‘Here by Yourself?’ Women Struggle for Room in Corporate Mexico

(Bloomberg) -- When Blanca Trevino took her first job, working for a family-run company in Mexico, her new bosses demanded that she sign a blank resignation letter -- just in case she decided to get married.

They later waived the marriage clause after she had become too instrumental to lose, but at that point she had decided to move on, jumping ship to start a new business on her own terms.

"I still see social and family limitations on what women can do in Mexico," said Trevino, now the CEO of Softtek, an IT services company that operates across the Americas, Europe and Asia. "Women should not feel guilty for giving their time to their business."

‘Here by Yourself?’ Women Struggle for Room in Corporate Mexico

It’s a refrain that’s growing louder in Mexico as women struggle to find a foothold in the male-dominated world of business and finance. The only female CEO on the country’s Mexbol index, Ienova’s Tania Ortiz Mena, says she often hears the phrase "did you come here by yourself, miss?" when going into a meeting, and recounted a time recently when she walked into an energy conference in Mexico with about 300 attendees. Only two of them were women.

"Unconscious prejudice is there," she said. "The role of women isn’t visible, and men just take that for granted -- it doesn’t seem strange to them."

‘Ring the Bell’

Of course, that doesn’t prevent the industry from congratulating itself. On Friday, the country’s largest stock exchange, the Bolsa Mexicana de Valores will "ring the bell for gender equality" in an event at its venerable domed headquarters in the center of Mexico City. Just don’t look for the women there. The stock exchange counts just one woman on it’s 16-member board, and it’s Trevino herself. The BMV did not respond to a request for comment.

That’s not just an issue for the Bolsa alone. One female member of the board is roughly the average for the 35 companies in the country’s benchmark Mexbol stock index. On the whole, 22 of the companies have at least one woman on the board, but women only represent 7.2 percent of total board members in the index.

Compared to regional peers, Mexico’s biggest companies are more likely to have a woman on the board. Mexbol companies average 0.9 women per board, compared with 0.8 for Brazil’s Ibovespa Index and 0.7 in Chile. Colombia leads the pack with 1.2 percent on average, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Going by percentages, Walmex stands head and shoulders above the rest with women representing 36 percent of their board. Of the 35 companies in the index, 12 have no women among their board members, including Becle, the manufacturer of popular tequila brand Jose Cuervo, and Mission tortilla maker Gruma. Both Becle and Gruma did not respond to requests for comment.

And that’s made it harder for women further down the chain of command. Ortiz Mena -- herself a mother of three -- recalls having to build the company’s first lactation room in perhaps the least welcoming of places for a nursing mother: a gas compression facility packed with valves, pipes and metal in northern Mexico. She also extended maternity leaves and created career paths for top performing female employees.

Trevino, meanwhile, has set up a committee within the company to make recommendations on women’s issues and has made hiring more women a priority within the company. While she acknowledged that her experience came in the context of a strong safety net, she also said that she well remembers plenty of teary calls to her two young daughters from airport payphones before jetting off on business trips. But she says it’s time for a change.

"I have absolute conviction that the most successful companies, the most successful economies, and the most successful countries are the ones that bring in the best talent," Trevino said. "Talent doesn’t have a gender."

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