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MSNBC’s Alicia Menendez On How Latinas Can Break Free From The Likeability Trap

·8 min read

Once a year, America acknowledges the egregious pay gap in which Latinas earn just 67 cents for every dollar a non-Latinx white man makes. It’s time we interrogate this fact year-round. The L-Suite examines the diverse ways in which Latinx professionals have built their careers, how they’ve navigated notoriously disruptive roadblocks, and how they’re attempting to dismantle these obstacles for the rest of their communities. This month, we’re talking with MSNBC news anchor and creator of the Latina to Latina podcast Alicia Menendez about how succumbing to the pressure to be “likable” at work can sometimes work against Latinas.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 18: Alicia Menendez attends Build Series to discuss her book
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 18: Alicia Menendez attends Build Series to discuss her book "The Likeability Trap: How to Break Free and Succeed as You Are" at Build Studio on November 18, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Manny Carabel/Getty Images)

Journalism has an inclusion problem. In local and national newsrooms across the U.S., Latinas are underrepresented as reporters, editors, and producers. According to a study by the Women’s Media Center, the demographic makes up just 2.4 percent of the news media workforce — and despite efforts at improving diversity and inclusivity across the American workforce, the problem might actually be worsening in this sector. The American Society of News Editors Newsroom Employment Diversity surveys show that the tally of women journalists of color has barely budged since 2016. When it moves, it’s often in a downward direction, as the industry is losing Latina, Black, Asian, and Native women’s voices. The root of the problem is twofold: Newsrooms are less likely to hire Latinas, especially for leadership positions, while many in the workforce quit the industry due to salary disparities and minimal opportunities for career advancement.

Alicia Menendez has witnessed these losses up close. Prior to anchoring MSNBC’s weekend news program American Voices, the Cuban-American journalist worked across a gamut of mediums, including television, digital media, and podcasts, where she witnessed women of color who were talented but lacking in support leaving their roles in media, often for jobs in more stable industries. Her experience mentoring emerging Latina journalists as well as interviewing women about their professional struggles and triumphs on her podcast Latina to Latina has led to her intimate understanding of the barriers, inequities, and microaggressions that push talented women out of newsrooms. In many ways, it is precisely these stories that propel her to stay in the industry. 

“The truest thing I can say is I just refuse to go away,” Menendez, 38, tells Refinery29. “At some point, there is always the question of ‘Is this the moment where I opt out?’ But as someone who feels that this is a call to service, it is hard for me to imagine an alternate path that has comparable impact.”

For Menendez, inclusive and nuanced news coverage requires diverse newsrooms. To sustain herself in the industry, she has developed creative methods that she imparts with other women of color in journalism. From breaking free of the likeability trap to creating her own media, Menendez shares her story and offers advice for Latinas passionate but disillusioned by the work.

Stop internalizing unattainable (and sometimes sexist and racist) demands

Working women are stuck in an impossible bind. If they’re too kind, they risk being perceived as pushovers. If they’re firm, then they are criticized for being cold. As many women struggle to be likeable — that unfeasible, elusive perfect medium that often demands women to sacrifice parts of themselves — they often forfeit their success. In her debut book The Likeability Trap, Menendez explored the way this bind appears when women ask for a promotion, negotiate a salary, or even take credit for a job well done. Instead of teaching women how to be more likeable, she encourages them to stop internalizing these messages and advises them to push back against the unattainable demands. “I’m still working on it,” Menendez says, also confessing that it often does matter how people perceive her. However, she notes that writing the book has helped her shift from thinking about the paradox as an individual struggle to a structural one. “Instead of figuring out how to let go and care less, I now think about how I can help shake up institutions and shake up our collective notion of what it is we expect from women, and what it is we expect of leaders,” she says.

Revising our attitudes toward likeability isn’t always easy, especially for non-white women who experience a minefield when likeability intersects with gender, race, and ethnicity. For instance, people usually consider assertiveness as a characteristic of a good leader. However, with Black and Latina women, this confidence could be read as being “angry” or “difficult.” One way to break free from the likeability trap, Menendez shares, is to push back against subjective feedback. “If someone says, ‘Alicia, you’re too assertive,’ you can respond by saying, ‘Can you draw a line for me showing what you perceive as my style to the way that it is impacting the results of my work?’” the author suggests. If they can’t respond, she says it’s not a problem worth internalizing. If you’re still unsure if you’re misreading a situation, then Menendez advises turning to supportive peers who can provide substantive feedback.

Try on different hats

Menendez’s résumé is extensive: She’s worked at MSNBC, Vice, Univision, Bustle, Huffington Post, ABC, PBS, and more. In these different newsrooms, the journalist has had a range of titles. Throughout her career, she has worked as a host, producer, reporter, editor, analyst and author, to name a few. These varied roles both feed her appetite for change and help shape her into a better journalist with a broad skill set — but her reluctance to be pigeonholed hasn’t always been welcomed.

“The challenge was very much external in an industry that for the most part prefers you choose one lane and stick with it,” Menendez says. “For me, it was about learning how to communicate to other people how all the things that I can do could actually work in the service of their organization. I think the thing that I have learned is that it’s really impossible to tell someone that you are more than one thing and have them understand; you have to show people, and only then do you become indispensable.”

Menendez is far from the only journalist interested in crossing platforms or wearing different hats within the industry. Both millennial and Gen Z employees have been described as belonging to job-hopping generations because they value flexibility, balance, and opportunities to try on new skills and leadership roles. Moving around among roles can bring new challenges, especially to non-white women across industries who lack the mentorship, career development, and support needed to ascend in their careers. As a result, many experience burnout, and end up ditching their industries altogether. While Menendez focuses on disrupting cultural and structural binds that hold back non-white women, she also reminds young Latina journalists experiencing imposter syndrome that they already have the talent and insight needed to step out of the boxes in which they’ve been placed and are able do the journalism they want to do. “Most of this work is about knowing how to identify a story, how to tell a story, how to drive home why something matters or how it impacts a person’s life,” Menendez says, cataloguing core skills that are transferable in reporting, hosting, producing, as well as book writing. “I think the key skill that often gets overlooked is the ability to listen, and to listen both for what is being said and what is not being said.”

Create your own projects

When coaching emerging Latina journalists, one of the most important pieces of advice Menendez imparts is one she received herself: “Stop asking for permission to do this, and put your money where your mouth is.” It’s a life-changing tip that her business partner Juleyka Lantigua-William, co-owner and executive producer of Latina to Latina, first shared with her a few years ago. At the time, Menendez was shopping the podcast around to different production studios that didn’t share her enthusiasm or vision for the project. Discouraged, Menendez sought counsel from Lantigua-William, who motivated her to consider a different option: creating the podcast herself. “She asked, ‘Why don’t you just own this yourself?’” Menendez remembers. She began investing her own money, time, and energy into the project. “It has been the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done,” she says. The project has been mighty successful, too. In June, Latina to Latina celebrated one million lifetime downloads, a bona fide that silences early criticisms that the podcast is “too niche” and affirms that Latinas crave and deserve intimate long-form conversations explaining how they navigate complicated work and life challenges to build careers they love.

While many women of color are leaving their full-time jobs to prioritize their passion projects, Menendez has actually maintained a career in corporate media while creating projects of her own. The audiences she reaches through both MSNBC and Latina to Latina are valuable and fulfilling. Still, she admits, holding down both posts, especially as a mother, isn’t without its complications. Nonetheless, she has been able to maintain work-life balance by letting go of perfectionism. “It’s all messy,” she says. “Don’t let anyone allow you to believe it’s a color-coded perfect calendar. I’m sending emails online at the grocery store. I’m taking phone calls while I’m picking my kid up from school. The way I make it work is by not being precious about how a lot of these things get done, so long as they get done.”

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