Businesswomen in Latin America: Self-affirmation, work, and reinvention

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By Helosia Menezea, Visiting Scholar at the Emerging Markets Institute

Opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Cornell, Johnson, or the Emerging Markets Institute.

In today’s globalized world marrying cultural and technical competencies is paramount to business results. Recent findings have shown the importance of gender balance in achieving such improved performance. According to the IFC and World Bank, for certain privately-owned organizations, those that have a  decision-making team  made up of at least 30 percent women, their rates of return have been shown to be 10 to 30 percent higher than companies in which females are not well represented.

Among the traits contributing to better organization results are curiosity and perceptiveness, as well as self-determination and engagement. Indeed, many of us women are adept at reading emotions and responding to difference. It is no surprise, then, that the economic cost of gender inequality is high: $160 trillion worldwide and $6.7 trillion in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), based on estimates by the 2018 World Bank Report.

Too few females in executive and high-level leadership roles

The gender gap is even wider in high-level roles, in positions of power and leadership.  The figures speak for themselves. According to an IDB Invest report published last March, only 8.5 precent of women hold seats on executive boards in LAC, and just 9.2 precent occupy board positions of publicly-held companies. This lack of representation is likewise observed in private equity and venture capital companies. Based on current rates, it would take 61 years to close the global gender gap in Western Europe, 70 years in South Asia, and 74 years in LAC.

The challenge of being a businesswoman in Latin America

Altogether, this reality begs the question: If women add value to the companies in which they work, why does such low representation and sluggish change persist?

As a businesswoman in a Latin American society, the challenge is nothing short of herculean. The business environment as a whole is male-oriented, competition often takes precedence over people, and ethical, humane decision-making is rare. Women face the challenge of needing to work both at home and in the office, a common practice in countries like Brazil. Overcoming such cultural norms and attitudes in the workplace is a formidable task

From leaving the c-suite to learning at Cornell

In truth, as an executive, I’ve never played well in any of the multiple roles I’ve inhabited vis-à-vis my family, friends, and work. About three months ago, after 23 years as an executive, I made up my mind to take a non-paid sabbatical. I quit my job in a big institution in Brazil and came to Cornell as a visiting scholar in search of new fields of knowledge as well as novel means by which to capitalize on the intellectual assets I had acquired over the course of my career.

I found it was time! It was neither an easy nor a quick decision. I sensed clear signs that I had to leave my comfort zone and face the important questions that I’d always asked myself throughout my career trajectory: What’s my life’s purpose? Is it ok to be a successful professional while my family and body suffer? What is it that really matters to me? Good pay? Power? What does success mean?

I planned my financial life, deciding not to surrender to the allure of fleeting power. At the height of my career, I turned into someone “without a calling card”. Gone was the identity solely defined by the office I held. That was then, but now, amidst my sabbatical, who was I? How could I reintroduce myself? Such doubts reflect the importance of the world of work in the lives of executives. To a business woman living in a sexist country like Brazil it is even more relevant since we are called to prove again and again, to ourselves and to others, that we can keep our head and heart balanced, and move forward with confidence through every space, whether personal, social or professional.

Why sabbatical can benefit all businesswomen

I am of the view that business people have a right to a sabbatical. It could be for travel, studies, a book project, or even volunteer work. Perhaps a sabbatical could be offered to those in search of inspiration and reinvention before taking on a new leadership role in an organization. Leaving a country where women enjoy fewer opportunities than men for a sabbatical experience can be understood as a fatal blow to the career of an executive woman. After all, voids in resumés are often unwelcome.

But rather than harboring any regrets about my break from work, I prefer to think that Cornell has only enhanced the practical and strategic experience I’ve acquired over the years, rewarding me with new insights and perspectives from a different cultural context. I’ll return home with the conviction that renewal and diversity are assets ever more essential in a rapidly changing world.

About Heloisa Menezes

Heloisa Menezes

Heloisa Menezes is a visiting scholar at the Emerging Markets Institute, at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, studying digital economy and innovation policies. She has a master’s degree in sciences of agricultural development from Universidade Federal Rural do Rio de Janeiro and a bachelor in Economics from PUC-MG.

Throughout her career, Heloisa has remained dedicated to the Brazilian technological and industrial development. She has held prominent positions such as interim president and technical director at Sebrae (small businesses service), secretary for development of production at the Ministry of Development, Industry, and Foreign Trade, and director at CNI – National Confederation of Industries.

1 Comment

  1. Tenho pensado muito em um período sabático também. Muito inspirador o texto. Obrigada por compartilhar esse sentimento e pela ousadia de ser executiva de alto escalão neste ambiente sexista brasileiro.

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