There is a well-documented and dramatic absence of Latinas in leadership positions in many organizations in this country. In my experience as a researcher looking to identify Latinas in upper management for my research and as an organization consultant focusing on building inclusive organizations, I have consistently noted that the higher one looks, the fewer Latinas one sees at the decision-making table. While there continue to be more examples of Latinas assuming prominent positions in many industries, the numbers are far from adequate when one considers our representation in the population.
The question becomes how one explains this absence. Of course, there are those who are quick to attribute this dynamic to the lack of leadership competencies or experience among this group. Latinas are seen as lacking the ambition or competitive drive to move into senior positions. Instead their consideration for the well-being of others and concern for the collective needs of the whole are seen as deficits which make them unfit to lead. The problem, however, lies not with Latinas themselves but rather with how leadership is defined and enacted in most organizations which is based on a stereotypical model of a strong, competitive, individualistic, rational, task-focused male leadership style.
Leadership theories have typically focused on what was called “The Great Man” approach, which described the ideal leader as a hero of superhuman ability to inspire and lead his followers into battle. In this model leaders were born with traits like charisma and dynamism. You either had it or you didn’t. Other theories framed leaders as demanding task masters who got the work done by holding people to high standards and providing incentives to workers to perform in a fairly transactional manner – a days pay in exchange for a days work.
Though today’s workforce has changed dramatically from the 1950’s and 60’s when these theories were developed, many organizations have not significantly changed their ideas about what leadership is or needs to be. Today’s younger, more diverse workers are looking for new models of leadership that allows for power to be shared and provides them with opportunities to have influence on the context in which they work. The skills needed to work well and manage these new workers are more related to collaboration and team engagement than the top-down styles of the past.
Now is the time where Latina leaders are most needed yet their talents to lead are under-recognized and not fully leveraged to meet the needs of these changing organizations. Organizations and their leaders need to take off their blinders and appreciate the unique style of leadership Latinas exemplify and provide developmental opportunities so these qualities can flourish and mature. While Latinas interact and lead in non-traditional ways, the results they are able to produce speaks volumes about their abilities.
Part of the equation involves Latinas themselves recognizing and amplifying their leadership skills. They sometimes take for granted that their emphasis on the well-being and productivity of the work group or team are important. Their upbringing taught them that success in any endeavor is related to attending to the needs of a diverse group in order for each person to contribute to the overall task. Their ability to build long-lasting relationships and networks allows them to create cohesive teams and build trust among diverse co-workers.
When the mystery of the missing Latina leader is solved, organizations will see that the leadership ability they bring are exactly what is needed to inspire today’s workers – and these powerful “mujeres” have been hidden in plain sight for far too long. Perhaps 2012 will be the year when these patterns are recognized as unworkable and Latina leaders will gain the exposure and prominence they deserve!