Why top management eludes women in Latin America

| Survey

Gender diversity is gaining ground in Latin America, yet women in the region are still greatly underrepresented in top management—even though they are more likely than men to say they want to advance their careers. These are among the key findings from our latest McKinsey survey on workplace diversity, which asked executives across Latin America what their companies are doing to attract and retain female employees, why there are few women at their companies’ highest levels, and which barriers keep women from reaching the top.1

Since our global survey three years ago, a larger share of executives in Latin America now says that gender diversity is a top agenda item at their companies. Where it’s now a priority, four out of five respondents believe their company leaders are fully or very committed to acting on the issue. Nonetheless, respondents report few women on their companies’ executive teams, and male and female executives disagree as to why women are underrepresented.

Committing to diversity

In 2010, 21 percent of respondents in Latin America said gender diversity was a top priority; this year, 37 percent say the same, and of those executives, 80 percent say their CEOs and top-management teams are either fully or very committed to taking action on this issue. That puts Latin America on par with results from our latest global and regional surveys (Exhibit 1). Still, one-quarter of executives say the issue is not on their agendas at all.

In Latin America, gender diversity is ascending as a strategic priority.

As in the two previous surveys,2 Latin American executives are most likely to cite flexible working conditions, programs to encourage female networking and role modeling, and support services to reconcile work and family life as the measures their companies have taken to recruit, retain, promote, and develop women. There are some notable differences by country, though: just 10 percent of executives in Chile say their CEOs and executive teams visibly monitor the progress of gender-diversity programs, while 20 percent of all respondents say the same. In Brazil, 41 percent say their companies have not taken any measures to recruit and retain women, compared with 29 percent of the total average.

The survey asked about 13 gender-diversity measures, yet 42 percent of respondents report that their companies are implementing just one to three of them. The results suggest, though, that the higher gender diversity is on the strategic agenda, the more actions companies are likely to take. Executives agree that the hardest measures for their companies to implement are flexible working conditions, gender quotas, and gender-specific hiring goals and programs. Female respondents most often cite flexible conditions as the hardest to execute and, perhaps not surprisingly, they are more likely than male respondents to say their companies struggle in implementing each of the 13 measures.

Why representation remains low

Fully 60 percent of executives say they believe that companies with diverse leadership teams that include significant numbers of women generate higher financial returns. Across countries, this belief is held most strongly in Mexico, where the largest share of respondents say gender diversity is a top corporate priority. This finding is particularly interesting given that companies in Mexico have the smallest shares of women on their executive committees, compared with companies in other countries.3 Regardless, survey respondents in Mexico are as likely as everyone else to report few women in their companies’ top ranks.

In this survey, we asked which of three key reasons best explains the lack of gender diversity among their companies’ leaders and the underlying causes for the reason they selected.4 The results vary greatly by gender, with female respondents most likely to attribute this imbalance to lower promotion rates for women. The other two reasons considered were low female representation in their companies overall (chosen most frequently by men, at 43 percent) and female attrition in mid- to senior-level positions.

Of the executives citing low overall numbers of female employees, the largest share (35 percent) attribute this to the notion that their industries are traditionally less attractive to women than to men. Most executives in the region continue to believe that when women leave voluntarily, it’s to spend more time with family: 52 percent say so, unchanged from 2010. In contrast, respondents to the global 2010 survey were, on average, much less likely to cite family reasons as the explanation (37 percent), as were the respondents to the 2012 survey in Asia (39 percent).

Male and female respondents view the root causes of low promotion rates very differently. Men most often cite a concentration of female employees in departments with comparatively lower promotion rates and less upward mobility, while women most often cite a lack of sponsorship. Female executives are also twice as likely as males to attribute lower rates to leaders’ perceptions that women have less ambition than men. But responses from female executives suggest they are as ambitious as their male counterparts—or even more so: 79 percent of women say they would choose to advance to C-level management, compared with 73 percent of men.

Barriers to advancement

Overall, executives in Latin America and their global counterparts identify the same barriers to increasing top-management diversity in corporations: the “double burden syndrome” and an “anytime, anywhere” performance model that requires constant availability (Exhibit 2).

Women face persistent barriers to reaching top management.

It’s not surprising, then, that most respondents say the notion that women must take care of the family is strong enough in their countries to influence career decisions: 70 percent say this influences at least some women to leave their jobs.5 Seventy-eight percent report that the cultures in their home countries make it easier for men than for women to move forward in their careers—and respondents in Brazil and Mexico are even likelier to say so. More than half also say this cultural bias influences their own companies’ approaches to gender diversity.

To overcome these issues, both male and female respondents agree that the biggest effect on increasing 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.

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