In nearly every industry, Latinas face obstacles and struggles as both women and ethnic minorities. Latinas face greater difficulties establishing themselves in professional industries and attaining high level positions. The gender-wage gap is also greatest for Latinas, who are the last group to celebrate Equal Pay Day on October 21 and earn on average 55 cents to the dollar white, non-hispanic men earn. Equal Pay Day represents the number of months it takes for women to earn the same amount as men earn in a year. For Latinas, they must work 23 months to earn what a white, non-hispanic man earns in just 12 month.
One industry in which Latina representation is lacking, is law. Currently, Latinos represent 20 percent of the population, however just 5% of practicing attorneys are Latino, and of that only 2% are Latina. Additionally, from that 2% only about .4 are partners at law firms.
Anna María Tejada is a Latina attorney who is working to increase opportunities for Latinas in the legal profession. As a daughter of Dominican immigrants, Anna María is a first-generation attorney who benefitted from various affirmative action programs in her education such as Headstart, EOF, and the Rutgers MSP Program. She learned from a very young age the importance of law in our everyday lives.
“I am too familiar with the immigration experience in the United States. I also am very well aware of the role immigration laws play in the lives of dreamers and individuals who simply want to achieve the American Dream,” said Anna María. “If it was not for the assistance of a legal services attorney, neither my family nor I would not be here today. Acknowledging the importance attorneys have in impacting social change and individual lives, I knew law could change lives. That is why I chose this career.”
Now, with over 20 years of experience in her industry, Anna María is passionate about giving back and aiding other young Latinas in their careers.
Currently, she is a partner at Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP in Newark, New Jersey where she practices labor and employment law, is the President of Executive Women of New Jersey (EWNJ) and the Vice President of Membership for the Hispanic National Bar Association.
“It is not lost on me that to whom much is given, much is required. It is my responsibility to give back to the generation of attorneys coming behind me, which is why I enjoy volunteering with bar associations and other community organizations. I believe that you have to lift as you rise, and for me, the HBA was critical to where I am today,” said Anna María.
Navigating obstacles as a first-generation law student
As a first-generation attorney, there was a lot Anna María did not know about the profession when she first started out. Her biggest obstacle at the time was navigating the legal world. As a young student entering law school, she knew she wanted to practice law but was unsure of the steps to take to become a successful attorney.
“To be successful in this profession, you have to understand the language and culture of the legal world. I found mentors and colleagues with similar experiences who could assist in navigating this career. I had to seek out spaces where I could network with those who are in law and have a similar background as me.”
As a law student, the Hispanic Bar Association of New Jersey (HBA-NJ) provided Anna María with financial support through scholarships. Later, as an attorney, the organization provided a network of experienced attorneys and judges that would serve as mentors and resources.
Knowing first hand how important mentorship can be to minority youths entering the legal profession, with the HBA-NJ Anna María established the American Dream Pipeline Program in 2013, to provide students with exposure to the legal profession and guidance from attorney mentors sharing similar backgrounds and life experiences.
The Pipeline Program is geared towards high school students (“mentees”) from urban communities – Passaic and Union City High Schools, who come from families that immigrated to the United States and are likely first-generation college-bound students. The purpose of the Pipeline Program is to provide the mentees with opportunities to meet attorneys and other professionals who have come from similar circumstances and can provide guidance to the mentees as they navigate through high school and start their own college application process.
“It is important for students of colors, especially young women, to see successful Latina attorneys and professionals, so they too can achieve their dreams,” said Anna María.
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Strengthening the professional pipeline for women of color
In her profession, Anna María is a leader and a connector of people. Through her leadership activities, she has made a point to elevate diversity, equity and inclusion issues in her work, which has helped connect her with colleagues and experts across industries and sectors. She brings strong relationships to the firm and in her volunteer and activist work.
In 2016, Anna María joined the Executive Women of New Jersey (EWNJ), the leading executive women’s organization in NJ. Here, Anna María connected with a robust network of professional women executives who have been on similar professional journeys. After years with the organization, Anna María became President of EWNJ, beginning in 2020-2021.
“Seek mentors who look like you, but also mentors who do not look like you but are willing to serve as a resource. Seek out organizations that could elevate you and put you in touch with people who could be critical for your professional development, such as Bar and industry associations, Anna María advised for Latinas aspiring to enter the legal profession. “Also groups such as Executive Women of New Jersey whose members cut across all industries and sectors, expose you to a variety of resources for your growth.”
“Number one thing, keep your eye on your goals. With so few Latinas in law, many of us are trailblazers in our communities and in our field of work.”
Most importantly, Anna María says is elevating those coming up behind you by paying forward the help you received.
“This will help strengthen the professional pipeline for women, especially women of color. As Latinas, we often feel we can handle things on our own and we certainly can; however, there is nothing wrong with asking for help.”