Why you should care
Mexico’s economy has opened up dramatically over the past two decades, but there are opportunities for women.
Beatriz Tumoine wanted to be a doctor. A gifted student, at 16 she won a place at the medical school of the prestigious Tecnológico de Monterrey university, about 220 miles from her home in Torreón, northern Mexico. But her parents would not let her enroll.
“My dad wouldn’t even consider it,” says Tumoine, now an executive at building materials group Cemex, one of Mexico’s most successful multinational companies. “I thought my grandfather, a doctor, would support me. But he said it was a very demanding career and, for a woman, may not be the best choice.”
Tumoine was devastated — but in provincial 1980s Mexico, she says, they “just didn’t know” any different.
“My dad raised his two youngest brothers — we grew up with them. He set them up in business, prepared them for life, being productive and having their own company,” she says. “He prepared me to be someone’s wife.”
In corporate Mexico, women hold nearly 40 percent of entry-level jobs, but that number dwindles to just 10 percent for executive roles.
Since those days, Mexico has transformed from a closed economy into a manufacturing powerhouse with more free trade agreements than any other nation. But career prospects for women feel as suspended in time as the black-and-white images evoked in the film Roma, Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s childhood memoir.
“The drama is that things aren’t that different from Roma today,” says Tumoine.
Changing things is not just a question of social justice; it is an economic imperative. In a new report examining the state of women in the workplace in Mexico, McKinsey, the consultancy, reckons that closing the gender gap in Latin America’s second-biggest economy has the potential to boost gross domestic product by 70 percent, or $800 billion. However, it says it is easier to assess the size of the opportunity than to say when it could be achieved.
Why so huge? Because with only 4 out of 10 women employed outside the home, Mexico today has the second-lowest female participation in the workforce in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, behind Turkey, according to the report. Many of those women only work part-time in low-productivity sectors.
“It’s like driving Mexico on half an engine,” says Eduardo Bolio, one of the authors of the study, which surveyed 50 companies employing more than 1 million staff, with sales of 40 percent of Mexico’s GDP.
In corporate Mexico, women hold nearly 40 percent of entry-level jobs, but that number dwindles to just 10 percent for executive roles. Yet McKinsey says studies show more female managers can translate into a 55 percent higher profit margin and 47 percent greater return on equity, based on the experiences of 300 companies in 10 countries with data from 2007–2009.
Tumoine, 47, fell almost by accident into corporate life, finding a job in a manufacturing company as Torreón enjoyed a textile máquila (manufacturing for export) boom and ultimately ending up at Cemex — but her family found her choices alien. “More than opposition or resentment, a lack of interest or maybe ability to understand what I do is what I perceive,” she says.
The new leftist government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador — who has put women in senior roles in his gender parity cabinet — has pledged to make Mexico more prosperous and inclusive. But that did not stop him from reinforcing stereotypes by unveiling a government logo featuring only male national heroes when he took office in December.
When, in an attempt to strengthen core values, he reissued a “moral primer” penned by essayist and poet Alfonso Reyes 75 years ago, he addressed critics by adding a couple of token heroines to the logo on the cover. The 65-year-old president has also appointed a council of senior business leaders to advise him on strategy: Not one member is a woman.
However, one of his signature social programs, Young People Building the Future, which offers yearlong apprenticeships for 18- to 29-year-olds who are neither working nor studying, has unexpectedly tapped into the challenge of getting women into work.
Some experts questioned whether it would have much impact on the “neither/nors,” since nearly three-quarters of the target population are women at home looking after children or family.
“We talked to a lot of experts,” says Labor Secretary Luisa María Alcalde, who is herself 31. “They told us women wouldn’t enroll because they’re tied up in caring duties. But to our surprise, of the 1.1 million young people who have signed up so far, 60 percent, if not more, are women. This just shows us that there are many women who want to break into the world of work and are finding it very hard to do so.”
Paula Santilli, president of PepsiCo Mexico Foods, says she was delighted that men and women had similar ambitions of becoming executives, but that she “wanted to cry” at the 12-point gap between their expectations of achieving them. In fact, Mexican men are 88 times more likely to make it to senior executive roles than women, who earn only three-quarters of what men do if they get there.
However, Santilli is optimistic. She mentored 33 women in her company last year and has been a vocal “evangelist” sharing PepsiCo’s inclusion strategies with companies and even the central bank, where one of the board members is a woman. “I think Mexico is advancing very quickly,” she says.
Her advice to other companies is simple: Set a strategy and measure the results minutely. “You can have a modest or ambitious plan,” she says. “But you need to have a plan.”
Tumoine, now organization and HR global planning and development director at Cemex, says she “still didn’t have a plan for a career” when she graduated from business studies. She’s had to work out her own strategies.
Cemex offers flexibility and periods of leave — key to attracting and retaining women — which Tumoine took advantage of when one of her two sons needed medical attention. But she says she felt “bullied” by teachers at her children’s school, who wanted her to juggle work commitments around meetings they scheduled during office hours.
“I’ve been working on trying to be more assertive at work, but I never thought I needed to be with the school, or things that are not structured to support working mothers,” she says. She now tells teachers it is “disrespectful” to hold meetings in the middle of her working day, telling them, “We need to work together to motivate more women [to have careers].”
Mexico’s Congress has done that via a gender parity law — but the 85-year-old lower house speaker, Porfírio Muñoz Ledo, was criticized this month for telling a senator who ran over her allotted time while speaking with her 2-month-old baby in her arms: “There’s a limit to mother-child tolerance.”
According to a study quoted in the McKinsey report, 44 percent of Mexicans believe children suffer because of working mothers’ absence — indeed, Tumoine says other parents have refused playdates with her children because she would not be there. But, she says, they “have never missed out. I don’t feel I have fallen short on my job as a mom.” When one of her sons asked her if she suffered while he was at school, “I realized he knows I’m not here suffering at work,” she says. “I’m getting nourished.”
So can Mexican women have it all, juggling high-flying careers and motherhood like New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who had a baby last year? Many apparently think not: One study cited in the report found 64 percent of executive women did not have children, while 49 percent were single.
But the Secretary of Labor says there are plenty of women of child-bearing age in government. “It’ll happen — maybe even to me,” Alcalde says. “But I’m not promising anything.”
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