When Culture Creates a Glass Ceiling

Exploring the tension between the humility taught in Hispanic culture and the inherent authority expected in a corporate leadership role


Words By Topher Bordeau

During the panel discussion at The Alumni Society’s leadership summit, panelist Cesar Villalpando, SVP of shared services for Kaiser Permanente, neatly summarized a common issue: “Latinos often struggle with: Am I abandoning my humility by hanging out my shingle? And you’re not.”

Dania Matos knows this issue well. Her role as president emerita of the Brown University Latino Alumni Council and her experience with mentorship programs such as Latinas Leading Tomorrow and the Latin American Youth Center have given her insight into how cultural expectations shape the personal and professional maturation of Latinos. Matos sat down with The Alumni Society to explore ideas about humility, development, and cultural expectations.

Dania Matos, President Emerita, Brown University Alumni Council

The Alumni Society: Let’s start with that remark from the leadership summit. Can you talk about the tension between cultural humility and the inherent assertiveness or authority expected in a leadership role?

Dania Matos: Growing up Latina, I was taught to not tout my success—that was seen as showing off. “Mira que presumida! Look at the show-off!” they would say. The cultural humility of Latinos favors modesty, absolute respect, and deference. While aspects of this behavior can positively complement the inherent assertiveness of leadership, not allowing yourself to shine has no such effect, and it’s more likely to cause you to go unnoticed. I acquired many skills from observing my non-Latino peers—this I didn’t learn at home. My peers at school would speak up, ask for what they needed—including extensions on papers or exams—and be unafraid about asking for help. They had no shame in their game. These are all skills I employ in my leadership today.

TAS: How should someone reconcile that tension so they can lead as who they are, rather than how they think they should be perceived?

Matos: Context is truly decisive. Recognize where your cultural expectations limit your leadership style, and honor the ways they enhance it. Remember that you control the significance of your actions. That authenticity has more flexibility than the expectations other people may place on you.

Recognize where your cultural expectations limit your leadership style, and honor the ways they enhance it.

TAS: What expectations, specifically, weigh on Latino executives?

Matos: Cultural expectations often guide how we make decisions in the workplace, including what relationships we choose to build and how we present ourselves to the outside world. Understanding what those expectations are and how they serve us—and how they don’t—has importance beyond just learning to navigate corporate environments. Professional conduct does not exist in a vacuum. Your ability to recognize the cultural expectations you bring to the table can also guide what you need to check at the door.

TAS: If the “climbing the corporate ladder idea” is either going or gone, how does that change the game for Latinos aspiring to the boardroom?

Matos: Non-linear career progression requires non-linear Latino mentorship and sponsorship guidance. Graduates of elite universities face expectations that extend beyond the careers they are going to build—there is an expectation about the money they need to make, too. The journey to the boardroom is not straight, and that non-linear path makes flexibility key. Aspiring leaders need to free themselves from the notion that their career evolution needs to look a certain way or involve a certain salary wealth.

The journey to the boardroom is not straight, and that non-linear path makes flexibility key.

TAS: When you spoke as an expert in The Alumni Society magazine, you said, “What colleges and universities do well is provide a structure and methodology for self-advancement. … But opportunities for teamwork and a collective identity are fewer, leaving Latinos less prepared to thrive …” Can you point Latino readers to an example of an organization or corporate culture that does allow them a community-minded environment in which to thrive?

Matos: Having visited their offices and having become familiar with their corporate model, I am a huge fan of Google. I think the company has intentionally created an organizational structure that invites loyalty, collaboration, and creativity. All Google employees follow a rule they call the 70/20/10 rule. It says that they are expected to devote 70 percent of every workday to whichever projects are assigned by management, 20 percent of each day to new projects or ideas related to their core projects, and 10 percent to any new ideas they want to pursue regardless of what they might be. This allows employees the freedom to be creative and to collaborate.

TAS: You also said, “The Latino population is not homogenous … so the more the strategy is diversified in every respect, the better the outcome.” Within the context of what we’ve talked about, how would a strategy best be articulated for the Latino population to improve access to education and corporate leadership roles?

Matos: Cultural self-awareness is instrumental for Latinos. For example, the conventional notion that going away from home is tantamount to abandoning your family provokes a fear that undermines ambitions of attending an elite school. Too often, I see Latinos shut themselves out of opportunities to elite education either because their parents won’t let them go—this is especially true with women—or because they are too scared to face the unknown alone. To them I’d say, “Guess what? You’re not alone.” Latino alumni from these schools are great resources. And seeking them out will get easier and easier as the population of Latino students at these schools grows. I’d also say that they’re lucky, too: organizations like The Alumni Society bring us together and make us even easier to find. So when you pursue that education, you’re not leaving your family, you are bringing them with you. And when you walk across that stage at graduation, your diploma is a testament to them, as well.

Organizations like The Alumni Society bring us together and make us even easier to find.

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