Summer of Feminista: On second thought, Latinas have a lot to learn from Sheryl Sandberg

Amanda Reyes is a reproductive justice activist and a History of Consciousness doctoral student at the University of California Santa Cruz. 

When I first saw Sheryl Sandberg’s TEDWomen talk, “Why we have too few women leaders,” I wasn’t very impressed. It felt like the same kind of talk I’d heard from successful white heterosexual cisgender women a thousand times before. You know, the kind of advice that’s useful if you don’t have to battle systemic racism, heterosexism, classism, transphobia, ableism, or any type of discrimination other than that based on sex. However, Sandberg’s book, which offers an extension of the advice she gives in her talk, ended up teaching me more than I ever thought it would. Though the advice is based on what Sandberg has learned in the corporate world, I believe that it has much to teach Latina leaders.

I don’t have to rehearse statistics for you to know that there are very few women leaders in the world and that the number of American Latina leaders is even smaller. Yes, we have Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and former U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, but there are less than a handful of Latina CEOs of Fortune 1000 companies and all 9 current Latina Congresswomen serve in the House of Representatives. While it is true that one does not have to be a CEO or high ranking government official to qualify as a leader, the small number of Latinas in these offices makes me sure that those Latinas who may have the skills and desire to become great leaders do not have many high-ranking senior Latinas to serve as role models.

While Sandberg acknowledges that systemic discrimination impedes many women from reaching leadership positions in many fields, she argues there are some “internal barriers” to success that some women might be able to address themselves. These include low self-confidence and unrealistic personal expectations (wanting to be the Superwoman). Sandberg also details barriers that are more relevant to those Latinas who desire to marry and/or raise children: not expecting our partners to contribute equally to housework and childcare and mentally removing ourselves from leadership tracks in anticipation of future, potentially non-existent, work-life conflicts.

In addition to self-work, effective mentors would go a long way in helping Latina leaders overcome these and other potential internal barriers. To mentor is to make actual the potential you sense in another. It is to care deeply about that person’s professional well being enough to be honest, constructively frank, and supportive. A mentor needs to be a good listener. It is also important for a mentor to be able to empathize with the values, experiences, and knowledges of those they mentor. For this reason, I believe that Latinas, like many of those who have been underrepresented in positions of power (government, academia, business, etc.), need mentoring, and we need it from those who understand and respect where we’re coming from.

This is complicated by the fact that in any given sector, Latinas are unlikely to find other senior-ranking Latinas or any women of color. If there are any, they may not have the time, energy, or desire to start a(nother) mentoring relationship. Because of this reality, I think that Latinas in the workforce, in academia, and in government (and all other places we lead) need to focus on mentoring each other.

Sandberg says that peers “at the same stage of their careers may actually provide more current and useful counsel” than an older mentor or a formally assigned mentor with whom you have little connection. “Peers are in the trenches and may understand problems that superiors do not, especially when those problems are generated by superiors in the first place.”

A senior professor at my university suggested that I take advantage of an opportunity to study in a doctoral program without any guarantee of funding, because I could always take out student loans. A fellow graduate student was told by another professor that she should just use credit cards to pay the thousands of dollars it could cost to attend academic conferences. The problem that these professors did not understand is that my colleague and I didn’t have the financial ability or desire to rack up debt. Each of us privately felt ashamed about our lack of means and willingness to take big financial risks, but, discussing the issue, we came to the conclusion that our professors’ economic backgrounds and their generation’s relationship to debt were different than ours. Talking to each other helped us to realize that our decisions to avoid excessive debt were not going to ruin our careers. We also felt better knowing that we weren’t the only ones whose families couldn't financially support us.

Because many Latinas (including the queer, disabled, trans*-identified, immigrant, not college-educated, and uncoupled ones) might not have access to mentors in senior positions, we need to reach out to each other to be the mentors that we don’t/won’t have. Each of us has valuable skills and experiences that can be shared, and we all have something that we'd benefit from learning. We're also aware of the various types of discrimination and difficulties that Latina leaders face.

These mentoring relationships, as Sandberg says, need not take large amounts of time out of our schedules. Mentoring can be as simple as answering a quick question every so often or meeting up for coffee every few months. The other side to this is that we don’t need to be afraid to ask questions or advice from our peers. Wanting honest guidance or a quick sounding board for an idea does not make one seem less brilliant or unsure of oneself.

Overall, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In was a valuable reading experience. It taught me how to recognize my own strengths and shortcomings. (I’m confident in my own abilities, but I tend to be afraid of asking questions for fear of being perceived as less capable.) It also taught me that Latina leaders need to be there for each other, as peer and senior mentors, in addition to challenging the multiple forms of systemic discrimination that keep Latinas out of leadership positions. If we can surround ourselves with a diverse network of mentors and help grow each other’s successes, Latina leaders, our causes, and our communities will thrive.

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Summer of Feminista 2013 is a project of Viva la Feminista where Latinas are discussing mentoring and what it means to them. Read how you can join Summer of Feminista.  Link and quote, but do not repost without written permission.