The loudly proclaimed assertion by corporations that they are a meritocracy is a myth. In a true meritocracy, what you do, and not who you are, matters--therefore those who “make it” do so because of their excellent ability. However, in looking at how Latinos are doing, meritocracy is not fulfilling its true promise.
The HACR 2016 Inclusion Index documented that only a little more than 4 percent of executive officer positions in Fortune 500 firms are held by Hispanics. Worse news is that Hispanic females hold fewer than 1 percent of those positions. Further, HACR research shows little movement at all in the representation of Hispanics over the past several years. The myth of meritocracy continues for Hispanics when one reviews representation on corporate boards of directors. While HACR’s index of participating companies came up with a 7 percent representation, the Alliance for Board Diversity reports that Hispanics/Latinos held only 3.5 percent of Fortune 500 board seats in 2016.
In either case, whether 3.5 or 7 percent, this is a woeful gap from the 17 percent representation of Latinos in the U.S. population. This is not to suggest that the percentage of board positions needs to be 17 percent at this time, since we do need to account for an eligible pool with certain educational and leadership credentials. However, while we must still address the legacy of educational disparities, this yawning 10 to 13.5 percent gap cannot be explained away simply with the “there’s not an available labor pool” argument.
If a meritocracy is supposed to result in a normal distribution of leadership opportunity based on merit, then companies must address what we refer to as “The 4 Percent Shame.” Something besides merit is preventing Latino and Hispanic advancement to these executive officer positions in Fortune 500 firms. The gap points to the reality that favoritism, discrimination, and bias do exist in most corporate cultures. What supporters of a meritocracy don’t realize is that the current system reinforces ideals that shore up existing power structures and privileges.
We must also think through the pressures faced by those 4 percent of Hispanic and Latino executives who have demonstrated merit and moved to the very top of the corporate ladder. Their relative scarcity at the top of a meritocracy system places them under a microscope by other Latinos in the workplace who are desperate for role models who look like them.
Many of these Latino executives may prefer to simply not be identified by their ethnic affiliation so they can avoid being associated with what they perceive as negative stereotypes that members of the majority may have of Latinos. At the same time, the organization is eager to highlight their presence in leadership ranks as, what turns out to be false evidence that the meritocracy system does indeed work for Latinos. Latino executives who do not appear to connect strongly with their ethnicity or who are not seen actively advocating for Hispanic issues may be inadvertently sending a message to younger Latinos that the road to success within a meritocracy requires assimilation and the denial of their Hispanic heritage.
We have seen that for the Latino executives we interviewed, the foundation of their success was their ability and commitment to being auténtico (authentic). For these Latinos and Latinas this cultivation of being people of good character demanded they also come to terms with the implications of their Latino heritage. This journey of self-discovery led them to prove the promise of diversity: that having a diverse leadership, management, and talent pool with different experiences, backgrounds, and styles provides corporations with a competitive advantage.
Here are five actions that corporations must do to truly contribute to the rise of a meaningful number of Latino leaders:
1. Become knowledgeable of Latino culture and values and stop pressing Latinos to assimilate and instead create conditions that nurture Latino professional success. Incorporate some Latino culture into corporate culture and stop trying to “fix” Latinos to fully fit in.
2. Aggressively accelerate Latino leadership development holistically through internal and/or external leadership development programs, mentorship and sponsorship, but most importantly, through pilot stretch assignments.
3. Differentiate among the various Latino talent pools and segmented markets in ways that are as rigorous and sophisticated as marketing campaigns. There is no single Latino talent force in the same way there is no single Latino market.
4. Encourage their highest-ranking Latino leaders and executives to work together to advance the Latino talent agenda through a Latino officer caucus or roundtable.
5. Provide opportunities for Latinos to influence major corporate and commercial strategic initiatives.
Companies that take steps like these, will reap the benefits of overcoming "The 4 Percent Shame" and by having a competitive advantage in attracting best talent as Latinos become one-third of the U.S. by 2050.