Going Global: how the UK gender agenda is being played out in Latin America

A few weeks ago I blogged on the slowing rate of female Board membership here in the UK, and mused on whether the forthcoming European directives on the matter were a good thing or not. This week, the latest McKinsey global report on inclusion showed that  Gender diversity is gaining ground in Latin America, yet women in the region are still greatly underrepresented in top management—even though they are more likely than men to say they want to advance their careers. Although thousands of miles separate our two continents, there are startling parallels between what is happening here in  Europe and the reality of the workplace in South America. So, are there shared lessons that can be learnt?

The McKinsey survey asked executives across Latin America what their companies are doing to attract and retain female employees, why there are few women at their companies’ highest levels, and which barriers keep women from reaching the top.  The online survey received responses from 547 executives (354 men and 193 women) in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru – a near identical number to The UK Non Exec Survey 2013 commissioned by The Non Exec Hub. Those Latin American executives represented the full range of industries, company sizes, tenures, and functional specialties. (And to adjust for differences in response rates, the data was weighted by the contribution of each respondent’s nation to global GDP, which I have to admit we didn’t quite do for our own UK survey!).

Since the last McKinsey global survey three years ago, a larger share of executives in Latin America now say that gender diversity is a top agenda item at their companies. And where it’s now a priority, four out of five respondents believe their company leaders are fully or very committed to acting on the issue. Nonetheless, respondents report few women on their companies’ executive teams, and male and female executives disagree as to why women are underrepresented.

As in the two previous surveys,  Latin American executives are most likely to cite flexible working conditions, programmes to encourage female networking/role modelling and support services to reconcile work and family life as the measures their companies have taken to recruit, retain, promote, and develop women. This is a mirror image of findings in the UK. There are some notable differences by country, though: just 10 percent of executives in Chile say their CEOs and executive teams visibly monitor the progress of gender-diversity programmes, while 20 percent of all respondents say the same. In Brazil, 41 percent say their companies have not taken any measures to recruit and retain women, compared with 29 percent of the total average.

The survey asked about 13 gender-diversity measures, yet 42 percent of respondents report that their companies are implementing just one to three of them. The results suggest, though, that the higher gender diversity is on the strategic agenda, the more actions companies are likely to take. Executives agree that the hardest measures for their companies to implement are flexible working conditions, gender quotas, and gender-specific hiring goals and programs. Female respondents most often cite flexible conditions as the hardest to execute and, perhaps not surprisingly, they are more likely than male respondents to say their companies struggle in implementing each of the 13 measures.

Interestingly, the ‘ROI’ factor that we’ve stressed so often also holds true in South America. Fully 60 percent of executives say they believe that companies with diverse leadership teams that include significant numbers of women generate higher financial returns. When asked which of three reasons best explains low female representation in their companies’ top-management positions, the results vary greatly by gender, with female respondents most likely to attribute this imbalance to lower promotion rates for women. The other two reasons considered were low female representation in their companies overall (chosen most frequently by men, at 43 percent) and female attrition in mid- to senior-level positions.

Likewise, male and female respondents view the root causes of low promotion rates very differently. Men most often cite a concentration of female employees in departments with comparatively lower promotion rates and less upward mobility, while women most often cite a lack of sponsorship. Female executives are also twice as likely as males to attribute lower rates to leaders’ perceptions that women have less ambition than men. But responses from female executives suggest they are as ambitious as their male counterparts—or even more so: 79 percent of women say they would choose to advance to C-level management, compared with 73 percent of men.

Overall, executives in Latin America and their global counterparts identify the same barriers to increasing top-management diversity in corporations: the “double burden syndrome” and an “anytime, anywhere” performance model that requires constant availability.

It’s not surprising, then, that most respondents say the notion that women must take care of the family is strong enough in their countries to influence career decisions: 70 percent say this influences at least some women to leave their jobs. Interestingly, only 57 percent of respondents in Asia said the same in the McKinsey survey of executives across that region, which was conducted in January 2012. Seventy-eight percent report that the cultures in their home countries make it easier for men than for women to move forward in their careers—and respondents in Brazil and Mexico are even likelier to say so. More than half also say this cultural bias influences their own companies’ approaches to gender diversity.

To overcome these issues, both male and female respondents agree that the biggest effect on increasing gender diversity in top management would come from flexible working conditions, visible monitoring by the CEO, and support services to help with work-life balance.

The only factor that McKinsey doesn’t address is what can further be done by any female with aspirations to be an Executive Director or NED. Gaining mentoring is a good point, and support mechanisms are an undoubted help – but there’s ultimately no substitute for continually widening your network and constantly refining your job search. Whatever the continent, it remains something of a numbers game – the more opportunities you give yourself, the better your opportunity will be.

Author Bio:

Heather White is CEO of Non Exec Hub. To find out more about this online community and unique resource, contact her at [email protected]

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