Wednesday, May 17, 2017

New Decade, Same Issues

Thalia Anguiano
Up until October of 2016, I was the director of a program designed to empower and nurture Latina leaders. Each cohort dedicated nearly a year of Saturdays to coming together to learn how their culture and values can be assets to them as leaders in all realms. One of the graduates of Class of 2016, Thalia Anguiano went on to become the first Latina Student Body President at Drake University. She was not only the first Latina elected to that position, she was the first woman of color. 

That was quite a feat and I am so proud of her for achieving that. I kept up with her presidency, mostly via social media and she was always leading and supporting several initiatives. She also gave credit where it was due and through her, I learned about a lot of other leaders within her university. But, as with all leadership roles, it did not come without some struggles. Thalia eloquently and candidly shared these in a blog post. When I read about how she had been slighted, not given credit for her work, and excluded from events it struck a cord with me. I became angry. I felt for her because she did not deserve the mistreatment and I was angered for the women of color who face those same scenarios every day. I am also doubly proud that Thalia handled the challenges and microaggressions with such grace, and wrote about her experience so openly and candidly.

Throughout my career in corporate America, I was one of those women. I didn't realize how many times I had been overlooked, underestimated and not been offered a place at the table until my second job out of college. It was an exciting opportunity to be the second in command for H & R Block's multicultural marketing division. I got to travel, produce commercials, create marketing plans and lead marketing and recruitment teams throughout the US and Puerto Rico. It was a fun, fast-paced job and my immediate supervisor was Latino. It was a dream job. Eight months after I started, my supervisor was fired. I never found out why, and I didn't have time to investigate. I was thrown into his role from one day to the next. I began reporting to the Director of International Marketing, a white male, as were all but one of the directors and C-level executives of the company. We had a common run-of-the-mill relationship. I checked in with him on a regular basis, sought out advice when needed and made sure I was meeting and/or exceeding expectation. This new role required a lot more analytics than I had ever done, presentations to stockholders, and much more travel. I welcomed it all and continued to love the position, even though I was working insanely long hours and my apartment became more of a storage unit since I was only home once or twice a week. Along the way, I was told that the company was going to hire a replacement for my old boss. At first, I was pleased. That meant I did not have to take on the role of two people for very long. It was also an opportunity to prove myself and move ahead in the company. However, I wasn't sure if I was ready, and it took months of fulfilling the role before I felt like I could (and should) move into the role.

Before one of our check -in meetings I decided to tell the director why I was ready to permanently move into the position I had been doing for the last nine months. I created talking points with evidence of my successes and examples of how I had gone above and beyond to complete both roles. I had done so with a smile and co-workers had told me how impressed they were with my work. He listened intently and nodded as I spoke, which I took to mean agreement. I ended my talk with my desire to take on the role of manager and help in finding an assistant manager to fill my original role. His response barely took a thought. He told me they were looking for someone with more experience and invited me to be on the search team to find the person to fill the position I had just asked for. 

That should have been enough to spur my resignation but in all honesty, I was dumbstruck. I did not expect to be brushed off so easily without a consideration to my accomplishments. I had grown up believing that you got what you worked for and I had worked my butt off in two roles while having the lesser title and no increase in wage. My doing two roles for almost a year saved the company thousands of dollars. I led the multicultural marketing initiative for a global company and managed a multi-million dollar budget with little to no training or guidance. Yet, I was written off without hesitation.

Two months later a white woman was hired to be my boss. I was asked to "bring her up to speed," which is code for training her to do the job I had done for the last eleven months. Being the pleaser that I am, I did as expected. Never once were my achievements recognized. When the company won an award for the marketing campaign that I spearheaded and managed while in the dual roles, she was the one invited to the awards ceremony and treated like a VIP. When she got overwhelmed with all there was to learn, she pulled me aside to an empty conference room and cried in frustration. I listened and reassured her that she was doing fine, and got her spirits up so she wouldn't look weak to the men in charge. When she floundered in meetings I saved her ass. She never acknowledged that, nor did anyone else in the higher ranking positions.

My peers noticed. They often asked me how I could do my job so readily and with a smile after being treated with such little regard. I brushed it off and changed the subject. I knew better than to bad mouth the higher ups. That didn't save me. Less than three months after my replacement was appointed, I was called into the director's office. Someone had told him that I was unhappy with my new supervisor. I was shocked. I hadn't said anything to anyone about my feelings of resentment. I had pretended every day that the injustice didn't bother me because I still enjoyed my job and most of the people with whom I worked. I didn't like the situation, but I was always on the road and didn't have to see my boss or the director very often and that made it bearable. Again, I felt defeated. His reiterating the lie that I didn't have the experience they were looking for to do the role I'd successfully done for nearly a year was him putting me in my place. It demonstrated that there was no future for me in that company. There were very few women in roles above mine - I think there were less than five. Not a single one of them was a woman of color. Males of color didn't fare much better. Shortly after that meeting with the director I resigned and have not worked in corporate America since.

Instead of giving me props for grinning and bearing an unfair situation, I wish my white peers would have spoken up and been allies. Where was their concern when it was decided I would be overlooked to receive the award for my marketing campaign? Instead of telling the director that I was unhappy with the new boss, how about challenging him on why I wasn't in the role? Why not thank me for piping up and keeping meetings moving forward when it was clear my new boss didn't have a clue what was going on and I did? Those were the times when their voices could have affected change, not just for me, but for those women and people of color who came after me. That's when they could have been allies instead of silent and complacent bystanders to injustice.

In all honesty, I miss the rush of travel and the pace of working for a Fortune 500 company. It angers me that what started as a dream position left such a sour note in my life due to no fault of my own. My barriers were not because of my poor performance, lack of results or my unwillingness or incompetence at doing the job that was expected. My talents, skills and experience are valuable and I have a lot to offer companies looking to meet the needs of various markets but I am not ready to give of my all when we haven't come very far in terms of offering women of color a place at the executive table.

Reading Thalia's post, it saddens me that over a decade removed from my experience, Latinas are still fighting this battle across sectors. I wish she could have been spared. I wish we lived in a time where women like us can be valued for all that we have to offer. I second her decree that those in positions of voice need to speak up. When you see someone being taken advantage of don't whisper about it among yourselves, point it out for what it is. if someone is being left out, be the one to challenge that. People of color and women shouldn't always be the ones expected to speak out against what is happening to them and others. We're not the only ones who see it. Everyone needs to be active, especially those who have historically had a voice for change. When people of color or women defend ourselves, we are often ignored, blamed, labeled as angry, or demeaned and told we are playing the race or gender card. We all play a card, but sadly, not all of us are allowed to play the game at the same table. 

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