Even though in popular media, Latin America is often portrayed as having a “macho culture” compared to the rest of the world, it has made considerable progress regarding opportunities for women. Several Latin American and Caribbean countries have had women heads of state, whereas North American countries like the United States or Canada have yet to achieve this milestone. Currently the two largest countries (by land mass) in South America are headed by women, and several others have been in the past.
These successes don’t tell the whole story. Just like in the rest of the world, a combination of factors often make it more difficult for women to reach the highest levels of success in the business world. A recent survey by McKinsey & Company showed that while the overwhelming majority of respondents indicated that their company is “fully” or “very” committed to increasing and promoting gender diversity within their organizations, overall, women are under-represented in the boardroom and the executive ranks.
The knee-jerk reaction to these findings is to blame men for chauvinism and misogyny. While these do exist, in most cases the underlying reasons for lack of progress are more nuanced. “I think generally, the biggest blocker of opportunities for women are other women,” says Lyn Joseph, a graphics professional in a Trinidad & Tobago based civil engineering firm. Joseph goes on to explain that she reports to three male superiors, who are all supportive, though they have very different management styles. “The women who make up the balance of the staff are the least supportive. They don’t like to see their female counterparts prosper even though they all have different and separate job responsibilities.”
The Hurdle of Domestic Responsibility
Though according to the survey, 70 percent of respondents say that pressure for women to take care of families is a major factor in career decisions, 78 percent say that societal culture makes it difficult for women to move forward as well. “I have felt personally that pressure at times,” says Cecilia Iros, CEO of Córdoba, Argentina-based language services provider (Suma). “Not to be a housewife, but to turn down opportunities that meant relocating to a different city or country. Many other times, I have seen that women put pressure on themselves; they won’t allow themselves to make decisions that seem to put work ahead of family.”
Still, experiences vary. “In my family, the women have overcome much more than the men, professionally speaking. We haven’t had to fight as much against the societal ‘glass ceiling,’ says Colombia based Carolina Ardila Lopez, a professor and Nearshore Americas’ director. “I feel that I have had the same opportunity [as men]. I believe that I am part of a niche in the population that has reduced significantly the prejudices related to women attaining executive positions. In all the jobs that I have had, I never have felt that I couldn’t achieve solely because I am a woman.”
The single biggest factor preventing women from reaching the top, according to the McKinsey Survey, is a “Double Burden Syndrome” – women balancing work and domestic responsibilities. Both male and female respondents indicated that though several changes are needed, one of the most significant steps to aid professional advancement for women—and perhaps many men as well, would be more flexible working conditions at the workplace. “Now there is a law [in Colombia] that permits men to take a week of leave due to childbirth. To the women, they give 3 months, but in general I believe this is too little. Some companies are making progress with teleworking, but very reluctantly,” explains Lopez.
Joseph reports similar conditions in Trinidad & Tobago: “Yes, family life is supported. There are no official written policies, but flexibility is allowed for both men and women. For example, for the past several years, one of the manager’s children waits at the office after school for her mother to finish work. Another recent mother is relieved from overtime because the management understands that she has a son that must be picked up from daycare before closing time.”
While certainly a problem in many cases, one sign of progress may be that none of the women interviewed for this article cited sexual harassment itself as a direct barrier to advancement. While it does occur, it isn’t cited as an insurmountable obstacle. “For nothing!” says Santo Domingo- based Janel Leonor, Digital Marketing Manager with Econnecta. “That doesn’t have to stop any woman, or reduce her desire to succeed.”