Latin American women succeeding in business world

In 2010, 13.7% of the largest Brazilian companies were led by women. Liliana Aufiero has helped increase statistics on female leadership in business since 1999, when she took over the presidency of Lupo, a company that manufactures underwear. (Courtesy of Lupo)

In 2010, 13.7% of the largest Brazilian companies were led by women. Liliana Aufiero has helped increase statistics on female leadership in business since 1999, when she took over the presidency of Lupo, a company that manufactures underwear. (Courtesy of Lupo)

By Ligia Hougland and Patricia Knebel for Infosurhoy.com—08/03/2011

PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil and WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S.A. – They don’t wear suits and ties.

They manage with a firm posture and a delicate touch.

Besides the four females who currently preside over Latin American governments – Brazil, Argentina, Costa Rica and Trinidad and Tobago – women also have made it to the top of the corporate hierarchy.

In Brazil, they are at the helm of 13.7% of the largest companies. That’s more than double the 6% they led in 2001, according to the study “Social, Racial and Gender Profile of the 500 Largest Companies and their Affirmative Actions,” carried out by the Ethos Institute and IBOPE Inteligência, in conjunction with the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and the International Labor Organization (ILO).

“Even at the board level, where there’s been fantastic growth in recent years, our forecasts indicate that it is only by 2035 that we can expect to achieve equal participation for men and women,” says Benjamin Gonçalves, the Ethos Institute’s coordinator of research.

Analysts forecast Latin America needs 20 years to reach gender equality. But it won’t take that long if companies implemented policies aimed at including more women, Gonçalves says. From 2007 to 2010, the percentage of corporations that have reported using these types of programs has fallen from 20% to 10%, Gonçalves adds.

Lupo’s president paved the way

Liliana Aufiero, the 66-year-old president of Lupo, a sock and underwear manufacturer in Brazil, is one of the top success stories in Latin American business.

Born in Araraquara, in the interior of the state of São Paulo, she started her career path in 1963 by becoming the first woman admitted to the Civil Engineering course at the prestigious Universidade de São Paulo (USP) de São Carlos.

For 18 years, she worked in the field for various companies based in the city of São Paulo.

In 1986, when the company founded by her grandfather experienced a succession crisis, Aufiero made a huge decision.

She joined the firm as a director. Thirteen years later, she was named company presidency.

“Until that point, neither I nor anyone else in my family was considering taking a prominent role in the company,” she says.

Aufiero proved she could lead the company through her work as director.

Brazil was mired in economic turmoil that started in the late 1980s – and it was up to Aufiero to make decisions to keep the company afloat.

She fired employees.

She removed unpopular items from the company’s catalogue.

And her strategy paid off: The company emerged from the red and in 1994 entered the retail market.

Seventeen years later, the firm has about 200 stores nationwide.

“I asked the shareholders to give me a year to put the company in order,” says Aufiero, whose company had operating revenue of R$573 million (US$347 million) in 2010. “That ‘year’ has already lasted more than a decade.”

But Aufiero’s work recognition extends beyond Lupo.

In 2010, she was elected one of the ten most influential executives in the country by the Valor Econômico newspaper, a leader in economics news coverage. She also was elected one of 2010’s leaders in the textile, leather, shoes and garment manufacturing industry by Brazil’s Business Leaders Forum.

Fight for equality in the labor market

Nelsa Nespolo, 47, has worked long hours to help develop what she says is a more feminine leadership model.

Nespolo, who is the director of the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul’s Department of Solidarity Economy and Support for Micro and Small Businesses (SESAMPE), became the national president of the Young Catholic Workers association when she was 18.

In 1988, when she went back to work in the factories in the city of Porto Alegre, her struggle won a series of victories for the female workforce, the biggest being wage parity with their male counterparts.

But Nespolo paid a high price for the rights she defended.

“People were forbidden to talk to me, and those who did were fired, one by one,” she says. “When the punishment falls on you, it’s your ideology that’s at stake. But when it falls on others, the burden is much higher.”

When she was fired by her employer, in 1993, Nespolo decided it was time to combine her struggle for workers’ rights with her career.

She began working from home as a seamstress. In 1996, she was able to mobilize other independent workers from Vila Nossa Senhora Aparecida, where she still lives.

The move gave birth to the Cooperative of Seamstresses United for Victory (UNIVENS), which now brings together 28 seamstresses from the community, with a monthly income ranging from R$800 (US$484) to R$1,500 (US$726).

In 2005, UNIVENS went one step further, by weaving Justa Trama – a vertically integrated textile production chain ranging from the harvesting of cotton to the creation of pieces – with 700 workers in four Brazilian states.

What else does Nespolo want to accomplish?

As a government official, she intends to replicate this business model in different economic sectors.

Global initiative to increase female representation

Rebecca Reichmann Tavares, UNIFEM Regional Director, Southern Cone Sub-region/UN Women, advocates the dissemination of the UNIFEM’s Women’s Empowerment Principles: Equality Means Business program.

The Women’s Empowerment Principles program, an initiative of UNIFEM and the UN Global Compact, will mark its first anniversary with a meeting on March 9-10, in New York City.

Of the companies that have joined the initiative, 26% are Spanish, 23% are Brazilian and 13% are Japanese.

“Studies show that we should aim to have a [female] participation rate of at least 30% in the senior positions,” Tavares says. “That is the only way that we will be able to expect change in the organizational climate and culture.”

Line Bareiro, a Paraguayan lawyer and political scientist, is part of the team of analysts of the United Nation’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

Bareiro, 60, has worked for 35 years addressing gender issues in her country. At CEDAW, she is part of a team of 23 who supervise the application of the convention guidelines by the countries that ratified them.

“Everybody has to do his or her part to end discrimination and to build equality,” she says. “States must guarantee the rights they stand for, and women must continue building a world with more equality and freedom. We [women] must be happy, because I am sure we will achieve this, as we have changed the world in the past 35 years.”

The increasing presence of women in politics may accelerate these achievements, Tavares says.

“It allows for the image of a woman in a leadership role to enter into the collective imagination in a more natural way,” she says. “It is essential that young people have that vision of women in power.”

A positive outcome in gender equality in the near future will be the result of the presence of more educated women in the region, says Argentine sociologist María Teresa Carballo, 60.

Carballo, who is the director for Latin America of Kantar, a worldwide group of consulting and research companies on public information, was president and CEO of Gallup Argentina from 1979 to 2002. She’s also the first woman to become world director for the polling sector of TNS, one of the world’s leading public polling companies, from 2003 to 2009.

“Technology has made it easier to work outside the office, making the insertion of women into the workforce easier,” she says. “But in that regard, in Latin America we still have a way to go. There is more [gender equality] in rhetoric that in reality [in the region].”

Studies show progress and challenges

Gender inequality in Latin America has decreased during the past 15 years, according to the 2010 study “What kind of State? What kind of equality?” released by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).

In 2008, 32% of women in urban areas did not have their own income, compared to 10% of men. But in 1994, the gap widened to 43% of women against 11% of men.

And in rural areas the disparity is almost as bad: In 2008, 44% of women did not have their own income compared to 14% of men.

In the urban areas of Latin America, unemployment also has disproportionately affected women, according to ECLAC’s study.

In Costa Rica, 16% of women were unemployed in 2008, versus 11% of men. In Argentina, 13.4% didn’t have a job, versus 8.2% of men. In Brazil, 10.5% of women were outside the workforce, versus 5.9% of the men. In Uruguay, the rates are 10.4% for women and 5.7% for men.

Gender differences also are reflected in working hours and pay, according to ECLAC.

In 2008, in Colombia, the total time spent by women at work (paid and unpaid domestic work) reached 103.2 hours per week – about 20 hours more than Colombian men who, in that same year, spent an average of 83.4 hours per week working.

In Ecuador in 2007, women worked on average 107.5 hours per week, and men, 87.2.

Gender inequality index hits 96% in Latin America

The Human Development Report (HDR), which is an initiative of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), confirms the disparities reported by ECLAC.

The HDR Gender Inequality Index (GII) shows inequality in achievements between genders in reproductive health (maternal mortality ratio and adolescent fertility rate), empowerment (share of parliamentary seats held by each sex and secondary and higher education levels) and the labor market (women’s participation in the work force).

The index ranks countries from zero (women and men fare equally) to one (men or women fare poorly compared to men in all dimensions).

The GII worldwide average is 0.56, but it’s 0.96 in Latin America. Reproductive health is the largest contributor for gender inequality in the region (96%), followed by empowerment (14%) and labor market (4%).

The countries in the region that stand out in terms of the empowerment of women are Argentina and Costa Rica.

The two countries have female presidents – Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina and Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica – as well as 40% and 37% rates of female parliamentary representation, respectively.

Brazil, which has been led by Dilma Rousseff since Jan. 1, is far from showing similar figures.

With the electoral mini-reform (Law 12.043/09), Brazil adopted the so-called “female quota law,” which stipulates that each party must put forth a minimum of 30% and a maximum of 70% of candidates from each sex.

Yet, with only 9.4% of the parliamentary seats occupied by women, South America’s largest nation is 127th on the GII’s autonomy list.

Argentina, Ecuador and Peru have 30% female participation rates in governmental structures, according to ECLAC.

But Brazil stands out in the area of education. The proportion of the population 25 and above that has completed high school has Brazilian women in the lead: 48.8% to 46.3%, according to the GII.

Please click here for a list of events for International Women’s Day.

Cristine Pires contributed from Porto Alegre, Brazil; Danielle Melo from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Ezequiel Vinacour from Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Marta Escurra from Asunción, Paraguay.

Comments and ratings are closed for this article.


  • CAROLINE | 2011-10-25

    I BELIEVE that there isn't any difference, since we’re all the same.

  • mario | 2011-04-04


  • DG | 2011-03-09

    Great article, very informative and well written.

  • LUCINDA | 2011-03-09


  • Naya santos | 2011-03-09

    Very good!