Latin American companies lag behind the world in promoting women to upper management. Two studies released at a businesswomen’s summit in Mexico earlier this summer may help what some call an extra-thick glass ceiling.

Global Summit of Women in Mexico City

MEXICO CITY (WOMENSENEWS)–When Ivonne Monteagudo gives a seminar to aspiring female executives here, the first thing she has to do is explain "glass ceiling," or how women can easily find themselves stuck on the corporate ladder for invisible reasons.

"Eighty percent don’t know what the term means," says Monteagudo, president and general manager of the Mexico office of the U.S. promotional-products company Meade-Johnson International Inc. "If they don’t know what it means, much less will they know what it is and what to do about it," says Monteagudo, who is also president of the Mexican Association of Executive Women, based in Mexico City.

In taking stock of women’s business standing in the region, researchers are finding that Latin American companies lag behind others worldwide in promoting women to upper management. Several factors contribute. They range from lack of role models and networking opportunities to cronyism that puts an emphasis on who you know rather than what you can do.

Two documents released earlier this summer at the Global Summit for Women in Mexico City help measure the situation.

One is a report by the Global Summit, a Web-based business network that counted the number of female executives in Latin Trade magazine’s list of top 100 Latin American companies traded on stock exchanges. It found that this region’s firms have fewer women in the upper echelons than their counterparts worldwide do.

Another study, by the U.S. consulting firm McKinsey and Co., shed some light on why: high rates of illiteracy, childbearing at very young ages and other factors that prevent many women from advancing economically.

In the corporate report, Global Summit president Irene Natividad counted the number of female board members in Latin Trade’s top-100 list and found that 64 percent of them do not have any women. Only 5.1 percent of board directorships on the list are held by women, in contrast to the 10.4 percent on the boards of the Fortune Global 200 companies, a list of the world’s 200 largest companies as compiled by Fortune magazine.

Globally, the "pacesetters in corporate Latin America lag behind their counterparts, with 36 percent of the top 100 having at least one woman on the board, compared to 73.5 percent of Fortune Global 200 companies with at least one woman director," the report said.

Mexican Boards Less Than 5 Percent Female

Overall, the Mexican companies represented on the Latin Trade list had 4.3 percent of board seats, or 20 female directors in 37 companies among 460 board seats.

The number of female business executives in Mexico nevertheless is growing, says Gina Zabludovsky, a researcher at the Autonomous National University of Mexico. In the nation’s top 500 companies, the number of firms with at least one woman on the board of directors increased from 24.2 percent in 1994 to 49.6 percent in 1998 and 52 percent in 2001.

She also noted that the businesses with women in high positions tended to be family-owned, which matches findings by the Inter-American Development Bank that cronyism and connections are a more accepted mode of doing business in Latin America than in the rest of the world, and that men and women alike who aren’t part of the right networks or social class have slim chance of moving up.

Brazil topped the Latin Trade 100 list of companies with the most female directors, with 11 out of 16 companies having women on the boards. Brazilian chemical company Copesul was a standout with 42.9 percent female board members, or 3 out of 7.

Global Summit of Women in Mexico City

A number of well-known companies studied by the Global Summit have no female directors, including six of the region’s 10 largest: retailer Walmart de Mexico, communications company Carso Global Telecom, communications conglomerate America Telecom, cement maker Cemex, energy company Repsol YPF and Brazilian mining giant CVRD. Twenty-four Mexican companies have no female directors, while 22 Brazilian companies have no women directors. In Argentina, none of the five largest companies has a woman on its board.

The only Venezuelan company on the Latin Trade 100 list is CANTV, a telecommunications company. Its list of directors is 22 percent female (2 out of 9), better than some others on the list.

In Chile, the number of women in managerial, administrative and director positions rose from 19.5 percent of the number of such positions in 1990 to 22.4 percent in 1998, according to that country’s National Statistics Institute.

In another report released at the summit, the Chicago consultancy McKinsey and Co. found that women in Latin America face significant employment challenges. Many of the region’s more than 280 million women start working very young, McKinsey said. The company did not specify an age, but girls have been known to start working well before their teens.

Among these 280 million women, about 20 percent over 15 are illiterate. Another 20 percent of the female labor force, however, has at least 13 years of education.

The report found that 30 percent of the 280 million head their households. Of those living in urban areas, 56 percent work in low-productivity sectors, 13 percent of them as domestic help and many of the rest holding other jobs in the informal economy. Only three percent of those urban working women are employers.

Change Is Extremely Gradual

There are indications, however, of change.

Cynthia Kaplan, an executive recruiter at Crossborder Coaching in Mexico City, has many female clients. More telling, she says, are the number of companies that have been told by their multinational headquarters to increase diversity in general, including hiring more women.

"Some are being asked to by the multinational headquarters and others know it’s just good business sense," says Kaplan.

Kaplan tries to place women when she is assigned an executive search, but sometimes they simply aren’t there. "There are some women but you find a lot more men," she says. "I always try to find women candidates, but it’s hard at that level."

Some Mexican business owners already get it, Kaplan says. One of her clients, the head of a Mexican consulting firm, wants to recruit more women because he likes the results generated by his star consultant, a woman. In addition, other clients tell Kaplan that women are "better workers and you can trust them more," and they’re more responsible, she says.

Monteagudo sees progress too, but is anxious to speed it up.

"I think everybody acknowledges that things are changing and improving," she says. "We want to accelerate the rate of change because if we keep doing things at the same pace, it’s going to take another 50 years. And that’s too long."

Theresa Braine is a freelance writer based in Mexico City.



For more information:

Global Summit of Women:

National Association of Female Executives (NAFE):

Asociacion Mexicana de Mujeres Ejecutivas AMME
(Mexican Association of Women Executives)
[in Spanish]: