The Difficulties of Leaning In


A look at the challenges young women of color face in the workplace.

When Sheryl Sandberg wrote Lean In, it was hailed as the beginning of a movement for women, a primer on how to lead one’s life as a corporate citizen and construct a successful career. As a Latina who invested 30 years in corporate America, I fully embrace Ms. Sandberg’s treatise: her words are wise, her advice is practical and results-oriented. I wondered, however, what are the unique challenges women of color face in applying her teachings? Do we have circumstances in our lives borne from culture and heritage that are different from those of other women executives? Do we need to look at Lean In with an additional lens?

Latin American and African American cultures both have a heritage of strong senior women. The matriarch of the family is respected and revered; she embodies the value system of the family and is the protector of the culture, passing it on to the next generation to ensure customs and traditions will survive.

What about work ethic?
In Latin American countries, men dominate the workplace. Latinas are expected to ‘help,’ but are not necessarily expected to lead. This pattern of behavior continues when Latinas move into the U.S. culture. As a Latina in business, I remember discussions with the Latin parents of young women to whom I had offered a job. “Is Chicago a safe place?” “Why should my daughter move away from her family to gain experience in a large company?” What was not stated, but hinted at, was the powerful expectation that the primary role would be that of mother and wife. Advertising was a job, not a career. The attitude may be anachronistic, but it is part of a Latin reality. With this backdrop, it is understandable that Latinas who have risen to the top of organizations have been ‘leaning in’ for a long time.

Learn to lean in.
Ana Duta, the Brazilian CEO of Mandala Global Advisors and former CEO of Leadership and Talent Consulting at Korn/Ferry International, notes that ‘leaning in’ is a learned behavior. More than our [general market] sisters, we Latinas were not taught to “lobby and self advocate.” Ms. Dutra makes a strong case for sponsors of up-and-coming Latina talent. Different than a mentor, a sponsor is prepared to advocate for talented Latinas at crucial points in their careers. A sponsor is the person that puts our name on the table and vigorously endorses our candidacy.

Ms. Dutra ensures that her daughters are well prepared to be Latina leaders. Her advice is simple and straightforward: Do the best job you can possibly do; document what you’ve done; don’t hesitate to ask for fair compensation; if you aren’t appreciated for your work, don’t be afraid to leave.

Debunk stereotypes.
For Amy Hilliard, president of Fashion Fair Cosmetics, Lean In is a subject “near and dear” to her heart. Ms. Sandberg launched her Lean In college initiative at Ms. Hilliard’s alma mater, Howard University, in Washington D.C. in October 2013. Ms. Hilliard is on the Lean In Advisory Board. She agrees with Ms. Sandberg that, as women of color, “the bar is higher,” and notes that African American women have a challenge that Latinas do not encounter: the epithet of anger.

The ‘Angry Black Woman’ syndrome is a stereotype that adheres to so many African American female leaders. First Lady Michelle Obama addressed this issue on nationwide television. Ms. Hilliard notes that it’s a balancing act to be an assertive and admired African American leader, but at the end of the day it’s all about effectiveness. She talks about “building up a comfort bank” with people: sharing your authentic self, being a role model, leading by example and the importance of a smile.

Like Ms. Dutra, Ms. Hilliard believes in advocating and training. She notes that for women of color especially. It’s important that they understand they have support. “I have their back,” she says. Ms. Hilliard appears to be continuing the tradition, reminiscing about the great mentors and supporters she has had. To attract supporters, own your success. “Owning your success will attract others to help you,” emphasizes Ms. Hilliard.

Teach women of color how to succeed.
DePaul University Director of Latino Media & Communication Cristina Benitez talks about success for her Latina students in her Latina Leadership course. She notes that many Latinas are first-generation college students who are taught humility. In world where to be quiet is to be overlooked, humility may not serve them well. Ms. Benitez teaches her students to reframe the discussion: rather than to think about telegraphing success as ‘bragging,’ she teaches them to explain the value they bring to organizations through her work. Value will translate to monetary success for the organization and better compensation for the student.

Ms. Benitez recounts how a young Latina started in the hospitality industry at $4.75/hour four years ago and was recently offered a full-time position at $50,000. The ability to explain the value she brought to the organization and the willingness to negotiate for a compensation she thought was fair based on her abilities was a greatest success. She now knows the power of self-advocating.

Family expectation, humility, anger and fear are stereotypes that women of color are battling every day in the workplace. Some are unique to our heritage and cultures; some we share with all the women who pick-up a copy of Lean In. For those of us who have achieved success, it’s our responsibility to take our younger sisters under our wing and help them learn to advocate for themselves and seek sponsors.


About Dolores Kunda

Dolores Kunda has 30 years of experience in marketing and advertising to the U.S. general market, Mexico, the U.S. Hispanic market and Puerto Rico. She foundedf Lápiz, one of the largest Hispanic agencies in the U.S., and established a blue-chip client list including iconic brands such as Allstate, Bush Beans, Coca-Cola, Disney, General Motors, H&R Block, Kellogg’s, McDonald’s and Procter & Gamble, among others. A passionate champion of Hispanic marketing in the U.S., Ms. Kunda speaks about the market’s power and has been featured in numerous articles and television programs.