When a prominent Mexican businessman last year criticised women for balancing careers and families, it seemed a step backward for equality in Latin America.
Women “are doing badly because they want to do everything”, Ricardo Salinas Pliego, owner of Elektra, the Mexican electronics company and TV Azteca, the broadcaster, said at a business summit in October.
Such remarks are less common than in the past in a region where some of the leading countries are governed by women, including Dilma Rousseff, president of Brazil, Michelle Bachelet, president-elect of Chile, and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, president of Argentina.
But the incident serves as a reminder that machismo is not easily eliminated.
A 2013 survey by McKinsey, the consultancy, found that 8 per cent of members of the executive committees of 348 listed companies in Latin America were women. More executives recognise gender diversity is a strategic priority (at 37 per cent, up from 21 per cent in 2010). But progress can be slow.
An obvious barrier is the cultural perception that Latin American women should look after families while men go to work.
Seventy per cent of executives in Latin America surveyed by McKinsey believed that family pressures push at least some women to leave jobs. This was much lower in Asia, at 57 per cent, when the survey was conducted there in 2012.
Claudia Politanski, senior vice-president for legal affairs at Itaú-Unibanco, the largest Brazilian private bank, recalls the difficulties of managing work and children in the early stages of her career.
“The major responsibility for my daughters fell on me,” she says. “It was very exhausting but I did not see space to discuss it. I had to be at work [all the time]. I had to be available to travel, work weekends and long hours.”
The lack of women at the top can perpetuate the problem, with younger women having few female role models or mentors. Women sometimes feel they have to work harder than men to be promoted or listened to by men.
For example, Itaú’s workforce is 59 per cent female but only 9 per cent of the bank’s directors are women. Mrs Politanski is the only woman on Itaú’s nine-member executive board.
“If I had more women sitting with me on the executive committee, it would be easier to convey my vision,” she says.
Ana Gabriela Pessoa is head of innovation at Grupo Multi, a language school chain in Brazil acquired last year by Pearson, which also owns the Financial Times. She says women are still under-represented in technology and innovation.
“I always felt like I was one of the few women in Brazil doing this,” she says. That led Ms Pessoa to recruit talented women and to offer mentoring to women in her sector.
Verônica Serra, a Chile-born entrepreneur, has sought to be a role model. Ms Serra, the daughter of José Serra, the former Brazilian presidential candidate, made her fortune investing in two successful Latin American start-ups: the financial portal Patagon.com and MercadoLivre, a Nasdaq listed e-commerce retailer.
In 2001, she launched Pacific Investimentos, a private equity fund, which has at least one female professional for every two men.
“The fact that I have grown and done relatively well in a male-dominated environment makes me more open to not just accepting but also attracting women into the office,” she says. “They feel this is a place where they can thrive and do better.”
Elsewhere, companies in Latin America are starting to recognise the need to retain female talent. Institutional support is increasing through flexible hours, remote working arrangements and paid maternity leave (three months in Latin America on average, although it is six months in some countries).
Latin American women are learning to be more outspoken in the workplace. Andrea Alvares, a general manager at PepsiCo in Brazil, offers an example. Ms Alvares became pregnant during her second year in Argentina leading PepsiCo’s marketing division in the region. After two years during which her husband commuted every weekend from São Paulo to Buenos Aires, she had had enough.
“I did raise my hand to say that it was a bit tough to be without my husband in a different country, two kids and having just had my third child,” she says. “I was very vocal and open with the company … and that eventually helped me to reach a higher position in my home country.”
For Mr Salinas and those like him who believe only superwomen can succeed, showing human fallibility might not be a bad thing.
As Eunice de Carvalho, Chevron’s Brazil manager and a mother of five, notes: “Some days I am a great mum and not so terrific businesswoman and other days I am a terrific businesswoman and not a great mum. But, on balance, most days I feel I can do both.”
Credit: The Financial Times, www.ft.com; Photo caption: Brazilian and Chilean presidents Dilma Rousseff, left, and Michelle Bachelet