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Esteemed women leaders at the WHALAC 2019, discussing the role of women leaders in Latin America. Photo: Gustavo Pena
Esteemed women leaders at the WHALAC 2019, discussing the role of women leaders in Latin America. Photo: Gustavo Peña/AL DÍA News

Women's leadership in Latin American business

The Wharton Latin American Conference (WHALAC) took on the topic of women in leadership and gender diversity, as one of their many.

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When it comes to leadership, women have always played a crucial role. However, under the traditional definition of a leader, the number of women have always remained a very low one.

Whether it’s women who are politicians, CEOs, or board members, it’s just very difficult to find many.

“But we do find a lot of women that are making big, big changes in different kinds of roles,” said Monique Skruzny, CEO of INSPIR.

As part of a wide range of topics discussed at the Wharton Latin American Conference (WHALAC), women leadership in Latin America was one of them.

As recently as five years ago, Latin America had four women presidents; currently, there are none.

That lack of women leadership at the top is influenced by the lack of women who hold positions on the lower levels.

In a discussion moderated by Skruzny, two prominent women leaders—Luanne Zurlo and Yovanka Bylander—shared their experiences, perspectives, and tips on what led them to make an impact in their executive roles.

The Matter of Gender Diversity

 It’s no secret that being in a male-dominated profession can bring challenges for a woman.

Bylander, who is the global head of North American ESG Business at Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS), said one of the things she’d say about working in a predominantly male environment is that women need to have a higher level of emotional intelligence “because some of that behavior that is acceptable for men is not acceptable for women,” she said.

Both women highlighted they’ve never had a woman as their boss in their entire career. While they did admit that their male bosses have been tough on them, they never really experienced being discriminated against for being a woman.

Despite some progress being made regarding gender diversity in investment and other corporate fields, the fact of the matter is, there is still a demand for it.

Zurlo, who is the executive director of the Brilla Schools Network, has a high involvement within the education systems, both in Latin America and the United States.

She said that girls have traditionally had more success at the primary, secondary, and even tertiary levels of education, however, highlighted that there are still face two main issues at face women in the workforce.

“Women [are] not rising in the workforce, not gaining some of the formal, higher level management jobs at the same rates,” she said. “And they’re not being paid as much.”

Zurlo added that in Brazil and Mexico, women make about two-thirds of the salary that men make, but the pay gap in higher education widens further.

This shows that in the fields where women do have a seat at the table, their presence is often still lesser than their male counterparts.

What Can Be Done?

Men will likely remain the majority in higher executive levels for the foreseeable future.

With this dynamic, men will have to have a huge responsibility to play if women are to be held in higher regard in executive positions.

The three women agreed that women often have qualities, such as being good listeners and influencers, that are crucial in the workplace environment. However, Skruzny highlighted that it’s important to see the person behind the job.

“At the end of the day, we’re humans and we have the same values,” she said. “Engaging at a personal level, I think equalizes the person—whether you’re a man or a woman— you’re trying to influence.”

“If I can think of that person just as a person, rather than their function, that generates trust and a relationship,” Zurlo added.

Men have a very important role to play in women advancing to more executive leadership positions. However, the discussion surrounding men and women in management positions is a nuanced one that will take cooperation and dedication from all sides.

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