News Column

Hispanic Women Soar to Leadership Positions

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With the economy in a tailspin, news of financial calamity is everywhere.

Major banks are failing, car manufacturers are floundering and real-estate values are tumbling. Lost in the blizzard of doom-and-gloom tales are the stories of a group of people who, through hard work, ingenuity and perseverance, continue a quiet and steady march towards progress.

Such is the story of Hispanic women in America.

Every April, in celebration of the sometimes gravity-defying strides made by Hispanic women, recognizes the significant achievements and advancements made by Hispanic women in America.

This year, continuing a tradition that began in 2003, Hispanic Business magazine surveyed a group of Elite Women identified by HispanTelligence, the research arm of Hispanic Business Media.

This year's winner, Frances Garcia, the Inspector General of the U.S. Governmental Accountability Office, is a prime example of a woman who, by dint of determination, intelligence and grit, refused to let the weight of her disadvantages stop her from reaching the summit.

A recreational bungee jumper and rock climber, the 67-year-old certified public accountant has never been one to let long odds or the occasional scrape get in the way of success.

Garcia is part of a generation that helped blaze a trail for today's upwardly mobile Hispanic women.

As the economic storm rages, the number of Hispanic women entering the American workforce, graduating high school and attending college continues its incremental, upward climb.

Also, with each passing year -- though the progress is slow -- more and more Hispanic women are assuming positions of power and leadership.

Between 2000 and 2007, the rate of working Hispanic women who hold management or professional jobs rose steadily from 20 percent to 23 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Perhaps nowhere is this trend illustrated so vividly as the recent Senate confirmation of the nation's first-ever Hispanic Labor Secretary, Hilda Solis.

As for Ms. Garcia, she began working at age 14, taking jobs as a waitress and picking sugar beets in the fields.

After becoming the first in her family to graduate high school, she attended Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas, where she earned a degree in business administration. Now, as inspector general, she oversees the audits and investigations of the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which keeps tabs on how Congress is spending taxpayer dollars. Put another way, she is the watchdog of a watchdog.

Her advice: value others.

"You cannot do it alone," she said. "It sounds so much better to say 'we' instead of 'I.' People get tired of hearing 'I, I.'"

Ms. Garcia's competition for this year's award was fierce. Other finalists included the vice president of the National Education Association, the founder and CEO of a top-performing car dealership in Texas, the head legal counsel of the corporate giant Dupont and a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

Marion Luna Brem, the CEO and founder of the Love Chrysler dealership in Corpus Christi, faced not only the hurdle of being a Hispanic woman trying to break into a white man's industry, but also the terror of being diagnosed with cancer. She conquered it, defying a grim prognosis that gave her no more than five years to live. At the time, she was a single mom with no health insurance. Now, she's a millionaire.

"I didn't get in this business to survive, I'm here to thrive," she said. "People say you're a cancer survivor. I say, 'No, I'm a cancer thriver.' I took tragedy and I converted it."

For all the good news, though, there is still a ways to go.

Of the 25 women surveyed by HispanTelligence, about half are Mexican; the rest are Puerto Rican, Cuban, Spanish, or another ethnicity.

About half of the women surveyed said they encountered discrimination based on gender; a third said they faced discrimination based on ethnicity.
The discrimination tended to occur primarily in the area of hiring and promotion, followed by pay inequities, according to the survey.

Vanessa Cardenas, director for ethnic media at the Center for American Progress, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, said these days, the biggest barriers to the success for Hispanic women tend to exist near the top levels of the workplace: middle management and higher.

"In this country, white males are still at the top tier," she said. "I think there is a culture there that is really hard to break into."

To be sure, Hispanic women are making inroads to a greater presence in positions of leadership.

Between 2001 and 2009, the number of Hispanic women sitting on the boards of Fortune 500 companies inched upward from 16 to 24, according to HispanTelligence.

But their presence of on the boards is still miniscule, especially in light of how Hispanic women make up about 7.5 percent of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census.

Cardenas said Hispanic women are often viewed as non-aggressive, hardworking and humble. While these aren't bad traits, in America they can hinder a person's quest for promotion, she said. Also, Cardenas cited a recent study concluding that employees who attend after-work gatherings "the happy hour crowd" -- tend to fare better in the promotion game. Often, she said, professional Hispanic women must opt out of such events, owing to the pressures they face to also raise a family.

But Cardenas has noticed a common thread in those who succeed.

"They all have a 'we'll figure it out' attitude," she said. "There's a saying, 'If you can't go through the door, go through the window.' Be persistent."

It also doesn't hurt to pursue a higher education.

About 90 percent of this year's Elite Women are holders of a college degree. However, nationwide, while Hispanic women are making strides, they continue to lag behind other groups.

From 1997 to 2007, the proportion of Hispanic women with four or more years of college behind them has increased from 10 percent to nearly 14 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By contrast, the 2007 rate for black women was 19 percent. Among all the nation's women, it was 28 percent.

In a way, though, the gap is misleading, as it reflects a positive trend in American education that is rarely touted: universal improvement.

"Everybody is basically improving, so the gap between whites and Hispanics has not narrowed," said Rick Fry, PhD., a senior research associate with the Pew Hispanic Center.

Interestingly, Hispanic women are making gains even as the men in their demographic lose ground.

Thirty years ago, the rate of Hispanic men with four or more years of college experience nearly doubled that of women. But beginning in 2001, Hispanic women sneaked past the men on this metric, and the gap has grown wider ever since.

In 2008, a third of all college-age Hispanic women were enrolled in college, compared to just 21 percent of college-age Hispanic men, according to the Center for American Progress Action Fund. This conforms to a wider educational trend, in which women in every ethnicity with the exception of Asians are outperforming their male counterparts.

Among the Elite Women, 60 percent hold an advanced degree. Unfortunately, today they remain the exceptions. Across the United States, just 3.9 percent of Hispanic women have earned an advanced degree, compared with 9.6 percent of the entire U.S. female population, according to the U.S. Census.

One of them is Woman of the Year finalist Dr. Amelie G.Ramirez. A professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, Ramirez has long juggled the twin challenges of raising a family and advancing her career.

When pregnant with her first child in the late 1970s, she worked every day until her due date. A month later, she was back at work.

Her advice to Hispanic girls: "Be prepared in your field, don't hesitate to take on new challenges, and definitely be prepared to work hard," she said. "Nothing comes easy."

On the flip side, veteran diversity trainer Alfred Ramirez has some advice for successful Hispanic women: be mentors.

Ramirez, who founded and is the principal consultant of his own firm, Diverse Strategies, refers to it as the "each one bring one" concept.

"Whatever position you obtain, try to do your best to bring someone up to that level," said Ramirez, who once served as the executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans under President Clinton.

Cardenas seconded the importance of mentoring for Hispanic women, which she added was in short supply.

"There are some great programs, like the national Hispanic Leadership Institute ... but it's a relatively small program," she said. "We need more programs like that, and more so at the local level."

By any measure, each of this year's five finalists for Woman of the Year is a role model.

Take Lily Eskelsen. She started her career as a lunch lady, and later became a kindergarten classroom aide. At the urging of the teacher, Eskelsen went to college and obtained a teaching credential. She wound up graduating magna cum laude in education from the University of Utah. Not even 10 years into the job, in 1989 she was named the state of Utah's teacher of the year, largely for her efforts in getting students to perform community service.

Today, Eskelsen is the vice president of the National Education Association.

"I'm where I am because a series of people tapped me on the shoulder," she said.

Some of the five finalists have worked hard to promote diversity.

Ramona Romero, who holds down a high-powered job as corporate counsel at DuPont, takes pains to ensure that law firms doing business with the company have a diverse base of employees. Those that don't measure up will be dropped, she once told "the Metropolitan Corporate Counsel," a legal trade magazine.

Meanwhile, affirmative action and diversity programs continue to play a meaningful role in leveling the playing field for Hispanic women.

Forty percent of the Elite Women benefited from such programs, mostly in the form of educational financial aid, according to the survey. Interestingly, last year the rate was almost twice as high.

Cardenas said many women of color have mixed feelings about affirmative action.

"I think women and minorities are always trying to prove ourselves. You don't want to be an affirmative-action hire, right?" she said. But "without it, it would be really hard for women and minorities to make the progress that we have seen."

Another helpful resource for Hispanic women is assertiveness training, said Annette Prieto, executive vice president of the Center for Hispanic Leadership.

Prieto says she was surprised by the results of a recent survey by her organization of Hispanic women, showing that more assertiveness training was at the top of their wish list.

In her assertiveness training, Prieto advises Hispanic women to view themselves as the commodities that they are. For instance, many are bilingual.

"My big thing is what I call 'leveraging your Latina,' " she said. "For me, it was my biggest asset."

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