By Leticia Latino-van Splunteren, CEO Neptuno USA
Everyone talks about diversity these days. More and more you see companies proudly highlight their diversity programs and how they are committing to them. There are full events and sessions being put in place regularly promoting matchmaking sessions so that minority-owned companies can get more visibility in the undeniably complicated and sometimes impenetrable “sourcing world.”
In a chapter of my book, “Women in Business: Leading the Way,” I share my first brush with the concept of diversity. Here’s an excerpt:
One of the first things I did upon my return to the US in 2002 was to set up a meeting with an “incorporation consultant,” someone who could be our guide as we established our corporate presence here. After a five-minute conversation, he looked at my father and said: “Well Mr. Latino, the good news is that you have gold at your fingertips. You have a daughter. We can incorporate as a minority business and that will provide you some nice opportunities right off the bat!” I will spare you of all the “colorful” things that came to my mind as a potential response, but I was beyond offended and quite simply livid. The so-called “consultant” was not even addressing me; he was talking to my father like I wasn’t even there! At that point, I told him that I had not joined my father’s company because my gender represented “gold” and that we were taking “no shortcuts.” We wanted to be known in the US for the same reasons we were known internationally, out of the box engineering, high quality products and integrity. We left the meeting and, did not incorporate as a minority. BIG MISTAKE.
Fast forward almost 20 years. I felt similar outrage just a couple of days ago when a good friend of mine, a well-rounded executive woman, shared with me that she received a call from a recruiter trying to interest her in a position in a company that had a mandate to hire female executives. Her response? She invited him to call her back when he had an opportunity where hiring requirements revolved around capabilities and experience and not on a mandate designed to fill a “minority” quota.
While I am all for giving women more opportunities and achieving true equity and equality, I am starting to fear that the approach that is being taken around diversity and inclusion might be making the situation only better on paper and is not truly helping fix the root of the problem. I start to sense a “diversity fatigue” that might end up taking us in the opposite direction to where we intended to go in the first place. In my opinion, we do not advance this cause by polarizing views; we advance it by changing our mindset.
To me, the core of the issue is unconscious bias. I think we all suffer from it, whether we like to admit it or not. I notice it with myself when I see a female captain at my gate as I am boarding an airplane. Sure, one side of me is so happy that she got there in the first place, but I would be lying if I didn’t admit that a much lower and hidden voice within my head says: “I hope she knows what she’s doing!” I get angry at myself for having those thoughts, and it is hard to write this admission, but change can only be triggered by admitting the truth.
Having Sicilian parents means that I was raised in a VERY “male is king” environment, so reconciling both sides of the equation is not always easy. The practice of mindful awareness has helped me a great deal with this. Becoming aware of the inner voice and of those preconditioned thoughts is, in my opinion, a crucial component to solving the gender gap. That means calling out the bias when it happens with the understanding that it is no one’s fault that it is there. It is a result of societal evolution.
One of my favorite spiritual gurus once said: “Don’t answer the question, question your answers.” Question why the bias is there. Inquire within what is YOUR true feeling about it. We usually get triggered by fear. No one likes change, especially if what it brings is better for others than for oneself. Putting ourselves in each other’s shoes is a powerful exercise, one that enables compassion and kindness — two attributes that are powerful ingredients to eradicating all forms of discrimination.
I doubt there is a man out there who has a daughter that wouldn’t like to see her climb her career ladder as high as possible. The more opportunities women get to show what they are capable of doing, the more we will hear stories like that of Tammi Jo Shults, the retired Southwest Airlines pilot whose skills helped her land a passenger-packed 737 safely on only one engine in 2018. (To bring my previous shameful admission to full circle, destroying any pre-programmed preconceptions!)
Being a Hispanic CEO of a women-owned company in one of the most male-dominated industries, it is impossible for me not to want to be proactive around the diversity issue. I feel some aspect of it on a regular basis. I applaud the companies in our industry that have embraced this cause and have set up diversity and inclusion programs, but I also believe that the moment of truth comes when words must match actions. Give examples of how the industry can do this you ask? Here are my top of my mind ideas:
- Equalize salaries. How can there be true change when, assuming the same capabilities and experience, women still earn less than men?
- Offer the female executive a seat on the board of directors, where she can contribute to change and bring new perspectives, rather than offering her a position that provides limited ability to prompt real change (since top C-level executives are still mostly men).
- Focus on awarding more business to minority companies rather than on growing the minority database (success should not be measured around how many companies have been signed up, but around how many of those companies were given a project to work on).
- Provide women with more opportunities to voice their opinions and start “diversity taboo” conversations (just like WIA is doing by encouraging me to write this blog!)
I have been lucky to interview many extremely successful women for my Back2Basics Podcast, and one of the things that has surprised me the most is that even women I thought would not be dealing with this anymore shared that even today as CEOs or Board members, in certain situations they still have to find ways to inject themselves into the conversation. This is a time for reflection and for reframing the way we want to interact with each other. To me, it has never been about being one of the “boys” but about being part of the team. On the other hand, it is also not about making a woman part of the team to then leave her benched the entire match.
The only way we solve this issue is by working together and by focusing on what we have in common rather than on what makes us different. Leaders — men and women — in a position of power today are truly the ones that can fuel the necessary change. They, and we, can choose to be bystanders or agents of change. What are you going to be?
With 25 years of experience in the Telecom Industry Leticia Latino went from working for Merrill Lynch and Telecom Giant Nortel Networks to accepting the challenge of extending the legacy of establishing her family business in the US back in 2002. Neptuno Group was originally founded by her father in 1972 in South America where they helped deploy some of the first Cellular Networks in the region and where they have built over 10,000 Towers.
Leticia was recently awarded the 2021 Most Admired Women Leaders in Business Award by CIOLook, she is also a recipient of the Women in IoT award by Connected Magazine, Revolutionary CEO’s by Aspioneer, and one of the 30 most influential Leaders in Tech by Insight Success. She currently serves as a full member of the Federal Communications Commission’s Broadband Development Advisory Committee (BDAC) and as the Chair of the Job Skills and Training Working Group.
In addition, Leticia is a published author, public speaker, mentor to young women and a big advocate of nurturing “Human Connections” through her Back2Basics Podcast. www.leticialatino.com