By Luke Bujarski
This week’s Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Annual Meeting in New York City brought together heads of state and global business leaders to discuss some of the world’s most enduring challenges: Poverty, access to fresh food and clean water, human trafficking, education, energy, among others. One central theme throughout the three-day event turned to the topic of women participation in the workforce and their increasing role in global growth. While the region (and nearshoring) is no stranger to female political leaders, Latin America has generally carried a poor reputation when it comes to gender equality at the ground level.
World Bank data suggest that countries like Mexico and Argentina still have a ways to go in expanding women participation rates in the workforce. Nevertheless, presenters at the event made a strong effort to show how Latin America is moving beyond its ‘machismo’ past.
Nearshore Americas attended this year’s CGI annual meeting entitled ‘Designing for Impact’. The CGI is a global leadership forum and philanthropic organization started by former U.S. President Bill Clinton in 2005 (our profile of Clinton and his intense focus on Latin America can be found here.)
Latin America carried a strong presence amid the masses of high-ranking politicians and business leaders at this year’s annual meeting. Felipe Calderon President of Mexico, telecoms mogul Carlos Slim, but also two powerful women leaders including Kamla Persad-Bissessar prime minister of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago as well as Portia Simpson-Miller the Prime Minister of Jamaica were in attendance. Prime Minister Simpson-Miller was ranked in Time Magazine’s top 100 most influential people.
The Key: Integrating Women
The topic of educating and empowering “women and girls” was a central theme at the event. In his opening remarks President Barack Obama made empirical references explaining how the “world’s most successful economies also have the best track records of integrating women”. Luis Alberto Moreno the president of the Inter-American Development Bank kicked off a session on woman entrepreneurship outlining the state of gender issues in Latin America and what the IDB is doing to promote women.
“1.4 million small businesses in Latin America are owned by women”, noted Luis as he explained the workings of a recent IDB fund dedicated to training financial institutions on “understanding women entrepreneurs”. According to Moreno, women in Latin America have a better track record when it comes to being responsible with finances.
“Women are more loyal to financial institutions, and they are very good at paying their debts, much better than men.” Another compelling statistic pointed to women as taking more initiative in educating themselves. On average women in Latin America have between 1.5 to 2 years more schooling than men. “This has huge implications for the future of the Latin American workforce”, expressed Moreno.
If women continue to outperform men in educational attainment then global services could function as an important avenue toward empowering women in Latin America, as well as globally.
Perceptions toward Latin America tend to reinforce the reputation of a heavily male dominated society. The term ‘machismo’ is commonly used to describe Latino male bias towards women assuming positions of power, both at home and on the job. Yet the historical elections of President Cristina Kirchner of Argentina and Dilma Rousseff of Brazil did show that Latin Americans are open to woman leadership in politics. The broader question is whether the same applies in the private sector.
Data from the World Bank suggests that women in Mexico and Argentina have the lowest labor participation rates among the largest markets in the region – see figure. LatAm has a good track record relative to other parts of the global particularly Middle Eastern countries like Egypt, where social and religious customs keep most women from entering the modern workforce. Gallup Polls from as far back as 2007 also suggest that birth rates in Latin America are dropping, while the number of ‘house husbands’ is on the rise.
Data Source: World Bank; figure developed by author
Data Source: World Bank; figure developed by author
Interestingly, women dominate the Services Sector workforce across all countries, particularly in Mexico and Peru – see figure above. Historically the services sector comprised mainly lower-paid positions in hotels and restaurants. In today’s knowledge economy, however, services also include occupations in finance, communications, marketing, insurance, and real estate.
This moves into global services outsourcing territory where women make up large portions of the workforce, particularly as agents in contact centers. Likewise, nearshore outsourcing is not a complete stranger to woman leaders. Power players like Blanca Treviño CEO of Softtek and Maria Choucair Founder of Colombian software firm Choucair testing are helping to shape the outsourcing industry in Latin America.
Going forward, today’s contact center agents will grow to become tomorrow’s top management. Only time will tell whether more women will assume these leadership positions. According to Moreno, one major challenge for women globally is access to professional networks, often taken for granted by men (we would point to social media and networking tools like LinkedIn as a game changer for women and networking). He pointed to three focus areas in which organizations like the IDB can help empower women: Access to markets; access to finance; and access to education.
For high-value global services like software development and analytics, education is the primary differentiator, particularly in markets suffering from IT talent shortages, like Brazil. If women continue to outperform men in educational attainment then global services could function as an important avenue toward empowering women in Latin America, as well as globally.