It is no secret that for women it can be a particularly difficult climb up the corporate ladder in Latin America. Are women in the region given a fair shot at leadership roles in global trade, economics, and sourcing industries? We sought out five exemplary women who told us frankly what they’re up against.
We spoke with an international project manager in Brazil, an economist in Chile, the director of an investment organization in Colombia, a Vice President for a trade group in Costa Rica and an IT leader in Mexico to learn how they’ve done compete in largely male dominated professional sectors.
Stranger in a Strange Land
Maxine McClellan – Executive Director, Orbifish and President, Minas International
Of her personal experience in Brazil, McClellan (an expat from Boston, US) says, “Some barriers were already broken down because of the companies I worked with in the past and my experience. I came in at a level working with prestigious multinationals – with a level of gifted respect that is not usually afforded to other women.” Even so, McClellan still encounters some difficulty and power struggles with men at meetings.
McClellan arrived in Belo Horizante in 2005 to lead a complex IT project for Gillette/Proctor & Gamble. After the project was completed, she decided to stay in Brazil, however, as a North American women accustomed to a very different business climate, and etiquette, she had to make adjustments to the way she interacted with Brazilians. First she was a consultant to companies considering BPO operations there, and then formed Orbifish, a firm providing Social Media Marketing solutions, where she is Executive Director. Seeing a need to connect English speakers in Minas Gerais, McClellan formed Minas International in 2009 to network the growing population of international businesses and professionals immigrating to the state.
She points out that gender is regarded differently if a woman is working with a male executive at a multinational, as opposed to someone with only local experience. Still, there are not many women in strong positions in Minas Gerais, although McClellan is seeing this change by virtue of the fact that the need for skilled employees has grown substantially in Brazil. “Traditionally women have not gone into the engineering and IT fields, and the talent isn’t available yet,” observes McClellan. She expects it will take a generation to bridge the gender gap as more women enter the tech field. Through Minas Mentors, a program McClellan founded, she has started to see more interest from girls in industries that were not considered before.
To young Brazilian women, McClellan says, “Get the best education possible and be sure to get a degree; the more you have the better. Learn English – this will give you a leg up – particularly international English. Build international networks, even at an early age. Find mentors and women that can act as strong role models. And they are here. (Maxine will email name of “the role model” Castro).” Indeed, McClellan herself is one of them.
Molly Pollack – Executive Director of ChileGlobal
Through her extensive career, Pollack has worked at diverse institutions and in various countries, but one of her earliest memories of adulthood are the words of a professor on the first day of class in 1961 at the School of Economics at the University of Chile, where female students were a minority and they weren’t particularly welcome. “First he counted the number of women in the class and he was very angry because, he said, ‘women come to this school only to get a husband and then they leave, after taking away the possibility for a man to study.’ I was shocked, but at that time I did not realize that this was just the beginning of a long story.”
Pollack observes that “In many cases women in high positions are there because they are the daughters or wives of the owner of the company.” While she has been able to secure such positions, Pollack sees that for Chilean women it is usually more difficult to climb the ranks due to factors such as gender bias, intense competition, little ambition, conventional thinking and lack of contacts. Although the successful, if at times controversial, presidency of Michelle Bachelet may not have had real impact on the way women are regarded in business, Pollack thinks the impact has been significant on the way they regard themselves by instilling a confidence that was wanting before.
Wage disparity between men and women remains a problem in Chile, explains Pollack, “Men are promoted more easily than women and the wage differential increases, being the highest at top executive levels.” While there is no special program focused on attracting girls to the tech sector, Pollack sees an increase in women entering the field, but “they face problems getting a good job, and they have less probabilities to get promotions.”
“As Director of ChileGlobal I think that being a woman is a great advantage. I have to deal with very highly qualified people, most of them men, and they trust me, and I have never felt discriminated against.” Pollack advises young Chilean women to study, try to get the tutoring of a high level man or a woman, work honestly, be assertive and never think that because they are a woman they can be ignored in job promotions.
Tatyana Orozco – Director of ProBarranquilla
Although she was never the victim of gender discrimination, Orozco did find it strange that when she entered the workforce, there were a lot of men and few women at board meetings. This has changed over the last ten years, and, “in Barranquilla there are a lot of women in powerful jobs, but mostly in associations.” Orozco is starting to see more female university students studying computer science and engineering. She also thinks that women have particular characteristics in terms of listening, social skills and understanding a client’s needs. These attributes allow women to secure positions which require such skills.
“There have always been women in the workforce,” observes Orozco, “and now more women are working and finding a balance between work and their families. They are dedicating more time to getting trained. And men are giving more space to women.” She believes that Colombia has always seen women in public office and the private sector, so this is not a new phenomenon.
Orozco says that Colombian women need to work as hard as men, and to never think about being a woman as a challenge but as a quality. “Sometimes we have less resistance from men when we try to make our opinions heard than some men have.”
Passion and Power
Eva Maklouf – Vice President of the Board of Directors at CAMTIC (digital technology chamber)
“I’ve always been a passionate person and loved what I do,” declares Maklouf, “I have never been very concerned about not having women around me and have always worked well with men. I never felt any machismo and always got professional support.” She has also been very supportive of other women wanting to join the Costa Rican tech industry. Maklouf attributes the lack of machismo in the IT sector to the higher level of education required to enter the industry. “The more educated you are, the more open your perspective, and we probably have less machismo because of that. Also because it is a new industry and you don’t have a lot of older people.”
Maklouf urges more women to discover that engineering and methodological careers are viable options for them. “Latin America women are used to thinking about social careers. But this is changing; women are studying engineering and performing very well.” She believes that such a career enables women to still care for their families while earning a respectable living. “IT is an industry with great potential and opportunities for women,” Maklouf says. Part of her role at CAMTIC is organizing mentoring programs attended by an even amount of boys and girls. This platform exposes girls to career possibilities they may not have known about, such as IT, “Once you present the perspective to them [girls], a good amount join the programs. We currently have about 35% women in the IT industry.”
Maklouf believes it is just a matter of time before more Costa Rican women are seen in executive level positions, “As we encourage girls to move into IT, you will start to see more women in the high level positions. The opportunities are there, and if we create the right programs, we will see more women in these jobs very soon. And I will see my dream come true.”
Margarita Solis – Executive Director of IJALTI
An industrial engineer, Solis has been involved with many industries, such as Logistics, Automotive and the IT sector, and she is currently applying her skills and strengths to managing the international operations in Mexico for a German company. “I am also developing an IT cluster and overseeing the deployment of the biggest broadband Public Network of Latin America, which will connect schools, hospitals and government offices in the State of Jalisco.”
Solis sees cultural background and education as important factors that lead to gender discrimination. “If a girl is told that she cannot be engineer, or that nobody will marry her if she studies this or that, it will affect the decisions she will make.” She also cites family support as an imperative and opines that “men and women may have different focuses for success: many women expect what they deserve after the good work is done, while men negotiate and demand it before they do the work. Both may receive their rewards, but men tend to be more aggressive to get it.”
Solis is fortunate to have found female role models and mentors, one being a 32 year old women who was the leader at a business consulting firm in Mexico City, “she was just amazing; I learned from her the entrepreneurial spirit, public relations and courage,” remembers Solis. Another woman who inspires her is her German boss who “is an excellent leader, human, sensitive, intelligent, and leads for innovation.”
Although in Mexico some industries are encouraging fair opportunities, there are many others where it is difficult for a woman to climb the ranks. Solis has seen an increase in the efforts to recruit women to jobs once considered only open to men.
She advises Mexican girls to have a clear picture in their mind of the value that people will perceive of them, and of their image; make a great value proposition for stakeholders, and make sure they will deliver it; learn and master “the territory,” by reading, discussing and investigating; build a professional community and develop leadership.
Solis concludes that “As women we need to identify and use our strongest skills. One of the most important factors is to have an excellent team, and as a woman, I think we have the strength to develop our team member’s potential to create amazing results.”