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Latin America: “Si señora” Ladies take the family business lead

Jane Simms is a freelance journalist based in the UK.

The gender gap in Latin America is still fairly large, but it is becoming increasingly common for a woman to run the family business. Jane Simms looks at the attitude towards working women in Latin America and those who have made it to the top

While Western women began smashing the glass ceiling of corporate hierarchy in the 1980s, female family members in Latin America have only recently begun to play a part in the running of their family businesses. "In general, women's place has been regarded as being in the home," says Esteban Brenes, professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at INCAE business school in Costa Rica.

But while this bias against women in business reflects the traditional macho culture that has endured in many Latin American countries, it is not driven by chauvinism alone. "Many family businesses fear the instability and loss of control that having a woman in charge implies," claims Gonzalo Jimenez, director of the family business centre at Adolfo Ibanez University in Chile.

What's more, continues Jimenez, the culture is quite paternalistic. "Fathers have a natural inclination to protect their daughters from difficult labour situations. Unions are quite strong in the region, and this can make business volatile and aggressive. And the inflexibility of working hours makes it difficult for women to balance their home and work lives."

Education is everything
But things are changing, and one of the biggest drivers is education. In some Latin American countries, women make up 40–50% of the university population, compared to about 5% in the 1970s. And in the region's business schools, the proportion of women students has risen from around 10% a decade ago to between 20% and 35% today.

According to Jimenez, young women are realising that marriages don't necessarily last for ever, so are keener to secure their independence through the pursuit of professional qualifications – a route in which their fathers have become complicit.

What's more, family businesses are more professionally managed these days, so there is growing demand for the kind of theoretical grounding that a good business education provides. "At INCAE, around 50% of students come from family businesses, and most of them intend to go back," says Brenes. "Women are often the brightest students."

Carmen Ferrão is CEO of marketing and sales at Lojas Pompéia, a chain of 49 family fashion stores in Brazil set up by her father 54 years ago. She believes education has been "a major liberating factor" for women.

After a first degree in social communication, she did a management course, followed by an intensive course in retailing at Disney University in Orlando, and began working for the family business 24 years ago at the age of 26. "I used to do my homework around my dad's office, so it seemed natural to study business-related subjects at university," she recalls.

Her first task after being invited to join the company by her father, who was then its president, was to create a new marketing strategy. "My one concern was to do a good job, and I always focused on my career rather than the fact that I was a woman," she says. "The main barriers to women in business are the ones they erect themselves. I had to understand that I was capable and that I had my own way of working, and from that perspective it was easier to deal with any prejudices I encountered."

Nevertheless, she admits to being a pioneer, both within Lojas Pompéia and the Brazilian business world generally. "I am the first female CEO here, though a female cousin is a board director, my sister is a manager and my daughter also works here now. I feel as though I am a strong role model for my daughter and our other female employees."

Alejandra Torres, the 36-year-old chair of the board of directors at Contempo, a property developer based in Colombia, has been working for the family business for just four years. "It was always very clear to me that I had to develop my own career and independence before supporting the family business," she says.

She studied multinational management and international relations at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. A few years later she did a Masters degree in Latin American studies at the University of California at Berkeley.

Torres is the first woman in her family to be involved in running the business. "The reason women haven't been involved in the past is due more to circumstance than intention," she explains. "My father founded the business over 35 years ago and he was very entrepreneurial, so the company was run as a one-man show. But by the time he was approaching retirement four years ago, the company had become stagnant and inefficient."

The family asked her to lead a major reengineering process, which resulted in a professional corporate governance structure, a smooth succession plan, a family council and the introduction of external management. "My father was very supportive," says Torres. "I am the eldest of four siblings, and the only one with a business background, so everyone considered it natural that I should get involved."

One of her sisters, who has a Masters degree in interior architecture, is now the director of the architecture and design unit. "I guess we act as role models, although we do not actively promote women in leadership positions," says Torres. "We select the most qualified candidates, male or female."

Torres says she has never experienced prejudice on the grounds of her gender – though that may be because she was educated in the US and has an American mother, "so I was raised to expect equal treatment." What's more, Colombia has a good record of female representation at the top of industry, banking, research and politics. "In fact, women seem to inspire more trust than men in certain spheres," she says.

Powerful role models
Brenes says that the high level of emancipation in countries such as Colombia and Brazil, compared to, for example, Peru and Bolivia, is reflected in economic success. Chile is an anomaly: it is a strong economic performer despite relatively few women bosses. One explanation, believes Jimenez, is that women wield considerable influence in family businesses from behind the scenes. "They sometimes play quite an interesting role as a key adviser or a key shareholder – a sort of power behind their husband's throne," he says.

But the appointment of Michelle Bachelet as Chile's first female president last year is already helping to liberate women. Bachelet has overseen the appointment of women into very senior positions in government, and has introduced policies – including anti-discrimination legislation – to address the cultural bias against women.

"This has created a whole new environment for women in business, and increased respect for women generally," says Jimenez. As he points out, the more high-level female role models there are – in whatever sphere – the more rapidly the barriers to women's advancement tumble.

Another trend supporting this evolution is women taking over often very substantial family businesses after their husbands have died. "There are several examples of high-profile family businesses being run very successfully by widows, despite their lack of preparation for the role," says Brenes.

And how do they pull off this feat? Because they have skills and qualities that men lack, continues Brenes. "They work hard, they want to accomplish things rather than get bogged down in politics, they are democratic and good at 'people' issues, they think laterally, they pay attention to detail and they are very honest and open."

Ferrão describes women's leadership style as "sweet, but tough", and points out that as women tend to take the lead in a family or social environment, they are ideally suited to taking the lead in business. But critically, both she and Torres emphasise the importance to women of striking a healthy work-life balance.

"The experience of being mothers makes us very agile decision makers and multi-taskers," says Torres. "But being a good mother is just as important – and much more demanding – than being an executive, and we need to recognise and value this much more in the workplace."

But what do the traditional macho men of Latin America make of the growing incursion of women onto their territory? Torres and Ferrão say the very fact that they are different from and complementary to their male peers makes for more productive relationships. And according to Jimenez, the typical male response to women at the top has been "uncertainty, suspicion and then surprise at just how good they are".

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