Young Women Speaking the Economy
Women, Machismo and Opportunity
International Museum of Women: Tell us about your rise to success as a businesswoman in Mexico.
IVONNE MONTEAGUDO: I've had a fast track career and have been frequently promoted to positions of increased responsibility. I believe that the key for this was that the first company I worked for was a multinational American company with offices in Mexico that strongly believed in the power of diversity. When I joined right out of college more than 20 years ago, they already had a female General Manager running one of their business units. This was quite unusual in Mexico at the time, and she provided a role model for me. There was also a good balance of both men and women at the Director level. The company had strong performance assessment systems to ensure that career advancement was based on merit and results, and it also had great training programs that I took advantage of. All this experience and preparation gave me a strong base to be successful later in my career when I became Country General Manager and then responsible for managing the entire region of Latin America.
IMOW: What are some of the biggest challenges facing businesswomen in Mexico?
IVONNE MONTEAGUDO: Mexico continues to be a country with a lot of machismo. I was fortunate to begin my career in an atypical company with a strong meritocracy where women were not discriminated against, but in my tenure as President of the Mexican Association of Female Managers and Directors, I have heard a lot of stories from women in Mexico who face machismo every day, with experiences that range from subtle discrimination all the way to sexual harassment. This happens at Mexican companies of all sizes, from small to large multinational corporations, and at at all levels, from entry level, where some simply do not hire women, up to the "Old Boys' Club" at the Executive level where very few women are present. There is also inequality in terms of compensation between men and women. Statistics, rankings and research clearly support this.
IMOW: Why do you think this kind of inequity is so prevalent in Mexico?
IVONNE MONTEAGUDO: I believe it has to do with cultural tradition. Machismo is deeply engrained in Mexican culture. Many of the macho behaviors that we observe at work were learned at home, and some men may not even be consciously aware of them.
Also, there is very little awareness and interest in the value of diversity. Companies that understand the value of diversity and respect women's contribution spend a lot of time and effort training their managers and making them aware of the importance of creating an inclusive, gender-balanced environment. However, this does not happen naturally; it has to be cultivated proactively, and most companies in Mexico do not do it.
IMOW: What do you see as one of the biggest barriers that keeps women in Mexico from advancing economically?
IVONNE MONTEAGUDO: The lack of equity at home in terms of domestic work and taking care of children is a huge barrier. Many women work two shifts, one at work and one at home, because men-both partners and sons-do not do their fair share of housework. This has to change for women to be successful at work, and it is up to women themselves to demand it and educate their children to do it.
IMOW: How do you think women can fight back against the legacy of machismo in the workplace?
IVONNE MONTEAGUDO: Machismo at the family level is the key originating cause of machismo at the workplace, and mothers are the ones that either raise "macho" men or men that support equity. As more women work and have children, they will raise their children-particularly their sons-in a different way. The children will see their mother working and become used to it, and when they are adults they will join the workforce with a very different view of the abilities of women at work. I also believe that because more and more women are having a stronger presence in companies, men who start working will become more used to having them as bosses and peers, and this will change their attitudes.
IMOW: How have women responded to the economic crisis?
IVONNE MONTEAGUDO: I think that as heads of households and primary breadwinners, women fight everyday to survive the economic crisis. Their key strategy, I believe, is to give more than men-more commitment, more work, more time. Many women work harder than men. I have heard many managers say that they prefer to have women on their team because of this. However, women need to realize that working hard alone will not help them drive their careers. They also need to understand the value of mentors, networking and improving their political skills.
IMOW: How has the crisis affected the business landscape for women?
IVONNE MONTEAGUDO: I think that when the business gets tough, women take a harder hit. In companies with weak and subjective performance assessment processes, women may be fired first. Favoritism and the "Old Boys' Club" influence may protect men more than women. I have even heard several discriminatory comments such as, "She does not have to support a family like he does," as a reason to fire a woman before a man.
At the student level, families that do not have enough funds to pay for college for both their son and daughter may decide to take the girl out of school because they assume that she will "get married, have children and stop working, while the boy will always have to support his family." Both of these presumptions are inaccurate, especially since more and more women in Mexico are the heads of their families and primary breadwinners.
IMOW: Are there any indicators that make you think that the situation is changing or improving for women in business?
IVONNE MONTEAGUDO: The situation is definitely changing, but the issue is that the speed of change is very slow. I think that awareness of the importance of gender equity and driving diversity is increasing, driven by Government-sponsored programs and campaigns. Also, companies of American origin are spearheading new market practices that encourage the advancement of women, and other companies are following suit in order to remain competitive and attract female talent. And women themselves are getting more and better education, making them more marketable.
IMOW: What advice would you give to aspiring women business leaders in Latin America?
IVONNE MONTEAGUDO: First, I would advise women to try to better understand the barriers they face. For example, most women in Mexico are not aware of the term "glass ceiling." I suggest women research what they can do about these barriers, including honing skills that can make them more marketable or successful.
Second, I would advise them to research which companies have a good track record of prioritizing equity and driving the advancement of women, and then do whatever they can to work for those companies. American companies tend to do this well all over the world.
And finally, I suggest that women interested in business join organizations focused on supporting women's advancement in the workplace, such as Mexican Association of Female Managers and Directors (AMME). In these Associations, they will be able to network and find mentors and role models, which are critical for their success.