Today is Latina Equal Pay Day, which marks how far into the year the average Latina must work to make what the average white, non-Hispanic man made the previous year. It’s 2020 and Latinas still make just 55 cents on the dollar compared to white men, and the gap widens for Latinas with higher education levels, according to LeanIn.org. That translates to more than $1 million in lost paychecks of the course of her career.
Here are some reasons why this wage gap exists, how it harms families and the economy—and ideas for closing the gap for good.
Latina women may have been taught to stay quiet. There are many factors that contribute to the wage gap, including gender and racial bias. There are also cultural nuances that may prevent Latinas from speaking up. “There is a saying in Spanish, ‘Calladita te ves mas bonita,’ which translates to, ‘If you’re quiet, you look prettier,’” says Yai Vargas, founder of The Latinista, a national network for Latinas and women of color.
The notion that women and girls should stay quiet may have some historical roots. “In this country, people rarely talk about the history of people who are not Black or white. We don’t talk about where Latinos come from, or where Asians come from,” says Nely Galan, media executive, entrepreneur, and author of Self Made. “You often see in the news [Latinos] come here for economic reasons, but so many of us come here as political refugees. If you’re a woman in Latin America and you’re seen as radical because you speak up, you could disappear. When we come here, we’re told to be quiet by our parents, and just be grateful we’re here and for all this country has to offer.”
There are real barriers to advancement. For every 100 men who are promoted to manager, only 68 Latinas are promoted, according to LeanIn.org. This keeps many Latinas stuck in entry-level positions.
“I think the wage gap exists in part because Latinas are not being given the same opportunities to apply for the same jobs, are not receiving the same training and are not being promoted at the same rate,” says Mónica Ramírez, founder and president of Justice for Migrant Women. “Also, Latina workers, we over-index in some of the lowest paid jobs, such as domestic work, the service industry, and agriculture. Yet no matter the job, Latinas are being underpaid across the board, regardless of position, industry or education level. We have a cultural problem in this country where employers are not valuing Latinas equally for our contributions.”
The myth that hard work always pays off. Keeping your head down and getting the work done doesn’t automatically translate to a promotion. “We are taught if we work hard, we will get recognized,” says Vargas. “But it doesn’t work that way in corporate America; it rewards people who speak up and demand. While it is not on Latinas to solve the wage gap, if you can not articulate why you should get paid more, the value you bring to the role, or the projects you’ve accomplished this year, you’re dead in the water. It’s important to research competitive salaries, do a self-assessment of your qualifications and find ways to tie your role to the company’s bottom line.”
The impact of covering in the workplace. Latinas may not feel they can be their authentic selves in the office, and the energy spent downplaying their differences from the accepted status quo may interfere with their ability to shine. “There are a lot of Latinas who come to this country and feel their ability to speak another language actually hurts their mobility,” says Vargas. “They spend so much time and energy going to accent-reduction classes to speak in white spaces. They try to fit into a culture rather than add to a culture. They should be able to use this as their super power rather than assimilate.”
We must stand united. There is strength in numbers, and in finding your voice. “So many of my African American friends say to me, ‘Why are [Latinas] so quiet? Why don’t you speak up?’” says Galan. “People may not realize the trauma we may have when we come to this country. We have to have this understanding between all multicultural women, because apart we are nothing, together we are everything. We are the number one emerging market in the world. Without us, there is no economy. That is a great power. Unless we understand each other’s pain, we won’t move forward. This is a country built on voices, and we must help each other find our voice.”
There is a need for cultural onboarding. Minority women are leaving the workplace to start their own businesses, in part because they don’t feel like they can be successful or like they fully belong in corporate America. In fact, women of color accounted for 50% of all women-owned businesses in 2019, according to AMEX’s State of Women-Owned Business Report.
“The truth is that African American and Latina women are leaving corporate America and starting businesses, because they don’t feel safe in that environment,” says Galan. “Corporate America says they want diversity, and bring [diverse candidates] in, but they often don’t stay. We throw these Latina and Black women in these companies and they get inadvertent comments about how they don’t fit in. I’ve had bosses say to me, “Your lipstick is too bright, you’re too much, you’re too passionate. I was a goody two shoes who did everything right, but I’m an example of someone who left corporate America because I was uncomfortable.”
Part of the issue may lie in the inability to successfully onboard employees from different backgrounds and cultures. “There are examples of success. Corporate America could learn a lot from the military, because the thing they are doing right is how they onboard diverse people,” says Galan. “The military is far from perfect, and has had issues with things such as sexual harassment and LGBTQ+ issues among other things, but you do see a lot of minorities rise through the ranks and succeed in this environment. Why? They’re able to onboard people from different cultures to align with a bigger mission; everyone has to learn the basics and the values of the culture, and you can decide how far you want to rise through that meritocracy.”
The wage gap may widen in the Covid-19 economy. Roughly 324,000 Latina workers exited the workforce in September 2020—nearly three times the rate of white women and more than four times the rate of Black women, according to the New York Times. The financial price paid for the average woman who opts out and tries to re-enter the workforce is an 18% decrease in their earning power on average—and a 37% decrease when they’re out for three years or more. This will have a lasting impact on families and the U.S. economy.
“During the pandemic, we’re seeing that people of color have been among the hardest hit, and it shouldn’t be shocking to anyone,” says Ramirez. “Many BIPOC community members do not have the safeguards, financial or otherwise, to keep us safe during a crisis like this one. For Latina workers, if you don’t have childcare when schools go virtual or paid leave that allows you to take time off to care for kids or sick family members, then people are forced to leave the workforce. When people feel fairly compensated and valued, they do better work because they feel valued. When you close the pay gap for Latinas, it will result in a benefit overall for the company—employees will give that back and invest that positive energy into the workplace.”
It’s not about assimilating; it’s about fusion. Whites will be the minority by 2045, with Hispanics making up the largest ‘minority’ group after whites, according to Brookings. Companies need to evolve to these shifting demographics now in order to survive and thrive.
“Can we just assimilate into the culture? No, because the culture is becoming and will be majority Black and Brown, with Latinas at the top numerically,” says Galan. “America is the only country where it’s grown so exponentially that minorities are becoming the majority. This moment in our country, we are not getting along. I think that, while we must fight for social justice, it is difficult to change people’s beliefs or dictate that they not be racist. But we have to aspire to be a country that is not so divided, and that respects different points of view. However, even with all our problems, there is nowhere else in the world where you can speak up or have such an opportunity to use your voice.”
Article originally published in Forbes.