Women, power and the Latin American workplace

When we think of Latin America, there is a stereotype in relation to attitudes to women, especially in the workplace. The word “machismo” is in everyday use in English, and its origins relate to inspirational male attributes: nobleness, strength and courage. In the last 50 years it has been increasingly used to describe behaviours that are less than favourable, and that demonstrate prejudice or misogyny.

So is the stereotype true in Latin America society? Do women have a more challenging experience than their European and North American counterparts? Are attitudes towards women in the workplace stuck, or are they changing? Let’s look at some of the facts.

One aspect that is immediately evident is the number of women in high profile positions in government. As well as ministers in many countries, the heads of state of three of the largest countries; Chile, Brazil and Argentina are women. This is significant, partly because these are all countries with sizeable economies, and also because these women have overcome male dominated political structures – all three of these countries have had military dictatorships within living memory.

The question is always: has political change led to social and economic change?

The facts speak for themselves according to a recent McKinsey report*, diversity in the workplace is increasingly being seen as a key issue to resolve in this region.

So what has happened? This may be uncomfortable for our female presidents but The World Economic Forum gender gap index shows that Argentina comes in at a modest 32nd, Brazil at 62nd and Chile at 91st. So there is still a great deal of work to be done.

Some progress has been made, with women’s salaries starting to approach the level of their male counterparts. An increasing number of women are employed at senior/executive levels – more so in services than in manufacturing. Female education has also seen great strides.

However, the reality is that as the economies in Latin America develop, so do the attitudes and cultures. Multinational companies have a heavy presence in the region, and it is frequently the Latin American sections that take the initiative to develop progressive policies. Global gender diversity issues, and lately, unconscious bias have been areas that business leaders have devoted their energies.

What impact is this having? Certainly those organisations that put diversity at the centre of their HR functions are seeing the benefits. Traditional male attitudes are shifting, and opportunities are being created. Legislation in many countries has enshrined these new realities as rights.

In the long term, all organisations with a global presence will have a great influence on the region, and will also be able to learn from the excellent practices that originate there. The machismo model is definitely on the decline, and the change in the workplace will continue to instil a change in the whole of society in this rich continent.

*Women matter: a Latin American perspective. McKinsey 2013

Lead Virtual Trainer covering the South American region