Latinas "Lean In" to a Brick Wall
Latinas and immigrant women are the most underpaid groups in the United States. If they all listened to Sheryl Sandberg, they'd never get a seat "at the table."
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Sofia, the Underpaid Overachiever
This is the story of a woman I know. We’ll call her “Sofia.”
Sofia has a great career. She climbed the corporate ladder and rose to a leadership position at a major marketing agency in New York at a young age. She’s also pursuing an advanced degree. She’s the type of person you might see on one of those “Young Executives to Watch” lists. She has fought tooth and nail for everything she’s gotten. She earned it the old-fashioned way: hard work and skill. In spite of all her success, she was underpaid for most of her career.
At a previous company, Sofia discovered exactly how underpaid she was in the most infuriating way: an accidental internal leak of salaries. Not only did she discover she was paid less than most of her peers, but she also learned that white men were consistently paid more for the same job. She’s Latina. It wasn’t a surprise to her, but it was sobering to see it in hard, irrefutable numbers. How does one begin to redress systemic inequities as an individual?
*Sheryl Sandberg has entered the chat
Sheryl: “Have you tried leaning in?”
Sofia: “As in outperforming most of my peers, acting with intention and ambition, strategically pursuing roles on a career path that’s right for me, and then aggressively negotiating the terms of those roles?”
Sheryl: “Yes, that. Have you done that?”
Sofia: “Uh, yeah.”
Sheryl: “But did you really lean in?”
Sofia: “As opposed to what?”
Sheryl: “Did you just sort of half lean in?”
Sofia: “I leaned in, Sheryl.”
Sheryl: “And that didn’t work?”
Sheryl: “Did you go to Harvard?”
Sofia: “What does that have to do with—”
Sheryl: “I went to Harvard.”
The Limited Philosophy of “Lean In”
During Sheryl Sandberg’s 2010 Ted Talk, “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders,” she urged women to sit “at the table” — an apparent precursor to her seismic 2013 bestseller, “Lean In.” She already was a Silicon Valley fixture, but she became the face of mercenary feminism. If the patriarchy holds you down, punch it in the nose. Be assertive. Take what’s yours. Sounds good on paper. The problem was she benefited too much from a system that undercuts women to be a reliable source.
It doesn’t mean her heart wasn’t in the right place (although, eh, it’s complicated). It means she had blind spots that colored her worldview. She was the COO at what would become the largest social media platform of all time. She was on her way to becoming a billionaire. She sat on the Disney board and was rumored to be in the running for CEO. She was part of the male establishment. In other words, her titanic success might’ve insulated her from the struggles most women face in the workplace.
No, it goes beyond that. It wasn’t a one-off instance of blinkered thinking born of extreme financial gain. She wasn’t an outlier. It was — and is — a function of an inescapable dynamic: all women face challenges, but not all women face the same challenges.
The Intersectional Pay Gap
Latinas earn little more than half of what white men earn. That’s the largest wage gap in the United States, followed closely by indigenous American women and black women.
The picture becomes even bleaker when you factor immigrant women. One in five immigrant women live in poverty. They’re also much less likely to have health insurance: 66.3% compared to 84.6% of U.S.-born women.
The pay gap isn’t just about wages. There’s a host of related consequences, including limiting access to healthcare, access to education, and follow-on career opportunities.
While Sheryl Sandberg may very well have helped women speak up, lean in, and take a seat at the table, some women are already near the table. For those women, leaning in might make sense. For other women, Ms. Sandberg’s advice came across as insensitive, the feminist equivalent to telling underserved communities facing structural challenges to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”
The Asian “Exception”
You might’ve noticed something in the chart above: Asian women earn more than even white men, outperforming other groups of women by a wide margin. But that isn’t the complete picture.
While it’s true that Asian people earn well as a segment, they are also the most “economically divided group in the U.S.” The top 10% of Asian people earn 10.7 times as much as Asian people in the bottom 10% — the largest disparity of any racial or ethnic group in the country. Income inequality in general has grown in the U.S. since 1970, but no group has felt its effects more than the Asian population.
Fewer Women of Color in Top Jobs
White men are the only group that is progressively represented every step up the corporate ladder. White women lose ground, but they lose it at a slower rate. Women of color see the sharpest decline in representation moving up each rung. See for yourselves:
Mentor Shortage and the “Allyship Gap”
What do these statistics mean for Latinas, women of color and immigrant women? Fewer mentors, sponsors, hiring managers and other corporate decision makers who share their experience and culture. It’s a self-perpetuating system. Fewer mentors and sponsors with a shared background lead to fewer executives like them landing in positions to sponsor and mentor.
The McKinsey report referenced above, which is worth reading in its entirety, also reveals an allyship gap:
“There is a notable disconnect between the allyship actions that women of color say are most meaningful and the actions that White employees prioritize.”
Leaning Into a Brick Wall
The precept of “leaning in” has merit, but as Michelle Obama pointed out, “That shit doesn’t work all the time.”
Consider the following: If white men are progressively represented as they move up the corporate ladder, it stands to reason that they are increasingly rewarded the more proactive, ambitious and aggressive they as their careers advance.
By contrast, if Latinas, immigrant women and women of color represent a disproportionately shrinking segment of the work force as they move up the corporate ladder, it stands to reason that being increasingly proactive, ambitious and aggressive — or “leaning in” — will become less and less effective. They will be appealing to fewer and fewer decision makers who can best understand them.
The Mathematical Challenge
Here’s a test scenario:
account executive #1 starting salary: $50,000 per year
account executive #2 starting salary: $65, 000 per year
Let’s say account executive #1 is an overachiever, like Sofia. And let’s say account executive #2 just sort of coasts. Across several industries, a 3-5% raise is standard. Let’s apply the high end (5%) to AE1 and the low end to AE2. How long will it take for AE1 to close the gap with AE2? Let’s find out.
Year 1 salaries:
Year 2 salaries:
AE2: $68, 958
Year 3 salaries:
AE2: $71, 027
OK, it’s going to take too long to write out.
14 years. It takes 14 years.
That’s 14 years of getting to work early and staying late, 14 years of over-achieving, 14 years to finally edge out AE2, $98,997 to $97,883, while AE2 does the bare minimum.
Granted, this isn’t a real-world scenario. Salary increases are larger when moving up levels, but this little experiment shows what disadvantage someone faces by merely starting at a lower salary. You can spend an entire career playing catch-up.
What can the Sofias and the AE1s of the world do?
The Power of Referrals
Employee referrals account for 30-40% of all hires
88% of employers cite referral programs as the best source of applicants
Bottom line: Referrals are the most efficient way to land a job.
You might’ve spotted a logic flaw at this point. If Latinas, immigrant women and women of color are underpaid and underrepresented, won’t they be less able to benefit from referrals? Short answer: Yes.
The Network Loop
How can Latinas and immigrant women overcome limited networks?
If you build it, they will refer you
Though still not enough, there are many more resources and support programs for women and people of color than there were 20 years ago.
Events and programs: There are programs, networking events and career fairs across industries dedicated to creating opportunities for underrepresented communities. Example: MAIP (Multicultural Advertising Intern Program)
Competitions: Ditto for competitions that cater to young Latina and WOC professionals. This is especially helpful in more creative industries, like advertising.
Alumni network: Many colleges and universities have online alumni networks. Latina and WOC graduates would do themselves a disservice not tapping into those networks.
Mentors and sponsors: Mentors and sponsors can be especially helpful in reaching higher career levels. Latinas and women of color would do well to seek out top executives who share backgrounds for advice and coaching.
Latinas, immigrant women and women of color mustn’t depend on the gradual climb up the corporate ladder if they expect to reach the higher echelons of corporate leadership. They must seek out mentors and sponsors who share their lived experiences.
*Sheryl Sandberg has entered the chat
Everyone: NOT NOW, SHERYL!
Lending a Hand Instead of Leaning In
Sofia has a great career. Today, after years of gaining ground, she earns as much as her white, male counterparts. She’s earned everything she’s gotten, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the help she got along the way, help from women of color.
When Sofia was young in her career, a woman close to her, a Latina (we’ll call her “Valeria”), connected her with a recruiter at a major agency in New York, a black woman (“Kim”). Kim met with Sofia even though there wasn’t an immediate opening. Months later, when the right opportunity popped up, Kim reached out to Sofia. Sofia interviewed for the job, impressing one of the decision makers, a Latina (“Nicole”). Nicole eventually became Sofia’s manager and her fiercest advocate through much of her career.
Sofia excelled every step of the way, but Valeria cracked the door open for her. Let’s be clear: Sofia kicked the door wide open and sprinted through it, but it’s a lot harder to kick a door open when it’s locked.
Years later and not long ago, Sofia helped someone close to her, someone who will soon enter the work force, a Latina (“Lucy”). Sofia connected Lucy with a decision maker and potential hiring manager at her company (“Liz”), a white woman. Lucy impressed Liz, so much so that when Lucy applied for a competitive internship program, Liz advocated for her.
Would Lucy have landed the internship without that connection? It doesn’t matter. Lucy thrived in the internship, winning over several potential future employers along the way, proving she belonged.
And some day, after years of overachieving, in the midst of a promising career that will have exceeded even Sofia’s expectations, Lucy will hold the door open for someone else, someone like her.