In the month since its publication, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In has spent four weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, inspired thousands of response articles, mobilized 154,000 members on Facebook and been the catalyst for dozens of presentations by Sandberg. The volume of the conversation has been huge, but several themes have nonetheless emerged.
The book has earned both praise and personal attacks for Sandberg. Some commentators immediately dismissed the author as a privileged executive who has been given many opportunities to lean in and who does not understand the plight of the ‘rest’. Although the book was likely intentionally provocative, many of those writing about women in the workplace have come to appreciate that the topic needs addressing. And who else but a woman in a powerful position to tackle the issue of too few women in powerful positions?
If men today hold the majority of leadership positions in industry and government, in spite of women making up about 50 percent of the American workforce, who is to blame? Corporate and civic leaders, as well as outspoken women and men of all backgrounds, have given their voice to demand that those in power do more to empower women. Corporate diversity efforts are being reviewed, new educational organizations are being formed, and existing women’s groups are adopting the Lean In mantra. Many are also suggesting that women themselves need to do more. In the process, the biggest feminist debate of our time is taking shape.
Gender has been a large part of the conversation, but I believe culture also needs to be addressed. I write as a Latina, but of course cultural influences differ for different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds and for workers from different generations.
Note that Latinas account for only 4.2 percent of the management and professional related positions in the U.S. according to leading research and advocacy not-for-profit firm Catalyst. Asian and African-American women are not much represented either, accounting for 3 and 5.1 percent respectively. Women comprised 51.5 percent of management, professional and related positions. In the general population, Hispanics, Asians and African-Americans represent 34 percent of the U.S. population today
A Review of Core Latino Cultural Values
Latina professionals were initially puzzled by Lean In. What was the book trying to say? Are women the same as men? Are children equally well cared for by fathers as by mothers? Is this book talking to me? To my pleasant surprise, the topic is beginning to be discussed by Latinas who have found their voices through social media platforms.
Anglo-Saxons often assume that Latino culture is patriarchal. In reality, mothers play a primary role in the Latino family. “The father is the head of the household, but the woman is the neck,” a friend’s mother used to say. In my family, both of my grandmothers wore the pantalones in the home and commanded the respect, and obedience, of children and husband. The traditional values of ‘Marianismo’, which attribute to women Virgin-like characteristics such as being caretakers, submissive, and spiritual creatures from God, have been somewhat relaxed for today’s Latinas. The new Latina is independent, pursues higher education, and is not afraid of making decisions. Yet many Latinas continue to voluntarily abide by traditional gender roles.
Gender roles tend to be more rigid in Latin culture. Latin women in the U.S. prize beauty and femininity, and men are valued as protectors of the family and as the breadwinners. Familial obligations are also more conservative for Latinos, with honor, respect, and the need to “save face” all playing important roles. Communication style is more indirect in the Spanish language, with a Spanish sentence requiring 30 percent more words than an equal sentence in English. Even the way arguments and conclusions are presented may often be misunderstood as bad communication skills, when it could mean a different cultural way of presenting arguments and conclusions.
Cultural Influences As Related to the Lean In Debate
Latinos traditionally measure success by how well a person’s likeability, how much he or she helps others, and how faithfully he or she has hued to traditional gender roles. Therefore, a woman as the family’s breadwinner or the father staying at home to take care of the children while the woman pursues higher-level positions of power is a foreign idea.
Even though fathers are deeply involved in child rearing, mothers are expected to be the ultimate caretakers; otherwise, they risk attracting the scorn of the their extended family and community. The extreme guilt arising from these expectations could be a cause behind many women holding back on their potential. Thankfully, younger generations are changing rapidly, but employers still need to understand that Latinas evaluate opportunities using a different value system.
Although the individual is increasingly recognized in Latino culture, the community or family often take precedence. When evaluating career choices, the family is both the support system and the detractor. The man, the woman, and the extended family are all responsible for the child, and so their advice matters in decision-making. The only exceptions are extreme financial situations that ‘exempt’ women to take a more aggressive approach to their careers.
What can be done? To talk about leaning in and encouraging women to be more assertive in pursuing positions of higher authority is a good start, but not enough. At one level Latina professionals, just like any other professional women, seek recognition as valued experts and competent candidates in their field. The same advice that Sandberg gives to women applies to Latinas. However, without understanding the differences in perceptions, challenges, and support systems required for Latinas to succeed, an opportunity may be missed.
A Mi Manera
Women have progressed from winning the right to vote, the right to decide about their bodies and personal styles to the right to work outside the house. That’s not enough. Women need to graduate to have the right to get leadership positions equal to men, to seek powerful positions where they are entrusted with high-stakes decisions. But women should also be comfortable to define success, especially as it relates to career and family issues, in their own terms.
For me the lean in question is not an either/or situation. In order for women to achieve success we have to look at a combination of factors. I call this: A Mi Manera Success Equation.
Women Leadership Success = Want/Desire (Ganas) + Ability + Opportunity.
For Latinas the first element of the equation is crucial and probably one of the most difficult. Yet Latina history offers a multitude of tough mothers and grandmothers who have overcome insurmountable obstacles to succeed, suggesting that Latinas own the necessary innate desire. Education opportunities are continually improving, but opportunities in government, education and business need to follow.
I am happy to see that the conversation about women in leadership positions has involved both women and men. According to a quick review of TweetCharts.com, about 51 percent of online conversations on the topic are originating from men. I am equally happy to learn that Sandberg’s book has been published in 20 languages.
But words are not actions, and we Latinas need to do more. We do not want to give up our role as leaders in the U.S. and in the world; we need to graduate to the right to lead. Hillary Clinton, speaking at the Women in the World summit in New York, summed up perfectly the impetus for women to lead: “We are agents of change, we are drivers of progress, and we are makers of peace. All we need is a fighting chance.”
This approach is leading to progress. Latinas are leaning in and are starting to see some open doors. For example, there are about 20 Latinas who sit today on corporate boards. Yet much work lies ahead. Women of diverse backgrounds only account for 3 percent of all board seats at Fortune 500 companies, according to a report from the Alliance for Corporate Board Census. Hispanic women hold only 0.7 percent of Fortune 500 board seats. A few years back, at the beginning of my career in business, a dear colleague probed deeply into the question “Where do you come from?” When I finally answered, he said to me “You’ve come a long way,” and added, jokingly, “baby.” My response: “Not far enough, baby.”
How do you lean-in a tu manera? Send your comments @LRosari.