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back to index backGLOBALtalk August,  2006

Latin America: Women on the Verge

Bit by bit, Latin American women edge toward the highest positions in the private and public sectors. It has been clear for some time women have been taking on more important roles in Latin America's business world. In spite of the trend, the great majority of executives and presidents remain men. It's clear that, although women are as capable as men at directing a company, obstacles are still in place that keep the majority of female executives from taking the highest leadership role.

Mexican executive Blanca Treviño is living proof that there are no limits for Latin America's corporate women. As president and CEO of one of the region's leading software developers, Softek, Treviño is becoming a reference point for Mexican business. Her accomplishments are impressive: In 2005, Softek posted revenues of US$140 million, 72% of it overseas. Her formula for success has been to knock down obstacles as they come. ``It's not easy balancing work and family, but it's possible,'' she says.

Treviño has headed Softek for almost six years and leads nearly 3,500 employees. She's been a pioneer in developing software from a distance, helping Mexico compete with countries like China and India. Her goals are ambitious. ``We want to list on the New York Stock Exchange, and saying that means I want to pay the price,'' she says.

In Mexico, just over 15 million women work outside the home, compared with more than 26 million men, according to the government's statistical agency. The number of women in charge of companies can be counted on one hand, but the doors to management jobs are starting to open, especially within family-run and in multinational firms.

According to a study by Mexico's Association of Women Executives, men occupy 88 of every 100 executive jobs. The study shows that only 2.7% of women polled are the top executive, while 67% occupy one of two kinds of jobs: as managers or directors. The three areas in which 60% of all business women work are human resources, purchasing and marketing.

``I've never felt limited because I'm a woman, but I'm sure there are people who have faced those kinds of challenges. In Mexico, almost all female executives or directors work for multinationals,'' says Purificación Carpinteyro, a corporate sales director for Telefónica Móviles México, part of Spain's Telefónica. ``There is probably greater resistance in Mexican companies.''

She remembers representing a Mexican company when it was acquiring a geothermal plant in Nicaragua during the presidency there of Violeta Chamorro, from 1990 to 1996. Carpinteyro led the Mexican negotiating team, and she assumed that Nicaragua's Cabinet was accustomed to seeing women occupying top positions. ``In the final round, there were government ministers present when our team entered the room. At that moment, I realized they all thought I was there to take notes, and when I started giving orders to the people with me, the ministers were surprised,'' she says.

In 1995, Carpinteyro served as vice president of external affairs and regulations for Iusacell, the second-largest mobile telephone operator in Mexico. In 1997, she moved to MCI Communications USA as director of Latin American regulations; two years later she occupied the post of vice president of Latin American external affairs. In 1998, Carpinteyro went to Brazil, where she participated in the privatization of one of the country's biggest telecommunication companies. ``Embratel was full of challenges but also opportunities. We got a license to offer local service and in less than a year we captured 15% of the market,'' she says.

Giants. In 2004, when Mexican business magnate Carlos Slim acquired Embratel, Carpinteyro left Brazil. She now works for a competitor. The challenges are not small considering the Spanish company faces Slim's telecom empire on his home court, including mobile phone company Telcel, the biggest in Mexico. ``My job is to challenge the companies that have the biggest market share, companies that have been in Mexico for 15 years,'' she says.

Lizbeth Hasfield, senior vice president and chief executive officer of MasterCard Mexico, has also had an admirable career. Before assuming her current position in 2001, Mexico represented 35% of the Latin American market. Today, that figure is 65% and Mexico is the company's fourth-largest market in the world. ``We're growing; in the last five years we've grown on average of about 64.8%. We want to be market leaders,'' she says.

Hasfield says she has never faced professional obstacles because of her gender, although even today she attends meetings where she is the only woman. ``Before, women didn't think about working, so what are the chances that a woman would occupy a job?'' she asks.

María del Pilar Marmolejo, who is in charge of telephone service for Mexico's largest fixed-line telephone company, Telmex, is proud to have been the company's first deputy director in 50 years. ``In 1995, I became the first female top executive when I was named deputy director of human resources at only 29,'' she says. But the best time came later, in 1990, when Telmex was privatized. ``Suddenly, a lot of women started getting promotions,'' she says.

América Taracido is a former chief financial officer of Latin America for pharmaceutical multinational Eli Lilly and is currently vice president of cosmetics at multinational Avon Mexico. She, too, has taken a difficult path. ``By definition, women start at a disadvantage, earning less than men,'' Taracido says. ``I haven't been passed over because I'm a woman, but the competition is very stiff, you have to have the right balance and be competitive.''

Taracido has worked in the United States and in South America. A little over three years ago she returned to Mexico and implemented a cost-cutting program that made Mexico the company's largest division outside of U.S. territory.

In Brazil, though there's still a long way to go, woman are also reaching the highest corporate spheres. São Paulo executive Maria Fernanda dos Santos Teixeira, vice president of operations for EDS in Latin America, makes no bones about her professional aspirations.

``Of course I want to be president of EDS for America Latina,'' she says, perfectly aware of her own ability to lead the regional operations of the U.S. information-technology outsourcer. Since 1974, when she began her career as a typist at General Motors Brasil, transparency and objectivity have been her calling card. She holds a doctorate in economics and marketing from the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo. ``I always made it very clear that I would do the best work so long as I was given opportunities to grow,'' she says.

Teixeira believes that in a world still dominated by men, as Brazil's executive club remains, women must impose their will. ``Women don't fight much. They give up too easily, they adapt to a comfortable situation, they sit around waiting for recognition, they don't demand or complain. It's a losing attitude,'' she says. Teixeira has held 20 positions in her 20 years with the company before assuming her current position two years ago.

The weaknesses women seem to have compared to men in some areas explain, in part, how in Brazil women are still a minority in executive positions, even though they make up half of the corporate labor force. According to Teixeira, women occupy 30% of the executive jobs in Brazil, higher than the world average of 20% but still far from ideal.

Vera Valente, executive director of Pró Genéricos - a group representing the companies that make 92% of generic medicines in Brazil - knows this reality well. Five years ago, when she became director of generic medicine for the national drug regulation agency, Anvisa, Vera was viewed with skepticism by the pharmaceutical industry, which had not one woman in a management position. ``What keeps me going is the challenge,'' she says.

Success. In the end, Valente was so successful in creating Brazil's generic drug market that she was invited by industry executives to preside over their association in 2003. Although she studied law and agricultural engineering, Valente is now recognized as the top executive in Brazil's generic drug industry, which accounts for 12% of the 1.3 million pills and tablets sold in the country each year.

If there is a common quality among the women who have managed to reach the upper echelons of executive power, it is their ability to accept challenges. Eneida Bini is one clear example. Bini started her career at the age of 19 as a secretary at Avon. She went on to supervise and manage almost every division, completing several courses and an MBA in administration and finally became general director in Brazil and a global vice president for the company. In 2004, after 23 years with Avon, she accepted an invitation to lead the Brazilian subsidiary of U.S. direct-sales giant Herbalife. In Brazil for only a decade, Herbalife still has a lot of market to conquer, according to Bini, whose goal is to double the number of distributors - 120,000 today - and sales volume by 2009.

The possibility of being transferred is another factor that, at times, can interfere with an executive's potential rise. In the case of Isabel Fumero, who was transferred to Brazil last year to take charge of Brazilian sales for U.S. business software provider Laserfiche, the worst was leaving behind friends and family. ``I still miss them,'' says Fumero, who has a degree in merchandising and international business from UCLA. Nevertheless, she believes, the sacrifices were worth the opportunity for professional growth. ``Today I am completely focused on developing the Brazilian market for Laserfiche,'' says Fumero, who has more than 20 years of experience in information markets, having worked for Scopus Tecnologia, Spike and Xerox Brasil. ``My greatest strength is my confidence in my own ability and persistence,'' she says.

Persistence could be the trademark of Adélia Borges, a leading Brazilian design expert who has made her mark as director of the Museum of the Brazilian Home, the country's only specialized architecture and design museum. A journalist, professor, writer and curator, Borges has been studying and promoting Brazilian design for 20 years. She has passionately promoted the subject to the point of introducing it outside Brazil. At the head of the Museum of the Brazilian Home for two years, Borges has brought a new rhythm to the institution and displayed her managerial talent: In just one year she managed to quadruple the number of museum visitors to 80,000. ``I always specialized in content, but now I'm learning public administration,'' she says. Borges is already dreaming of someday being named São Paulo state's Secretary of Culture.

Source: Latin Trade magazineGAI

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