Latinas in Corporate America

by Tina Vasquez (Los Angeles)

Latinas are statistically the most underrepresented group in the workforce amongst minorities in the U.S. according to Ramona Armijo, a Latina Ph.D. candidate in Walden University’s Masters in Education/Knowledge Management. That’s the bad news. The good news is that their cultural understanding and language skills make Latinas extremely competitive candidates for filling top positions in the private sector to serve the growing Hispanic segment in the U.S. So why so few Latinas in corporate America? “Societal factors, including education and cultural traditions, often compromise the career objectives of high-achieving Latina women, but the lack of research on Latina professionals makes it difficult to address these factors,” Armijo said.

Successful Latinas often say that some of the biggest challenges they faced had little to do with finances or the pursuit of education and more to do with their culture, family, and selfless guilt as the top reasons they felt held back. Carmina Pérez, former Vice President of Lehman Brothers, editorial producer at CNN, and personal finance writer for AOL Latino, felt the strange cultural pressure to dream small as a young girl growing up in San Juan, Puerto Rico. “One of the professional hardships I’ve had to overcome is the attitude towards women in business that I learned from Latin culture. Growing up, I was never really pushed to study hard or find a high-paying job because it was more important to be a señorita and to focus more on looking good and finding a husband,” Pérez said.

Pérez, 49, began her career in financial services, but has since become a social media marketing consultant. “It’s been hard…, especially coming from a Latin world where women weren’t expected to excel in the business world,” Pérez said.

As difficult as the climb up the corporate ladder can be, there are many industries and companies where Latinas are thriving. Sodexo, for example, is a leading foodservice and facilities Management Company with 120,000 employees in North America. It has been named number two on the 2009 list of the Top Ten Companies for Latinos by DiversityInc Magazine. The food service company, up from the ninth place on last year’s list, has had a long-standing policy that diversity is the key to professional success. Sodexo’s CEO tied 25 percent of senior-executive bonuses to diversity. Interestingly, the company has also been named the number one company for female executives as well.

The burgeoning telecommunications industry is yet another sector in which Latinas are experiencing success. No one knows this better than Magda Yrizarry, Verizon’s Vice President of Workplace Culture, Diversity, and Compliance. Yrizarry has held successive positions of increasing responsibility with Verizon, starting as a manager of educational relations and moving into the position of director of National Workforce Development Programs for the Verizon Foundation, where she was responsible for managing the company’s $75 million dollar philanthropic budget. Much like Sodexo, Verizon Communications has become synonymous with success for Latinas looking to advance in the corporate world. Last year, the telecommunications giant came in at number two on DiversityInc’s top ten list of companies for Latinos, with 17 percent of the women in its management being Latina. “The telecommunications industry anticipates the needs of their customers and use that understanding of the marketplace to drive strategic decisions that will affect the short and long-term,” Yrizarry said, “When you consider how interconnected our world has become in the last few years and the demographics of this country, it becomes obvious that Latinas have a lot to offer.”

Verizon isn’t the only successful telecommunications company that is being recognized for their commitment to showcasing diversity within the upper ranks of the company. Latina Style Magazine recently named AT&T “company of the year” for having such a culturally diverse workforce. Alma-Luisa Andrade, Special Projects Manager at Latina Style Magazine, says that diverse recruitment efforts have been made throughout AT&T’s pipeline because of the Latina representation already in place at the company. “AT&T was chosen because it’s clear that they are very interested in nurturing and developing Latina talent. Diversity awareness is key in the progress of Latinas in the U.S. and AT&T models the workplace of the future. Although this is a grandiose undertaking, they have set the mark high through the practices they employ on a daily basis. We have to applaud companies who strive to deliver leaders that represent America to the core,” Andrade said.

Other major companies, such as Morgan Stanley, Kaiser Permanente, Accenture and WellPoint, Inc., have also been recognized recently for their efforts at recruiting, retaining and developing Latina talent. This is great news for the growing pool of talented Latinas prepared to step into the roles. “Our ethnicity allows us to have perspectives that come from a ‘unique’ background, which can be very helpful to companies with a less-than-diverse workforce. The great thing is that we, as Latinas, can also embrace the many things people have in common beyond ethnic definitions. No matter what the company or industry, nothing can hold Latinas back except an unwillingness to challenge themselves and others to go beyond their perceived limitations,” Yrizarry added.