Gender equality in Latin American boardrooms


Gender equality in Latin American boardrooms Ethical BoardroomBy Cristina Manterola on behalf of the Egon Zehnder Latin American Diversity Team



In developed countries, gender diversity now has a permanent place on the agenda of corporate boards. No longer merely a matter of social responsibility, a diverse boardroom is regarded as a sign of having a rigorous director nominating process.

As investors and other observers focus greater scrutiny on board composition, having a gender-diverse board has become a global standard of corporate governance excellence and as Latin America becomes an increasingly important part of the global economy, it makes sense to examine how its largest companies are faring on this score, too. With that goal, Egon Zehnder examined the boardroom gender diversity of 155 leading publicly traded companies in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Mexico – countries for which there was a significant amount of readily available data.¹

The companies within each country represented a range of industries and all had a market capitalisation of $1billion or more. We supplemented this baseline statistical analysis with confidential interviews with 33 board chairs – all but four of whom were men – and interviews with 28 additional female board members from a total of 61 companies.²

Three key findings can be distilled from our research. First, Latin America lags behind Europe and the United States and Canada in boardroom gender diversity – although the gap is less jarring when viewed in historical perspective. Second, there are significant differences between the five countries in the level of boardroom presence women command. Finally, our interviews, combined with our examination of the political, economic and business environment in each country, identified four key factors that will play a significant role in how boardroom gender diversity unfolds in Latin America in the coming years.

Latin America in perspective

When comparing the five Latin American countries as a group with Europe and the United States and Canada, we see that Latin America is notably behind the other two regions, both in terms of the presence of women in the boardroom and in the rate of annual increase of seats held by women. While the rate of change in Latin America is positive, it is clear the region must accelerate its diversity efforts for meaningful change to take hold.

But it is also important to put these figures in context. Europe and the United States and Canada have been grappling with gender diversity in senior business ranks for a generation. If there are some male board chairs in Latin America who argue that there are too few qualified women to sit on boards, it was not too long ago that the same argument was heard in developed countries. Indeed, it is our view that rather than portray some regions as doing well and others as doing poorly, it is more constructive to think of boardroom gender diversity as a trajectory, with some countries further ahead on the same path than others. (See Figures 1 and 2.)

Intra-regional differences

The significant differences between the five countries illustrates the importance  of the national economic and political environment in achieving boardroom gender diversity, with Colombia and Argentina representing two ends of a spectrum (See figures 3 and 4.).

In the early 1980s, Colombia began establishing greater equality for women in politics when its president, Belisario Betancur, appointed women to all vice-ministerial positions – (eventually, women were appointed to three ministerial roles).

This established the beginnings of a pipeline of women who had developed their boardroom credentials though governmental positions of high visibility and responsibility. This pipeline was further strengthened in

2000 with the establishment of quotas mandating that women account for at least 30 per cent of all senior government positions at the national and regional level. The results of these developments can be seen today in the relatively high levels of gender diversity in Colombian boardrooms. Colombia also has a higher percentage of single parent households compared to other Latin American countries in the study (84 per cent versus the regional average of 65 per cent³), suggesting a culture in which the economic independence of women has been more thoroughly established.

“The economic slowdown and uncertainty that is currently gripping much of Latin “America has in many quarters pushed ‘soft’ initiatives, such as boardroom gender diversity, down the agenda in favour of tasks that have an immediate effect on the firm’s financial health”

Argentina, by contrast, has in recent years suffered from high inflation and until recently had imposed trade regulations and exchange rates that deterred foreign investment. Numerous multinational corporations left the country and those that remained were necessarily focussed on short-term profitability rather than  in establishing corporate governance best practices. In addition, Argentina’s capital markets had become less accessible and smaller in size, removing another potential force for encouraging adherence to global boardroom norms.

Factors going forward

From this baseline, how will boardroom gender diversity in Latin America unfold in the coming years? While it is not possible to make concrete projections, we see four factors that will affect the region’s trajectory.

1. The economic downturn

The economic slowdown and uncertainty that is currently gripping much of Latin America has in many quarters pushed ‘soft’ initiatives, such as boardroom gender diversity, down the agenda in favour of tasks that have an immediate effect on the firm’s financial health and market position. As one board chair in Argentina said to us: “First, we should solve the base of the pyramid: institutionalism, growth, financial markets in Argentina. After that we can talk about gender and corporate governance.”

At the same time, there is a body of research that suggests that times of uncertainty are when diverse perspectives are needed the most. For example, decision-making groups comprised of both men and women have been shown to outperform groups comprised only of men. “Women always have a different business perspective,” said one female board director of a Mexican company we interviewed. “It is essential to bring different perspectives and backgrounds to board discussions and help companies be more innovative and thereby improve company financial performance.”

Gender equality in Latin American boardrooms Ethical BoardroomIn our work with boards looking to fill board seats and appoint senior managers, we have encountered both points of view. Our expectation is that boards that regard gender equality as a social responsibility are likely to give it less priority during challenging times, while those that see it as business imperative will continue to increase the diversity of their boardrooms.

2. The example of government

As illustrated in the above discussion of Colombia, government institutions can play an essential early role in providing opportunities for talented women to showcase their leadership potential. Last fall’s Argentine elections provide a more recent example, with women being elected or subsequently appointed to several key posts, including Vice President, three cabinet ministries, Governor of the Province of Buenos Aires and CEO of Aerolineas Argentinas, the national airline. This direction will be further strengthened by efforts to repatriate capital, which should have the effect of making Argentine companies more active in the capital markets – and thus subject to more scrutiny on corporate governance standards and metrics.

On the other hand, when government conspicuously fails to provide opportunity for female leaders, the result can be swift public disapproval. In May, when Brazil’s interim President, Michel Temer, named the country’s first all-male cabinet since the 1970s, he faced a backlash that only partially subsided after he appointed Maria Silvia Bastos Marques to head the Brazilian Development Bank. This reaction may be a sign that even though Brazil is in the middle of the pack on boardroom gender diversity, expectations and willingness to change are high.

3. Encouraging regulations

Our interviews uncovered widespread opposition – by board members of both genders – to the government-imposed quotas on board composition that are seen in Europe. However, subtler nudges have been both accepted and effective. For example, Chilean securities regulators implemented a rule last June requiring publicly held companies to release statistics on the gender, age, nationality and tenure of their board members.

One result has been a substantial increase in the number of women represented on Chilean company boards (see Figure 5). As one Chilean board chairman commented: “We need to measure diversity and publicise the results. We need to tell businessmen, ‘The winning company is the one that includes women. This is a matter of competition, not of fairness’.”

4. The female leadership pipeline

Increasing the number of women on boards requires increasing the number of women in the pool of qualified director candidates. That, in turn, calls for a larger pipeline of female executives being groomed to take P&L responsibility of major business units and, ultimately, of companies as a whole. This is the case not just in Latin America, but also in Europe, the US and Canada.

In all regions, strengthening the pipeline of female P&L executives requires addressing work-life issues, particularly involving family responsibility. While developed nations are inching their way to greater parity at home, in Latin America the family is still overwhelmingly considered the woman’s domain. As one female board member for a Brazilian company noted: “It is harder for women to advance in their executive careers due to the family responsibilities, so they do not reach the senior roles and do not ascend to boards. Things have to change culturally and at home.”

Latin America also has further to go in countering traditional cultural biases regarding women’s leadership ability. As one female board member of a Mexican company told us: “In general, female candidates have to show greater credentials than their male counterparts.”

While gender bias and gender roles are large-scale social issues, there is an opportunity for companies to take a proactive role in driving change. For example, a Mexican financial services firm we work with recently created positions for two ‘rising star’ female executives when the opportunity to hire them arose. A Mexican conglomerate client recently reconfigured a senior female executive’s role to allow for flexitime and the possibility of working from home. We expect accommodations like this will increasingly become the norm as time goes on.


In our interviews with Latin American board chairs and directors, we found a wide range of perspectives and approaches to gender diversity in the boardroom. In our view, this reflects a healthy debate on a complex topic. As companies in developed countries well know, there are many issues involved, from the inertia of self-selecting networks to the division of family responsibilities, and no single path to addressing them.

Looking at Latin America as a whole, we see a growing acceptance of the fact that boardroom gender diversity is an unavoidable cost of entry into the upper tier of global corporate citizenship. The open question is how rapid the change will be. The answer will be determined by the way in which companies, board chairs, government agencies, professional associations, controlling shareholders and women executives themselves proactively address different aspects of the equality equation according to their own resources and perspectives. As this process unfolds, we at Egon Zehnder look forward to contributing to the dialogue.

About the Author:

Cristina Manterola provides a range of services, from executive search to leadership and corporate governance consulting. Cristina is active in Egon Zehnder’s Diversity and Inclusion Team. Prior to joining Egon Zehnder, Cristina was an Associate with McKinsey & Company, based in Santiago, where she focused on strategy, operations, and organization engagements in multiple sectors including consumer goods and services. Cristina also led the creation of a non-profit educational institution called APTUS CHILE, to develop and systematize teaching methodologies and transfer them to public and semi-public schools through in-situ transformation programs, frequent testing, and technical courses for school staff. Cristina earned a BS in Astronomy and an MS in Engineering from Universidad Católica de Chile, and an MBA from IESE Business School, Universidad de Navarra, Spain.


¹ Data for this survey was taken from BoardEx as of July 2015, with corrections and clarifications made by Egon Zehnder Research. Of the 155 companies from Latin America, 10 were from Argentina, 70 from Brazil, 22 from Chile, 12 from Colombia and 41 from Mexico. The study also included data from 1283 companies from Europe and 2091 companies from the United States and Canada, all with a market capitalisation of US$1billion or more.


³ World Family Map 2014, Social Trends Institute