¿Son las Mujeres Iguales?

Are women equals? At Universidad de los Andes, the first step toward achieving gender parity is raising awareness of inequities.
Son las Mujeres Iguales

MANY INSTITUTIONS OF higher learning have complex histories in regard to gender diversity, and Universidad de los Andes School of Management in Bogotá, Colombia, is no exception. The school was founded in 1943 as a junior college for commercial studies in the Gimnasio Moderno, a private all-male secondary school. During the following decades, the school went through a continuous process of adaptation while keeping its commitment to leadership, innovation, and sustainability.

Gender diversity is one aspect that has evolved dramatically over the years. In the early 2000s, there were only four female faculty members in the School of Management. Today, there are 22, representing 30 percent of the total. While this is a major advancement from the school’s all-male beginnings, we know we still have far to go.

Change has been particularly visible over the past two decades, due mainly to two factors. First, scholars within and outside of the school have raised the issue of gender discrimination by researching the role of women in business in Latin America. And second, professors and administrators at the school have developed initiatives designed to heighten awareness of gender disparity. Both of these factors appear to be affecting the way women are perceived.

AT THE CORPORATION

Since the early 1990s, the topic of women in management has been studied by three women researchers at UniAndes—Luz Gabriela Arango, Mara Viveros, and Rosa Bernal. However, “the women issue” gained more institutional visibility in the early 2000s, when it became a relevant question in the school’s research agenda.

At the same time, the school participated in a research project conducted by Sylvia Maxfield, then at Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts. Maxfield found that women in corporate Latin America were overcoming longstanding barriers, which resulted in women filling 35 percent of department and area head positions. Of the seven countries she studied, Colombia was the one with the highest percentage of women in senior management positions.

More important, her research produced a series of insights that changed the perception of women leaders in this part of the world—a perception that had long been based on tradition, intuition, and bias. Maxfield noted that initiatives imported to Latin America from the U.S. were not likely to succeed unless they were modified to accommodate the common cultural attributes of Latin American organizations. She also provided a guideline for developing gender diversity practices specifically aimed at Latin American organizations.

Other research has investigated the differences that exist among female managers in various Latin American nations. For instance, Alice Eagly of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and a group of Latin American researchers conducted 162 surveys in 17 Latin American countries. The main findings showed that there were many more commonalities among these women executives than there were differences by country. This was not a great surprise given that top Latin American managers are like first cousins: They have largely equivalent educational levels, and their upbringing, personal life histories, values, and goals tend to be very similar. Women most often mentioned three barriers on their road to upper management positions: gender stereotypes, work-life balance, and leadership style.

Some faculty at UniAndes are striving to change discrimination patterns at Latin American organizations. Among those is Maria Consuelo Cárdenas, co-author of this article. In 2002, Cárdenas and a team of support staff launched a series of biweekly workshops about obstacles facing women in business, as part of the school’s executive education programs. While some are aimed at raising gender awareness among men, most are targeted at women professionals.

The workshops for women have three main objectives: to help participants become aware of what it means to be a female leader, to help them identify the changes that this awareness brings, and to enable them to integrate the different aspects of their professional lives to achieve work-life balance. Participants are expected to write down the changes they have introduced in their lives and share these with workshop coordinators and colleagues. This creates a cycle that raises awareness even more.

Son las Mujeres Iguales graph smallON THE CAMPUS

While it’s important for UniAndes to work on gender stereotypes in corporate settings, it’s necessary to address the issue at the university level as well. One way to achieve progress is to make faculty and students aware of the implicit gender biases that are behind many everyday decisions at the school. Cárdenas and her team have created an in-house initiative called “Equal to Equal.” (See graphic at left.) Among other things, it consists of a series of thought-provoking gender-based vignettes that have been posted around campus, as well as comparative participative data by gender.

The initial campaign was installed around one of the main staircases. It included data about gender differences, and a design by Japanese artist Kazunori Shiina rendered in pink and blue. The pink side diminished as the design went up the stairway, and text on the floor said, “The road to the top is different for men and women.” At the same time, faculty and students wrote testimonials about their experiences, and these were posted on a common website.

Reactions varied. Some students celebrated the information. Others rejected the testimonials by posting their comments online through the #equaltoequal hashtag or by writing their thoughts on Post-it notes and placing these on the data installations.

But new vignettes keep the conversation going. For instance, the latest versions question stereotypes of women’s tasks by presenting advertisements that show how a men’s magazine would look with the same messages.

IN CLASSROOMS AND STAFF ROOMS

These activities not only have inspired self-reflection among the faculty and staff, but also have led the School of Management to revisit “the women issue.” The school has held focus group discussions with women professors to determine what their experiences have been. These discussions make it clear that unconscious gender biases—in both men and women—protect the status quo and promote inertia. For instance, women professors report that administrative personnel tend to favor male professors when finalizing class schedules or providing support for classes and trips.

Young women professors perceive that their students manifest more respect for male professors, yet it is difficult to know if they are disregarded because of their age or their gender. Some feel discriminated against in terms of promotions as they compare their career advancements to those of male colleagues. Professors who are young mothers feel they are left out of executive education class schedules because their family commitments mean they cannot always teach on weekends.

Senior women professors have felt disadvantaged, too. They note that in collegial meetings their ideas frequently are ignored until male professors propose the same ideas, at which point the contributions are accepted and valued. Women also perceive that men raise their voices to shut out women’s voices.

Moreover, many women don’t expect men to help the situation improve. Only a few women identify senior male colleagues as supporters who believe women have been underrepresented in decision-making positions at the school. Many perceive their more senior male colleagues as uninterested and egoistic.

IN THE FUTURE

Are these perceptions just that—imperfect representations of reality? Perhaps. Even so, changes are already under way.

Today, newly hired women professors are much more aware of gender issues in their relations with colleagues, students, and administrators. For the moment, they have not chosen to come together to present their experiences as a gender issue. But we expect we will have more open discussions on these matters, and we also expect that the school will make material changes in processes and practices in the future.

Two factors make us hopeful. One is that young male professors seem to have a pervasive awareness of gender issues and are much more willing to support women than their older counterparts are. Another is that diversity itself is such an important topic today. We see that gender diversity interplays with other dimensions of diversity, such as age and national origin. We believe that—to achieve diversity along any dimension—every organization will need to make deliberate adaptations in governance and institutional design, as well as culture.

At the university level, administrators could promote cultural change by making it clear that it is unacceptable to use discriminatory language against women. They could bring about institutional change by hiring so many women professors that it becomes impossible to fall prey to the implicit Latin American bias against women in academia. Such a practical approach could serve to right gender imbalances while fitting with the Latin American predisposition to avoid conflict.

At UniAndes, a new woman dean— Veneta Andonova, co-author of this article—has spurred new conversations about the women issue. To many, her case demonstrates one of the points of departure in all gender research: that women tend to have different leadership styles and strive to bring a balance between highperformance goals and a social contract that emphasizes well-being.

Open discussions about diversity have already started at the UniAndes School of Management. These conversations are leading the administration to create a more structured agenda aimed at correcting gender imbalances. Time will tell what the final results will be—but we are optimistic that we can improve the level of diversity in Latin American business schools and benefit from the talents and energy of all.

 

Maria Consuelo Cárdenas is a full professor at the School of Management at Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia. Veneta Andonova became dean of the School of Management in November 2019.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's March/April 2020 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to bized.editors@aacsb.edu.



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