Pay Equity's Bottom Line for a Loud Latina

November 14, 2019

Evita Puente

Evita Puente is a creative instigator who breaks boundaries and the status quo. With over 15 years of experience in both agency and corporate creative environments, Evita Puente is an executive-level creative leader specialized in helping teams apply their creative ideas and individual insights to broader emerging trends, especially as culture rapidly shifts. She is a creative strategist for progressive leaders/causes like delivering the Latino vote and serves as part-time faculty of Trinity University in San Antonio. She is a strong voice for creative minorities and deeply inspired by the business (and art) of advertising.

I could hear the tension in her voice building; her umm’s and pauses grew longer. She was beating around the bush. I, in all my eagerness to point out the issue she was experiencing, had to sit in silence and wait for her to voice it herself.
Victoria, an experienced mid-level Latina manager in the advertising industry, finally said: “I hate to sound ungrateful because this company has given me so many opportunities, but it still feels unfair compared to my peers.”
She went through her story, incident by incident, describing her long journey to a promotion. It took her precisely seven years longer than her counterparts, despite her long list of recognitions, accomplishments and “exceeding expectations” ratings. None of which her white male peers had received. At the same time, she described daily, ongoing struggles to simply be treated as an equal.
I summarized her story into one simple and very tangible question:

“So what you are saying is that because you are Latina, you’ve had to work harder, longer, make less money, and put up with unequal treatment every step of the way?”

She looked baffled, almost offended. My straightforward question caught her off-guard. When you simplify systematic inequity and say it out loud, it sounds ridiculous. I mean, even my question makes me angry... how could she be working harder, longer and be making less? And moreover, how could she be allowing this to happen to her?
The hard facts are pretty ridiculous: Latinas earn 54 cents for every dollar their white male counterparts earn, and Latina pay parity – catching up, in other words – won’t happen until the year 2224. 
Even today – the BIG day in November we catch up to our white male counterparts’ 2018 earnings – we are approximately 23 paychecks behind. When I hear this, I want to barge into every executive leader’s office and say, “How the F*** can you allow this to happen? Aren’t you interested in doing the right thing?”
But I’ve tried, and it didn’t work.
I also tried, “It’s better for business; data shows the company will overperform financially, socially and technologically if you bridge the gap – look at the research...”
That did not work either.

"We need to make it so personal that the emotion of it drives us to action."

And while my intention in speaking up was not to shame or blame Victoria for what is happening to her, or us, as a group, I do think we need to take it personally. We need to make it so personal that the emotion of it drives us to action. We need to lead the hard conversations that make companies, organizations, and individuals accountable. Because it’s only by forcing conversations with those in charge that we will win, not in 2224, but 2020.
What we are doing is not working. So mujeres, arriba vamos, let’s make this happen for ourselves and all the Latinas who are coming behind us. We are the largest demo in the next generation and cannot afford to have the most severe pay gap. We need to do much better.

What does action look like? 

Most of us talk about the very real systematic, institutionalized bias and gender inequality in the workplace. There is sexism, and we’re additionally treated unequally because we’re Latinas. Even within our Hispanic organizations, this is an ongoing truth. Personally, it was only after 15 years as a creative in the Hispanic ad industry that I realized I was not just “feeling” unequal treatment, but experiencing it. My male counterparts were getting promoted faster, for the same quality (and sometimes less quantity) of work. I was not sitting amongst my creative peers, but amongst really good talent who, at the same time, lagged in knowledge, ability, years of experience and competencies, yet had the same title and a bigger salary, than I did.
That it happened unconsciously or consciously, by management that noticed or didn’t notice at all, didn’t matter to me at that point. I was so emotionally defeated and morally devalued by the feeling of inequity that I had to speak up. As I carved out a better career path and more financial earnings for myself, I learned that it is most effective when breaking it down into simple, clear, tangible actions and facts.

The Profits & Losses of speaking up with clarity. 

I gained self-worth. Calling out unfair treatment is a good thing, and as painful as it was – yes, my voice would tremble, my hands would shake and my stomach was a fluttering mess – it felt so good to report the facts: “I have X workload, while my counterpart has Y less. I have X number of direct reports, while all of my counterparts have an average of Y fewer than I do. I have X team members while my counterparts have Y less. I have X wins while my counterparts have 0. So yes, leader, let’s talk about my pay, my next role, and my promotion.

Lesson learned:
Embrace your accomplishments.

I lost good friends, creatives I admire and respect. The idea of having honest, vulnerable conversations is great in leadership books or as inspiring quotes, but asking others to take real accountability, to acknowledge their bad behavior and make a change on behalf of pay equity is not welcomed in real life. No matter how creative I got in my approach, management was rarely ready to engage in honest conversations, recognize disparate treatment or - not by a long shot - share the paysheet. That was out of the question. “Unlawful,” I was once told. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. The truth is, doors will get shut and lunch will get lonely, so accept your loss. If the pay equity convo is not going to happen, move on to the next place as soon as you realize that.

Lesson learned:
Accept the loss, but never sacrifice the conversation.

I gained allies. My preconceived notions betrayed me. The people who looked nothing like me became my mentors and greatest champions. White conservative men (gasp with me!) and super smart, white creative female leaders have impacted real change and been fearless advocates in my professional career in a way that Latinos haven’t. Were they less threatened because of my status as a Latina? Maybe, but it doesn’t matter. All I know is that they were unafraid to raise up me, to engage in honest conversation, and to make it better for my group by leveling out our pay.

Learned lesson:
Don’t pre-judge; equity can come from anywhere.

I lost my “likeability.” People don’t like those who call them out. They don’t want to hear they’re part of a privileged, better-paid group. And they just don’t like loud Latinas who want to talk about pay. Especially if it provokes a scarcity instinct of, “If she makes more, will I make less?” So, after being shunned as the “chip on her shoulder Latina” and called a “pinche jingelera” (a one-note, one-jingle creative), I got back to my roots as a creative – to remember what it’s like to have to take the notes a creative director throws at you with empathy and reshape your approach. I found that putting myself in the other person's shoes, at least in my case, brought clarity, and led me to facts that reshaped my conversation: “I’m leading a high-performing team that’s winning new business pitches and countless awards; so, inform me how the rest of the teams are stacking up against our performance and pay equity.” That did the trick. 

Lesson learned:
Sometimes, we have a secret weapon: empathy.

I lost my cultural connection… or wait, was it baggage? I had to learn to stop telling myself all my “Hispanic heritage” phrases: “Be grateful for the opportunity,” “Be thankful for the salary you could never make in, say, Mexico,” “I’m so fortunate to make a living doing what I love.” These sentiments are real for Hispanics. For quite a few of us, the US provides equal access to opportunity that we may not have in our countries of origin, so we are grateful. Whether this is first-hand experience or passed from generation to generation, we are a grateful group of immigrants (or descendants of immigrants) that gives our best as a token of gratitude for the opportunity. But that doesn’t mean our work is worth less. You can still let your appreciation and gratitude drive a respectful conversation about Latina equal pay, raise awareness and, at the same time, lift others who are falling behind their peers in terms of salary.

Lesson learned:
Genuine gratitude is a great conversation starter.

I lost the shame of earning more than my man. There is an inherited belief in Hispanic households that’s far more complex than what I can sum up here. So I’ll simplify for clarity: there is a belief that the role of the man is to support his family, and his bread-winning abilities are a direct representation of how good of a husband and father he is.
What a bunch of nonsensical mierda, right? But we are raised with the cultural notion that the “right way” is that the man of the house must make more than the woman, and they deserve more because they are supporting the entire family. Because of that, our Latino leaders often play into this nonsensical mierda and think that if creative women on their team have a husband, he’s making enough money to support them both. So, her salary can (and should) be lower. At the same time, they believe the men on the creative team should earn more because they have stay-at-home-wives to support. But not only is that not true (40% of Latinas are the breadwinners in their household), it’s just not fair. Latinas need to stop being ashamed when we do assume the role of breadwinner and be proud of it instead. More than that, we need to change the entire narrative. Dads, be proud of your daughters for making more money than their husbands. Mothers, raise your daughters to be self-sufficient, strong Latinas who can be proud breadwinners for their families. And Latino leaders, raise us up, give us a seat at the table, and pay us equal to the men on your team, regardless of who (and if) we’re supporting someone at home.

En Conclusión

Latinas, don’t allow yourself to put up with yet another year of professional environments where institutionalized unconscious bias and systematic microaggressions are the norm. There’s no way to change that pay gap unless we speak up and advocate for ourselves. Boldly. Become a vigilant Latina who is respectful, but fearless about gaining pay equity. Raise awareness about the severe gap, and be creative about how you engage in conversations that are unwelcomed and unwanted. We all have a role to play in reaching Latina pay equity, and none of us should have to wait until the year 2224 to get there.


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