The Need for an Innovative Approach to Latina Leadership Training

Latinas are uniquely positioned to become the next cadre of powerful leaders in this country. Forbes' recent cover article: The Next Media Jackpot: The $1 Trillion Hispanic Market, featuring Sofia Vergara as television's best paid actress, sheds light into the increasing influence of Latinas as individuals and as a consumer market.

The promise of Latinas, particularly second-generation Latinas, is anchored in their increasing college enrollment rates, bilingualism, ambition, resourcefulness and parental and family support. Second generation Latinas are enrolling in college at the same rate (46%) as third-generation non-Hispanic White women, according to a study report released by Migration Policy Institute. Furthermore, an increasing number of Latinas are pursuing advanced degrees and professional careers.

But despite the educational strides and professional gains, Latinas continue to be generally absent in executive suites, university faculty boards and politics. A majority of talented professional Latinas remain confined mostly to administrative and middle management positions in the public and private sectors. They are seriously underrepresented in leadership roles in universities, research institutions and in Science, Technology and Engineering careers.

These disparities have important implications on the earning potential, career advancement, and leadership influence of Latinas in this country. As the fastest growing female population, one in six individuals in the U.S. will be a Latina woman by the year 2050. As the number of Latinas continues to grow and emerge in professional arenas, developing and promoting their leadership talent is imperative to this country's economic and social growth.

Barriers to Career Advancement and Leadership Roles

There are several compelling reasons for the disparity in leadership roles among professional Latinas. There are institutionalized, social and economic barriers that limit access to higher education, exclusive networks and leadership opportunities. Policy driven efforts need to continue to address these barriers.

Below, I highlight four micro-level barriers that leadership training programs can address to promote career success and leadership among Latinas:

Professional Latinas: Pioneers Navigating "New Spaces"

A good majority of professional Latinas are first generation professionals -- the first ones in their families and close social networks entering these new spaces, e.g., corporate America, academia, technology. As pioneers navigating unchartered sectors, they are challenged by the novelty of these experiences, and the lack of knowledge and strategies necessary to navigate these spaces. Furthermore, due to a lack of other influential Latina mentors (or other mentors, in general) in the workplace, Latinas often have no one to turn to for strategic career guidance and talent development.

Organizational Barriers at the Intersection of Ethnicity, Culture & Gender

A national study conducted by the Hispanic National Bar Association (HNBA) on the status of Latinas in the Legal Profession, indicated that Latinas often confront gender and cultural expectations and assumptions that impact their professional experience. The women in the study reported that "their legitimacy, qualifications, and abilities as attorneys were often questioned or devalued by their employers, co-workers, clients, and the general population." Furthermore, the study points out that Latinas are often placed in token positions and are burdened by diversity-related roles and responsibilities. Pigeon-holed in these positions, professional Latinas find it difficult to climb the leadership latter.

Cultural Scripts Conflicts

Many first- and second-generation Latinas have grown up as Americanas, but have been raised as Latinas. While their bicultural existence is undeniably a commodity and offers valuable talents, it can also create conflict with cultural scripts that challenge their perceptions and expectations of themselves as a women, mothers and professionals. Often, the demands and values of her career in an American world conflicts with those of her culture and family. When left unresolved, these cultural conflicts can create confusion, frustration, and negative emotions that ultimately impact career pathways.

Powerful Feelings of Isolation and Self-Doubt

Through my professional work with Latina women, as a mentor and counselor, I have come to understand how these collective circumstances and barriers often result in powerful feelings of isolation and self-doubt. The erosion of self-efficacy and isolation can negatively impact work performance and career retention. One of the most valuable offerings leadership training programs can provide Latina trainees is the opportunity to connect and create long-lasting alliances with other influential peers and mentors.

To address the growing interest on leadership among Latina women, New Latina and the National Hispana Leadership Institute (NHLI) recently held a "Latina Leadership" Twitter party. The two-hour discussion generated tremendous excitement, with over 1.4 million impressions and over 1,700 tweets. Towards the end of the event, participants began to request that we continue this conversation on Facebook. Five weeks later, the Latina Leadership Network has over 600 Latina women (and some men) actively sharing resources, information and discussion on personal and professional leadership -- demonstrating the need for aspiring, emerging and established leaders to connect and dialogue around issues of leadership.

The Need for Innovative Leadership Development Programs for Latinas

There is an abundance of leadership training programs out there, but most do not address the sociocultural realities of today's emerging Latina leaders. Beyond teaching skills, Latina-focused leadership programs need to integrate curriculum that offer insight and strategic solutions to the experiences that professional Latinas face in the workplace.

Another limitation of current leadership programs is the lack of reliance on research. We know very little about the experiences of Latinas as professionals and leaders. Ongoing state-of-the art research studies can help identify the best approaches to leadership training and curriculum development for this population.

Furthermore, Latina leadership programs anchored on a multi-layered theoretical framework of leadership -- addressing the sociocultural, personal and organizational elements that impact both personal and professional leadership -- will prove to be most effective.

Overall, current disparities in Latina leadership roles can be addressed by engaging career-bound and professional Latinas in leadership training programs that are innovative, data-driven and holistic. Combined with full access to influential networks of peers and Latina leaders, these training experiences can promote the number of Latina women sitting at boardroom table.