What’s Keeping Latin American Women from the C-Suite?

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A growing number of Latin American executives say that gender diversity is a top agenda item at their companies. However, Latin American women are still greatly underrepresented in the C-suite within the region, according to global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

Conducted in February 2013, McKinsey’s survey received responses from 547 executives (354 men and 193 women) in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru.

In the firm’s 2010 diversity survey, 21 percent of respondents said gender diversity was a top priority; now 37 percent say so, according to the 2013 survey results. Within that group, 80 percent believe that their company leaders are fully or very committed to acting on the issue. Twenty-five percent of respondents, however, said gender diversity was not on their company’s agenda at all.

Sixty percent of executives said they believe that organizations with diverse leadership teams that include significant numbers of women generate higher financial returns. This belief is held most strongly in Mexico, where the largest share of respondents said gender diversity is a top corporate priority. However, according to McKinsey’s analysis, women make up only 5 percent of executive management at companies in Mexico, compared with a regional average of 8 percent, and just 27 percent of these businesses have at least one woman on their executive teams, which is the smallest share across the six countries surveyed.

Forty-two percent of respondents reported that their company is implementing just one to three of the 13 gender-diversity measures the survey mentions. Flexible working conditions, programs encouraging networking and mentoring among women, and support services to reconcile work and family life were most frequently cited as the measures companies have taken to recruit, retain, promote and develop women.

The hardest measures to implement are flexible working conditions, gender quotas, and gender-specific hiring goals and programs, the survey revealed. Female respondents most often cited flexible conditions as the hardest to execute, and they are more likely than men to say that their organization’s gender-diversity actions have been unsatisfactory.

Perceptions Differ Between Men and Women

McKinsey asked which of three key reasons best explains the lack of gender diversity among top management. The results vary greatly by gender, with female respondents most likely to attribute the imbalance to lower promotion rates for women. The reason that men (43 percent) most frequently mentioned was low female representation in their company. The largest share of executives citing low overall numbers of female employees said their industries are traditionally less attractive to women.

The third choice provided was female attrition in mid- to senior-level positions. More than half of respondents believe that when women leave voluntarily, it’s to spend more time with family: 52 percent say so, unchanged from 2010.

Male and female respondents diverged in their views explaining women’s low promotion rates. Men most often cited a concentration of female employees in departments with comparatively lower promotion rates and less upward mobility, while women most often mentioned a lack of sponsorship and leaders’ perceptions that women are less ambitious.

But responses from female executives suggest otherwise: 79 percent of women say they would choose to advance to C-level management, compared with 73 percent of men.

Barriers to Advancement

Latin American execs identified the biggest obstacles to increasing gender diversity in their C-suites: women’s work-life balance and a performance model that requires constant availability.

Forty-four percent of respondents cited balancing work and domestic responsibilities as the highest barrier to increasing gender diversity. Thirty-nine percent noted the need for constant availability and geographical mobility. Other barriers cited were a lack of pro-family public services, absence of female role models, and the tendency of women not to promote themselves.

Seventy percent of respondents said the notion that women must take care of the family is a powerful influence on Latin American women’s career decisions.

Similarly, 78 percent reported that the culture in their home country makes it easier for men to move forward in their career, with respondents in Brazil and Mexico most likely to hold this opinion.

The majority of respondents said the biggest increases in 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.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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