As a woman, I was heartened by the recent historic breakthroughs of the glass ceiling in two major institutions in our country: the election of Kamala Harris as the first female Vice President of the United States and the appointment of Kim Ng as the first female General Manager of a Major League Baseball team, the Florida Marlins. Even more positive is that Vice President-elect Harris is a woman of color from an African American and South Asian background and Ms. Ng is an Asian American.
But, despite these incredible milestones, as a Latina tech entrepreneur I know there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done by Hispanic women to further break that glass ceiling. African Americans have and continue to lead the charge for civil rights and equality in the United States, for which everyone of color has benefited from and we should all be grateful: however, it is time for Latinos and Latinas to more aggressively advocate for equality in the halls of government, on main street, and in the C-suite.
A fast-growing demographic
It is important to understand the size of Hispanics as a demographic group, albeit not a monolithic one, in the United States. According to the Pew Research Center, Latinos are the second largest racial or ethnic group behind white non-Hispanics. Between 2010 and 2019, the Latino population share in the United States grew from 16% to 18% and accounted for over half (52%) of all U.S. population growth during this time frame. By contrast, African Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population and Asian Americans 5.6%.
Despite these numbers, on the political side, to put into perspective Vice President-elect Harris’s achievement, there are currently a “record” 26 women serving in the United States Senate with only 57 total who have served in the history of our country. There is only one Latina in the Senate, Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), and only four total Hispanic Senators currently serving out of a total of 9 historically. In the House of Representatives, since the first Latina Congresswoman, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), was elected in 1989, only 20 Hispanic women have served.
Latinas in business
On the business side, pre-Covid 19, Latina-owned businesses were doing quite well. There were 2.3 million of them, which accounted for 18% of all women-owned businesses, according to a 2019 American Express study. These businesses were growing at a healthy 10% per year. Latina-owned businesses also accounted for almost half of all Hispanic-owned businesses; however, they generated on average only about one third the revenue of women-owned businesses as a whole: $51,000 compared to $143,000 annually. This discrepancy is due to many reasons, but perhaps the greatest cause is lack of access to capital.
This deficiency was exacerbated as Covid hit our economy. As the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) was rolled out, it quickly became apparent that women- and minority-owned businesses were having a tougher time accessing these funds. According to the Latin Business Action Network (LBAN) at Stanford University, Latino-owned businesses were approved at half the rate of white businesses for PPP loans. The main reasons were lack of adequate financial record keeping, a dearth of legal or accounting services, and the absence of a close banking relationship.
This last reason was perhaps most important, as initially the PPP program was mainly run through large banks and aimed at their existing customers. According to a Brookings Institution report, this created challenges for Latina businesses, which average 10 or fewer employees and are often under-banked or unbanked. Many Latina businesses were, therefore, shut out when the program closed on August 8. Now, without further aid, some estimates predict 30-40% of Latina-owned businesses will not survive the Covid pandemic.
Breaking into the C-Suite
On the large corporate side, Ms. Ng’s achievement of breaking into the ranks of one of the most exclusive “old boys’ clubs” also can’t be overstated. It took her 30 years to become the first woman to lead a team in the 151-year-old baseball league. Achievements like this create possibilities for other women. Yet we can’t ignore the stats: Hispanic women continue to be very underrepresented in the C-suite and board room. Overall, while Hispanics represent 17% of the overall workforce, they occupy only 4.3% of executive positions. And, while the number of female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies hit a record high in 2020 with 37, only three are women of color and none are Latina or African American. Further, there is a significant wage gap with Latinas earning 46% less than white men and 31% less than white women.
There are many causes for these lagging numbers, not the least of which are bias and unconscious bias, which are stereotypes and underlying attitudes we hold towards certain groups that result in adverse reactions without realizing it. For example, a recent study by the Network of Executive Women found that Latinas in corporate America believe that promotions and executive presence are still based on white male norms. Women in the study reported being told they were “too colorful” or “drama queens,” that they were “too familiar” with co-workers, and that they weren’t “hungry” enough due to an emphasis on work/life balance. These are some of the typical biases negatively impacting Latinas in the workplace.
Leveling the playing field for Latinas and all women of color
So, what can be done to reverse these trends and have more Latinas reach new heights in government and business? Hopefully, the examples of Kamala Harris and other new lawmakers will make many more young Latinas and women of color consider entering politics, because we can’t be what we can’t see. On the business side, Latina entrepreneurs need access to the resources and information necessary to position their businesses to grow and scale. And that includes knowledge and know-how related to venture capital. A widespread education campaign is critical to make Latina business owners aware of these resources and how to secure business-changing access to capital.
With large corporations and other organizations, it is now possible to identify unconscious bias, track it, and mitigate against it with measurable and quantifiable data. Improving unconscious bias is not just a “feel good” exercise. Numerous studies show that companies doing poorly with gender and racial bias face high turnover rates, low morale, lower profitability, and higher legal risk.
While it is not possible to overcome all of the biases ingrained in ourselves, we can work hard to change behaviors and to create a more level playing field for Latinas and all those trying to break through glass ceilings. Thanks to Kamala Harris and Kim Ng, now we know it’s possible.
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