Why Are There No Female CEOs Leading Large Latin American Companies?

According to the Inter-American Development Bank, women only occupy 15% of positions in Latin American boardrooms, and only 11% of companies have a woman as a leading director. Why is this so?

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July 20, 2023 | 10:35 AM

Bogotá — Bloomberg Línea has presented its list of the top CEOs in Latin America. However, after analyzing 87 companies, many of them with operations in multiple Latin American countries and leaders in the region’s eight largest markets, one element comes to light: there are no women among the top managers of the companies, and men are also in the majority on boards of directors and in other decision-making areas of the organizations.


A review of the data unearthed by Bloomberg Línea’s research shows that the proportion of women on the boards of directors at the companies of the top 15 CEOs on the list is below 20%. However, Luiza Helena Trajano, chair of the board of Brazilian retail giant Magazine Luiza, and Heike Paulmann, chair of the board of Chile’s Cencosud, stand out. While it must be pointed out that both women are part of the founding families of those corporations.

Why does this phenomenon occur?

According to the study ‘An Unequal Olympics: Gender Equity in Latin American and Caribbean Companies’ by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the boards of directors of Latin American and Caribbean companies have only 15% female participation and only 11% of these companies have a woman in the position of chief executive. In addition, only 14% of the firms are owned by women.

Therefore, says the document, the situation of women in the region is affected by the patterns of gender inequality present at a global level and the lower levels of economic development in the region accentuate these inequalities and affect this population group to a greater extent.


“There are a variety of factors that explain gender inequality. Stereotypes relegate women to do most of the unpaid care work in the home and hinder their access to new job opportunities. Occupational segregation also displaces them to low-quality jobs that limit their professional growth. The above factors are evidenced by the large number of women working in the informal sectors of the economy, although they are also found in the formal sectors. In addition, women face regulatory and cultural biases and limited access to capital and information that impede their development as entrepreneurs,” reads the study.

Watch a video by Bloomberg Línea on gender equality in Latin America (in Spanish):

A review of the figures also shows that the female presence strongly predominates in the areas considered ‘soft areas’. Women represent 64% of the total number of employees in human resources, 63% in communications and public relations, and 53% in social responsibility areas.


On the other hand, in areas such as foreign trade, operations and information technology, women represent less than 35% of the total number of employees.

In addition, women represent 36% of the total workforce in junior, administrative or supervisory positions, while the statistic is 25% in the most senior positions.

“I believe that, although there has been progress, the number of female CEOs is still minimal, not only in Latin America but worldwide, because paradigms and beliefs persist both in those who hire and those who aspire to these positions,” Sylvia Escovar, former president of Terpel, president of the board of GeoPark and member of several boards of directors in Colombia, told Bloomberg Línea. “These paradigms, many of which are unconscious, come from years of being established in the minds (and therefore in the processes) and are part of a culture that needs to be transformed,” she added.

To achieve this, she says, it is necessary to raise awareness on both sides about the benefits of having women in management positions, to break down beliefs about the family obligations of men and women, and to demystify male leadership.


“I am convinced that in parallel to raising awareness of these paradigms through language, it is important to take transformative and urgent measures such as changing laws, requirements, establishing quotas, among others. This is so that the process of gender equity does not take 200 years more, as it would if we go at the pace we are going,” she said.

Watch a video about Chief, a network of women’s executives that launched in 2019 (in English):

Only 35% of the workforce that uses advanced technologies in Latin America is female, according to the IDB research, and which states that this low proportion may be due to issues of demand, discrimination or the misconception that women are less apt at handling technology, as well as to factors related to the scarce supply of workers with these types of skills.


Along these lines, it is the service companies that have the highest percentage of women in technology. On average, this sector has 37% of women in the total workforce of this type, followed by commerce (35%) and manufacturing (30%).

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How well are wage gaps being reviewed in Latin American companies?

Only 15% of firms analyze the existence of wage gaps within their organization, according to the report.

In this context, the most committed are exporters (18% compared to 14% in non-exporters), the largest companies (23% compared to 10% in medium-sized companies) and service companies (18% compared to 13% in commerce and 14% in manufacturing).

Twenty-eight percent of organizations reported maintaining lower salaries for women relative to men in positions of equal qualifications.


“It must be recognized that progress has been made in the participation of women as CEOs in Latin American companies, but there is still a long way to go,” María Claudia Lacouture, president of Amcham Colombia, Colombian-American Chamber of Commerce, said. “Several analyses show that the limitation of women in leadership or CEO positions is related to aspects such as gender bias related to the erroneous perception that men are more competent and assertive, while women have a more communitarian and cooperative image; also the balance between family and professional life, where women assume more responsibilities for childcare or care of older adults makes them reduce their dedication to their professional development.

“Also,” she added, “according to the World Economic Forum, women find it difficult to build strategic networks, contacts and information that help them visualize their future and develop long-term careers.”

She added that when a particular space is dominated by one gender, people of that gender are more likely to arrive, “this has been called ‘homo-sociability, or the dominance of men in leadership positions’. More than 90% of presidency, general management or executive management positions, and more than 80% of board positions are held by men, which makes it more likely to remain the predominant gender”.


Fifty-nine percent of companies do not provide any type of leave outside the law, with the most-granted leave being for maternity in case of adoption (25%), extended maternity leave in cases of special attention (24%) and paternity leave in case of adoption (22%).

Only 4% of companies provide additional days for maternity and 3% for paternity beyond what is stipulated by law. Companies that export provide more benefits than those that do not, and service companies provide more benefits than manufacturing companies.

“Studies exploring the relationship between female leadership, as measured by the percentage of female managers, directors or CEOs, and gender equality agree that women leaders encourage other women to grow professionally by mentoring them, providing them with the same opportunities as men, and eliminating biases in hiring and pay. Likewise, women leaders are committed to and promote the implementation of diversity policies for the well-being of women within companies,” notes the IDB.


Lacouture concludes that we must continue working as a society in the fight against machism, “stop promoting the idea that housework is only for women, and that men are providers. Closing the gender gap begins at home. We must dare to break paradigms and offer women positions with equal conditions, responsibilities and remuneration as men, leaving behind cultural patterns that in Latin America are still deeply rooted, limiting women’s participation in leadership roles and highlighting their achievements and successes”.

A latent phenomenon in MSMEs

Rosmery Quintero, president of Acopi, a guild that brings together small and medium-sized companies, commented that according to recent studies, in Latin America only 4% of CEOs are women. “

This reflects clear evidence of significant barriers that hinder women’s access to management roles. These data show a worrying gender inequality in the region’s business environment,” she said.


“This gender disparity is also observed in Colombian MSMEs, since according to data from the Business Performance Survey of ACOPI’s MSME Observatory, in the first quarter of this year, 42% of the boards of directors of micro, small and medium-sized companies were made up of women. This is a positive development and shows that women have the capacity and talent to occupy leadership roles in the business world”.

However, she says there is still a long way to go to achieve true equality of opportunity at executive levels. “It is necessary to address the structural barriers, gender stereotypes and organizational cultures that make it difficult for women to rise to leadership positions”.

To achieve this, she says, policies must be implemented that encourage diversity and inclusion throughout organizations, eliminate gender bias in selection and promotion processes, and create work environments that support the development and advancement of women.

“It is the responsibility of companies, governments, guilds, universities and society as a whole to work together to remove these barriers and promote equal opportunities for women in business. This is the only way to fully harness the potential and talent of all people, regardless of gender, and build a more just and equitable society,” she added.

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