By Courtney Connley
As a first-generation daughter, Chief Member Vanessa Santos often heard the saying “the quieter you are, the prettier you are” in Spanish as a kid. Even though her parents had immigrated to the United States legally from the Dominican Republic and Ecuador, Santos says “there was still this stigma that they were afraid that they were going to get deported or that something would happen.” So, they worked hard and kept their head down, rarely using their voice — even when slighted against.
“They never ruffled feathers,” says Santos, Partner and Co-CEO at #WeAllGrow Latina, a digital and lifestyle community that elevates and empowers Hispanic/Latinx voices. “And they kind of passed that down to me and made me feel that, you know, I need to be quiet and just be grateful.”
Santos carried this “quiet and grateful” approach with her long into her career until she realized one day that it wasn’t paying off. “I was constantly overworking and seeing that my male peers were being overcompensated for the same work that I was delivering — and many times I was delivering more work,” she says. “That's when I was like, Wait, me not speaking up is actually a detriment to my career growth.”
Like Santos, many Hispanic/Latinx women have fallen into the trap of being overworked and underpaid due to culture biases and stereotypes that hinder them in their career. Currently, Hispanic/Latinx women earn just $0.49 for every dollar earned by white men. For white women the gap is $0.73 to every dollar. And when looking at the S&P 100, Latinx women hold just 1.6% of senior executive roles, with only two Hispanic/Latinx women ever holding the title of Fortune 500 CEO. In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, Chief spoke to Santos, along with other Chief Members, about the cultural and social pressures they face at work and the responsibilities that all leaders have to support and elevate diverse talent.
How Cultural Biases Inform Workplace Stereotypes
Santos explains that in Hispanic/Latinx culture, when you are the oldest, you care for a lot of people, “which means you become the family planner or the family negotiator.” And if you’re a woman, you’re taught at a young age how to clean the house and care for the home. “Whereas the boys,” she says, “are taught to get a job and provide for the family.” This internal cultural bias informs an external stereotype where Hispanic/Latinx women are seen as caretakers first rather than executives fit for leadership, as highlighted in a recent USA TODAY report.
“We are often seen as receptionists, and party planners, and assistants, and we are so much more than that,” says Santos. “And the frustrating piece of it is that we just can't be average. We have to overwork in order to be considered for roles and promotions.”
“In corporate America, compared to Latina, or Black and brown professionals in general, men are measured on potential whereas we have to be measured on what we are consistently delivering and we always have to outdo ourselves.”
Personally, Santos says, unlearning some of the mindsets and behaviors that have been taught to her over the years have been key to helping her succeed. “I’ve had to unlearn being quiet,” she says. “I've had to unlearn jumping in and saying, ‘Oh, I'll order everybody's lunch.’ Because I recognized that none of those were adding to my end-of-year performance review when it came time for promotions or raises.”
The Trap of Losing Yourself in Order to Fit In
Similar to other Hispanic/Latinx women who have often felt like an outsider in their career, Santos says she spent years trying to minimize her accent, culture, and where she came from. “I felt a lot of shame from the fact that I grew up low-income, that I had to take advantage of food stamps and Section 8 in order to get by,” she says. “I've always held multiple jobs in order to support my family because even though they were here legally, they were still seen as other — as immigrants — and couldn't get the kind of jobs that they deserved to have regardless of the skills they had. So I carried a lot of shame because they were not accepted in many places and I thought, Well, if I look or act like that then maybe I won't be accepted.”
But after years of code switching in order to get ahead, Santos says she soon realized that “you slowly chip away who you are just to satisfy somebody's criteria so that you can fit into all these checked boxes that really weren’t meant for you anyway.”
“There was a moment when I realized, What is the legacy that I want to leave behind?,” she says. “Because if I'm teaching all the women who look up to me and who I mentor to act this way, then we're not actually changing anything. We're just fitting into the stereotypical roles that they want us to and that's what needs to change.”
The Diversity Metric Companies Should Actually Be Focused On
While speaking up and challenging cultural stereotypes and biases are key to helping advance Hispanic/Latinx talent, Santos, along with Chief Member Vianni Lubus, says there are some critical things leaders can do to ensure their DEI efforts aren’t missing the mark.
“I think company leaders need to not only focus on recruiting diverse talent, but also placing an equally serious focus on retention,” says Lubus, Head of Audience & Engagement, VP Hispanic Division at Guerrero Media. This can be done, she says, by providing greater flexibility to your team so that members who are family providers and caretakers have the workplace support needed to juggle both. Additionally, she says leaders need to be asking themselves on a regular basis, Am I creating a sense of belonging and a sense of community within the team as well as with the broader organization? and, Am I creating opportunities where everyone feels they have an equal [chance] to succeed and progress in their careers?
“I want to overemphasize the word equal because I’m also talking about pay,” she adds.
For organizations that have a DEI department, Santos says she challenges leaders to ensure they have a clear roadmap that helps elevate diverse women into leadership.
“I love when I see a Black woman or a Latina woman get promoted as a Chief Diversity Officer or Chief Inclusion Officer,” she says. “But there are so many other titles with the Cs on it, but they seem to not be reserved for women of color. And that's due to the fact that there aren't enough tools at middle management showing these women how they can get from middle manager to director, to VP, to president, et cetera.” And, she says, it’s also linked to systemic biases built into tracking systems for applications.
“If they're being coded and created by men, then they're going to benefit men,” she says. “They’re not going to benefit Latinas. And so that's something that’s systemic that needs to be adjusted. And I'm sure our DEI counterparts in the C-Suite can support this by making sure that the interview process and the application process is fair, objective, and non-biased so that we have more people of color at the C-Suite level.”
Have you listened to the Chief podcast? Tune into "The New Rules of Business" as Chief Co-Founders Carolyn Childers and Lindsay Kaplan unpack today's most challenging leadership questions. Be sure to leave a review and follow wherever you get your podcasts. New episodes drop every Tuesday.