When I tell people I am a corporate lawyer, board director, and a venture investor I often get a puzzled look, followed by the shortest question in the world: “Really?” As a five-foot-two, curly-haired Latina, I have been mistaken for an assistant, paralegal, and even a nanny. I often laughed it off to make others comfortable, but that too was harmful. Limiting myths and misconceptions about Latinas harm our sense of self-worth over time and they perpetuate the bias and discrimination that fuel our lack of representation in corporate leadership.
While Latinas comprise nearly 10 percent of the total US population, we hold only 1 percent of Fortune 500 board seats, we hold only 2 percent of investment partner positions in venture capital, and, to date, only two Latinas have been the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. As I continue to work against these myths in my own life, I want to share the most common misconceptions about Latina professionals and share my tips on how to bust them.
Myth 1: Latinas Are Supporters, Not Leaders
How many times has a coworker applauded your immigrant resilience or respectfulness? Author Joe Frodsham believes that cultural scripts such as respect for authority, loyalty, and self-reliance, and harmony and humility can limit Latino career progression—leading to the perception that we are “more of a soldier than a leader.” My being frequently mistaken as the administrative assistant is one example. For Latinas rising up the ladder, this means they may be given less challenging work or be given work that isn’t recognized, be excluded from important meetings, or be passed over for promotions. And for Latina leaders who do rise to the top, we face an additional pressure to prove that we deserve the role, or that we even belong in the room.
Nevertheless, those of us in leadership roles must bust theses myth by being unabashedly visible in our profession to fellow Latinas and key decision-makers. Tell your story. Become a thought leader (you can start by writing for this publication). Participate in your employee resource group (ERG) and other leadership activities. Mentor other Latinas on how to navigate the workplace. Be the change you wish to see.
Myth 2: Latinas Prioritize Family Over Career
Family and motherhood are highly valued in our culture. Mothers are seen as the foundation of the family and are traditionally responsible for raising children, caring for elder parents, maintaining the household, and providing emotional support. Being the glue that holds the family together can be beautiful, but this expectation can also make it impossible for women to succeed in their careers. And employers who believe that Latinas have more family responsibilities may skip them for promotions and keep them at a lower salary band.
Latinas who want to advance in their careers must reframe the traditional expectations at home and in the office. At home, prioritize finding a supportive partner, lean on family and friends, and outsource daily tasks. This might include using meal prep and delivery services, hiring a dog walker, getting a personal assistant (virtual/remote assistants are increasingly more affordable), or finding reliable childcare and after-school transportation. In my experience, outsourcing these routine daily tasks saved me up to fifteen hours per week and gave me more quality time with my family in the evenings. In the office, continue to lean into your career. Give your opinions. Don’t be afraid to be a decision-maker. Raise your hand for the stretch project. Show up as the leader you are often at home, and find allies at work who will advocate for and sponsor you.
Myth 3: Latinas Benefit from Meritocracy
Many of us were brought up to believe that if we worked hard, people would notice, but the advice to “keep your head down” was wrong. By staying small, Latinas who are already at risk of being overlooked and underestimated further contribute to their problems. In fact, we often have to work twice as hard to be noticed. In the book Auténtico: The Definitive Guide to Latino Career Success, Dr. Robert Rodriguez and Andrés Tapia note that most Latino leaders and executives believe in meritocracy: hard work pays off and each person, who is judged solely on results, should rise to realize their fullest potential. Understandably, they want to be promoted because of their capabilities and not their ethnicity.
However, the authors of Auténtico argue, the disproportionately low number of Latinos rising to the leadership ranks tells another side of corporate culture: favoritism, discrimination, and bias.
To overcome this bias, be unafraid to showcase your talents, and don’t leave your career advancement up to chance. Be proactive in demonstrating your value. For example, create and share dashboards that summarize your team’s accomplishments and share with your peers and senior leaders. Actively build relationships among peers, managers, and across departments by attending social events and team lunches instead of staying at your desk all day. The time you spend forming relationships is oftentimes more valuable that making progress on that presentation. Hard work is not enough.
Myth 4: Latinas Can Do It Alone
Many Latino families survived in the US without a big support system so many of us learned that we should do it all alone. At the same time, we are telling our daughters that they can do and be anything, that they can run companies, and that nothing is beyond their reach. Latinas are somehow expected to do it all and without any help. That is impossible. And trying to do the impossible can lead to anxiety, depression, and burnout.
Everyone needs help. In fact, that is the only way to have the capacity to do things well. I learned this from reading the works of Author Tiffany Dufu who offers step-by-step instructions on how to reevaluate expectations, shrink your to-do list, and meaningfully engage the assistance of others to free up the space in your life. I worked with my family to reevaluate every household chore and divvied them up into categories: What I will do. What my family will do. What we will outsource. And what we will just stop doing. At home, everyone became responsible for their own laundry, I joined a neighborhood carpool, and I stopped volunteering for every school event. At work, I asked for what I needed whether it was more training, additional staff, richer budget, or extra time.
Myth 5: Latinas Can’t Be Authentic at Work
Nearly 76 percent of Latinos downplay or hide their identity at work. For Latinas also battling intersectional gender bias and sexism in the workplace, the issue may be greater and impacting everyone. US companies are leaving over $1 trillion on the table by not being more inclusive.
Organizations must continue acknowledging the many cultural challenges faced by Latinas in the workplace and invest in creating more spaces of belonging. Programs like the Latinas in Leadership Institute, for example, can provide us with the added tools to become influential leaders and advocates.
As the same time, we can change how we show up. For me, that was ending one small thing that I used to change about myself to fit in. I spent decades straightening my hair every morning because I thought it was more professional. Now I let my curly, long hair dry naturally, which not only feels more like myself but saves me an hour in the morning. It was uncomfortable at first but over time became easier.
The workplace is evolving exponentially, and Latinas are uniquely positioned to lead through this transformational period. It is time to dispel these myths and misconceptions so Latinas can be seen for the value they bring to the workplace.