Merit, Not Gratitude: Reclaiming Our Professional Accomplishments

women working in the office

Professionalism has been defined to me in a myriad of ways, but I distinctly remember being told once early on in one of my first office jobs that my facial expressions were “unprofessional” and “overly expressive” for the nature of my role.

This feedback was met by me with confusion. After all, what does my face have to do with being a professional? I soon realized that this feedback was given by a coworker of mine who frequently engaged in microaggressions towards me, her attributing my normally loud voice, clothing, hairstyle, direct communication style, and overall expressiveness to me being “such a Latina.”

I’ve had this conversation a lot recently with my friends. We’re finding that although we’ve always worked to be in professional roles, we’re also finding out that these “amazing” jobs we’re given aren’t all they appear to be.

Many of us grew up in homes where going to college and landing a professional job would be considered the pinnacle of success. To many Latine and immigrant parents, having their children occupy professional spaces complete with degrees and fancy benefits is the ultimate dream.

However, once we’re in these spaces, many of us discover that we’re not in a place to express anything negative with either the work or the office, only to be told “be grateful for having a job like yours, mija!”

Expressing any of this means running the risk of being dismissed as too picky and being told to be grateful for the opportunities. But doing so means we’re compromising some of the best skills in our professional toolbox: autonomy to make decisions and advocate for ourselves.

I’m far from the only Latina who has been told to deal with mistreatment from employers and that I should be happy to be included. Which is why we need to redefine how professionalism works for us.

It’s time to set the record straight on why Latina professionals shouldn’t be grateful to just be included in these spaces.

Latinas are setting the new normal of what it means to be an accomplished professional through advocacy for our working lives. Being a professional woman, especially a Latina, doesn’t mean we let ourselves become doormats to our employers. Inclusivity isn’t a reason to take mistreatment or abuse from an employer.

With a good title and salary also comes stress, obligations, and an overcommitment to work and situations we weren’t initially prepared to navigate. The leadership skills we develop can end up being reframed as too “aggressive,” while being expected to adjust to microaggressions and workloads that don’t give us any space to exist outside of our jobs. On top of all of this, the shiny benefits like paid time off don’t actually get used when we’re stressfully checking emails after working hours.

There’s real value in being a Latina professional that’s able to advocate for herself. This includes joining Latino-focused, professional development groups, finding an online community to network, working to create your own spaces/groups in your field for others, and forming camaraderie among your professional contacts that are feeling just as displaced as you are.

While I will always disagree with the notion that Latinas need to be expected to say “gracias!” for even having a space at the table, I know it’s important to use our positions of power to make sure there’s a seat for the ones coming after.

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