Since moving to the US and throughout most of my corporate career, I have often found myself as the only Latina in the room—navigating a culture that was at times unfamiliar, overwhelming, and even frustrating. However, it was through these experiences that I began to comprehend the weight of my influence and the potential I held to drive meaningful change. As a Hispanic leader, I play a pivotal role in shaping and expanding spaces that champion equity while bridging the divide and paving the way for other Hispanics to ascend to leadership positions and thrive in those roles.
Today, less than 4 percent of executive-level positions are held by Hispanic employees according to the Society for Human Resources Management’s 2022 data. Based on my experience, this underrepresentation is rarely a result of a lack of qualifications or ambition on our part. In fact, research conducted by Unidos US (formerly NCLR) reveals that young Latinos are driven, ambitious, and deeply committed to their professional growth through hard work and dedication.
These stark statistics are a powerful reminder of the pressing need for leaders, regardless of their ethnicity, to lead with empathy and cultivate an atmosphere where everyone feels valued, respected, and able to thrive.
So, how can leaders embrace empathy to create inclusive spaces?
Many times, we are the only ones in the room, which can make it difficult for others to understand and appreciate the cultural obstacles we face, like not knowing the “office politics” or the “way things work.” It may also lead to the misconception that Hispanic employees are not assertive or ambitious enough due to our deep-rooted respect for authority or our lack of self-advocacy. Furthermore, our strong family values and their influence on prioritizing family commitments over work obligations can also be misunderstood.
As leaders, we have the power to promote open dialogues. By leading with vulnerability, we inspire (and encourage) team members to share their cultural backgrounds and experiences. By fostering empathy and developing a deeper understanding of one another, we create an environment where every voice is heard and valued. Additionally, openly recognizing the unique contributions that Hispanic employees bring to the organization not only nurtures a sense of belonging but also creates an environment where we feel appreciated and respected.
Unfortunately, many are unaware of the benefits of having mentors or sponsors and how to approach these resources to access help. As leaders, we can create an environment that promotes and celebrates mentorship and sponsorship. First, by serving as mentors and sponsors. Second, by highlighting success stories that inspire others to demystify these resources.
In cases where formal mentoring and sponsoring is affected by a lack of senior leaders of Hispanic and Latino background, leaders can try partnering with external Hispanic organizations who can provide a broader range of mentors and additional guidance and support. Furthermore, we can incentivize and encourage senior executives to be intentional in identifying Hispanic talent and actively promote their advancement within the organization.
Actions speak louder than words. Although the pressures to deliver results or conform to certain expectations of success may sometimes cloud our judgment, we must resist the urge and display kindness, understanding, and compassion in all our interactions.
Leading by example means fostering a culture of empathy and trust, where individuals can freely express themselves without fear of judgment and where biases, microaggressions, and unwanted behaviors are called out immediately to prevent their reoccurrence. Staying silent as a Hispanic leader perpetuates the challenges presented by language barriers, cultural differences, stereotyping, and discrimination. It is our responsibility to transparently address these challenges and use our power to effect change so people feel valued, respected, and so they can contribute their best.
Let us stand together, united by our shared experiences, as we inspire and empower those around us to grow and thrive. Together, we can create a future where empathy and understanding are the driving forces behind an inclusive workplace where anyone, regardless of their background, identity, or lived experience, can thrive.
Ilhiana Rojas is an Executive & Leadership Transformation Strategy Coach, a DEI Consultant, a Hispanic advocate, a Bestselling Author, and an international motivational speaker.