segment of the population, Latino or otherwise, we must first begin to understand their culture. Some of the early research conducted by Holvino (2008) found several characteristics that resonate with Latino leaders including:

  • “familismo,” the importance of close, protective, and extended family relationships
  • “machismo y marianismo,” gender relations where males are responsible for protecting and providing for their families while the females nurture and serve for their families
  • “personalismo,” creating personal and meaningful relationships
  • “simpatia,” encouraging pleasant relations and positive situations in order to avoid conflict and disharmony
  • “collectivism,” the importance of belonging to a group and recognizing the needs of that group
  • “present time orientation,” focusing on the present because of the uncertainty of and inability to control the future
  • “respect and high power distance,” high regard and respect towards people based on their formal authority, age, or social power.

Northhouse (2013) found that Latinos value charismatic/value-based, team-oriented, and self-protective leadership the most, and autonomous leadership the least. These values lend them to taking a more team-oriented approach to work and a concern for the collective well-being of the groups they pertain to. They also value the ability to inspire and motivate others and strive to ensure the safety and security of their organizations.

By recognizing these elements of Latino culture, we can begin to understand the contexts in which Latina leaders thrive. Their relational style facilitates their ability to develop relationships with a variety of different people. The concepts of “personalismo” and “familismo” strengthen Latinas’ interpersonal relationships as they emphasize interdependence, affiliation, and cooperation. As a result, belonging to collaborative and supportive groups is important for Latina leaders to thrive. Unfortunately, many Latinas lack access to networks, resulting in significant disadvantages such as not being considered for key assignments or promotions (Rivera, 2014).It is also important to understand which cultural traditions and values impact Latinas when they strive to achieve leadership roles. Bonilla-Rodriguez (2011) found that the main obstacles which hinder Latinas from pursuing leadership roles involved lack of self-confidence, motivation, mentors, educational attainment, and leadership training. Amongst those obstacles, mentorship is perhaps one of the most important ones as effective mentors can provide support for several of the other obstacles named. This is particularly challenging given the small numbers of Latinos holding leadership roles, especially women. However, the impact of finding one can dramatically influence the likelihood of achieving success later in life. Nanette Cocero, Global President of Pfizer Vaccines, a key player in the race to find a Covid-19 vaccine, attributes strong mentorship as a key to her success as she shared with Latino Leaders Magazine, “If you meet someone who will be a good mentor, ask them! I’m indebted to the mentors I’ve had throughout my career, both formal and informal.”

The role of education, and access to it, is another factor that impedes the progress of future Latina leaders. Latina women represent only 14.9% of Bachelor degrees earned by women in the United States (Catalyst, 2021). For many young Latinas, they will be the first in their families to attend college. Many lack the guidance from their immediate families and personal networks to guide them through the increasingly competitive college admissions process. And once they get to college, the challenge of being in unfamiliar territory can pose further challenges to success. Miriam Rivera, Chief Executive Officer and managing director at Ulu Ventures, an early seed-stage venture fund company in Silicon Valley, believes that a major focus of Latino advocacy should be STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education, “yet it is not required in most public schools where the majority of kids are getting educated.”

While Hispanic Heritage Month concludes, the work to increase the representation of Latinas in leadership roles is just beginning.  Below are some specific actions, senior leaders can do to help increase the number of Latina leaders in the future:

  • Spend some time learning the Latino culture and advocate when possible.
  • Engage with Latino employee support professional groups to serve as mentors, regardless of whether you are Latino or not.
  • Identify and develop relationships with emerging Latina talent and introduce them to your personal and professional networks.
  • When evaluating external candidates for ‘culture fit’ be open and understand how Latino’s can add to your existing corporate culture.
  • Identify early pipeline opportunities for Latino’s such as internships and job shadowing to open the aperture for young talent on new career opportunities.

As companies strive to have their leadership reflect the broader demographics of their client bases, increasing the representation of Latina leaders should continue to be an important aspiration for any company committed to this goal.