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Being an Immigrant Woman: The Case of Ivana Trump

03/13/2014 12:52 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2014

Immigrant Outliers

The U.S. is only number 17 on The Economist glass-ceiling index; 16 countries provide more career advancement opportunity for women. And immigrant women find it even harder to get equal chances at work. Yet, a small but essential "outlier" subset among immigrant women achieves enormous success. These natural role-models inspire the rest.

Horatio Alger and others traditionally ascribe American success to "self-made" individuals' hard work and talent. But my findings are more in line with Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers. Himself an immigrant and outlier, Gladwell says, "People don't rise from nothing. We do owe something to parentage and patronage... The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forbearers shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine." I agree, and I've written about it before. Digging deeper into immigrant women leaders' success, I saw that everything counts: it's the cumulative advantage of innate talent, culture, character, upbringing, education, hard work, plus "opportunity and arbitrary advantage," as Gladwell puts it. Thus, it's critical to level the playing field for those talented but less fortunate, who can, if given a chance, make it to the higher stratum of outliers.

Double Jeopardy

Being an immigrant woman tends to present more challenges than being an immigrant man. Consider this:

1. Being an immigrant, all pros and cons of being an outsider fully apply to you. While all immigrant women are forever outsiders, immigrant women leaders are different; they're atypically successful outliers.

2. Being a woman, you belong to a majority (51 percent of population) treated as a minority (facing all the "pleasures" of a glass ceiling, lower salary, and gender stereotyping). Being a beautiful woman is OK in business and may even get you some edge and extra smiles. But because of stereotyping, your leadership is automatically perceived with suspicion -- at least initially -- and you need to do double to prove your worth.

3. Being a mother, you're a winner and a loser at the same time: ongoing workload and taking care of the family inevitably take their toll on you. The working mother creates a major inconvenience for some employers. And this is not even mentioning the deeper need to take care of yourself as a woman -- which is second nature to women from many cultures where the taste for feminine clothes and groomed appearance is taken with mother's milk.

4. Speaking broken English or English with an accent may sound cute and sexy. But you need to avoid certain professions/occupations, or be forever underestimated -- and frustrated. Too bad there's nothing to be done about it; research in Language Acquisition after Puberty, English with an Accent, and other sources overwhelmingly proves that one can learn to speak with correct grammar but can never fully get rid of one's accent, if a new language is acquired after puberty.

Well, it looks like being an immigrant woman is not double but quadruple jeopardy!

The Case of Ivana Trump

Being an immigrant woman isn't easy under the best of circumstances. This is why Ivana is a microcosm of the issues plaguing all immigrant women -- rich and famous included. Let's see how the above jeopardy points apply to her.

1. Being an immigrant, pros and cons. Not applicable: marrying a millionaire smoothed many immigration road bumps. Today, rising to success through marriage has practically disappeared, due to "assortative mating": the rich and educated marry the rich/educated, which only deepens the U.S. inequality gap. Luck, however, provided only a kick-start for Ivana's upward mobility.

2. Being gender-stereotyped. Fully applicable: perception of Ivana as a beautiful woman and boss's wife prevailed, and she was under-appreciated as an executive. It was American mass media, with its love of the rich and famous, that portrayed Ivana with an easy-to-sell image of a beauty that made a perfect background to her business-savvy husband. Of course, empowerment by Donald Trump gave her a huge advantage. But, according to Gladwell, a little advantage leads to a bigger one, then to a still bigger one, snowballing. So finally, playing the major roles in the Trump Organization, Ivana acquired managerial skills used after the divorce when she, a perpetual outlier, started her own businesses.

3. Being a mother. Fully applicable: the fine balance of full-time work, family with three children, and taking care of herself as a woman was hard to achieve, and even harder to maintain. Spreading herself thin might be part of the reason that her husband started looking around -- which ended in a divorce.

4. Speaking broken English or English with an accent. Partially applicable: she retained her Czech accent but successfully integrated into the unique U.S.-American culture, authoring three books, and being invited for cameo roles, TV episodes, and speeches about her experiences.

Divorces and wealth aside, we can learn a lot from Ivana: her culture, character, and spunk let her handle setbacks in a way that eventually made her a winner. And her luck was a reward for pluck.

Nobody's Exempt

Ivana's case shows that nobody's exempt from the problems plaguing the immigrant women. Our current rules give no leeway to immigrants based on gender, or talent for that matter, focusing on extracting revenue rather than providing opportunity to those who need a chance. This kind of approach was wittingly described as "plucking the geese" by The Economist, and it fully applies to the immigrant women who are subject to even more jeopardies than the majority of women. Also, there's plenty of evidence that throwing the talented outliers, men and women, to the dogs slows down our national progress. Let's sign in to counteract the situation!