WOMEN LEADING CHANGE IN LATIN AMERICA: A Q&A WITH PRO MUJER PRESIDENT & CEO MARIA CAVALCANTI

As part of our Women’s Month campaign, we invited Pro Mujer President & CEO Maria Cavalcanti to share how women’s leadership can shape and transform Latin America, how we can all become leaders to drive gender equality, and what COVID-19 has meant for women in the region.

An expert on impact investment, women’s empowerment, and financial inclusion for over 25 years, Maria Cavalcanti is leading Pro Mujer toward becoming a large-scale sustainable platform that invests in women and expands fundamental access to health care, education, and financial services.

For International Women’s Day 2021, the United Nations announced the theme “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world.” How do you see the role of women as leaders in Latin America?

Women and girls are our future, and only through their leadership can we achieve our vision for gender equality in Latin America and around the world. I see women taking on more of these roles, but there is still much to be done to ensure they have the same opportunities to be seen, heard, and valued equally to men. Women in Latin America occupy only 6.4 percent of managerial positions in large companies and a mere 4.2 percent of CEO roles. We need to ask ourselves where and why women are getting left behind. At Pro Mujer we seek to be an example for other organizations and companies. Seventy-five percent of our Board of Directors is comprised of women, 60 percent of our leadership roles across the organization are held by women, and among our financial services clients, 58,000 hold leadership positions in their communal banks.

At the same time, we need to recognize that leadership can manifest itself in many ways, not only within companies. Women across the region are taking charge, creating networks, and leading change in their own ways. It is important to recognize and value different types of leadership. Our Community Health Workers in Bolivia, who have trained to promote women’s health in remote and underserved communities, are a prime example of women driven to make an impact. They are fierce and determined women who are taking the lead to improve—and even save—lives.

How can organizations, governments, and corporations support women’s increased leadership? Do you have any advice to offer them?

I would first argue that women’s leadership needs to be one facet of a comprehensive approach to driving gender equality. Each of these agents—organizations, governments, corporations, and I would add, investors—has an important duty to ensure their practices are gender inclusive. Pro Mujer is working closely with investors and companies to help them identify ways to do this, and we are developing checklists and toolkits to facilitate the process.

Through our gender lens investing strategy we are showing investors how incorporating a gender lens can increase return and make an important social impact. Our approach centers on four key gender lenses, one being Women’s Leadership and Governance. Companies and investors should also be looking into Workplace Equity, another valuable lens that examines gender-inclusive policies that benefit all, such as equal pay and flexible work provisions. There are proven economic benefits to empowering women, let alone that it is a moral imperative. My advice would be to step up, and walk the talk. And, to remember that Pro Mujer can always help along the way.

As an organization working with hundreds of thousands of women across Latin America, can you share with us how the region is being affected by COVID-19 and what Pro Mujer’s response has been?

Latin America is reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic. In total, the region has registered over 19 million diagnosed patients, as well as a growing number of deaths, and accounts for roughly 15 percent of the world’s reported cases. We have seen our communities deeply affected health-wise, economically, and emotionally, and as an organization committed to the empowerment of women across each of these fronts, we have taken swift action.

Our first priority has been to protect the health of our staff and beneficiaries. Focused on managing and minimizing the impact of the pandemic on our organization, we implemented new protocols and measures, and provided staff and clients with updated communications and resources. This included the launch of a data-collecting app for our employees to self-report cases and volunteer information about symptoms. This has allowed us to make decisions based on real-time data.

To support our beneficiaries, we accelerated our plans for digital innovation, to be able to deliver new health, financial, and educational services and products digitally. A health chatbot, for example, offers a virtual symptom checker that connects those at risk of chronic diseases or COVID-19 infection with free- or low-cost medical consultations. More than 60,000 people have been reached with the tool. We partnered with Coca-Cola and JP Morgan to deliver direct economic aid to microentrepreneurs in need of economic support, and created a range of free educational workshops to help women boost their businesses and learn new skills.

Stepping up in these moments has always been part of who we are, and we will keep doing so as we see the continued unfolding of the pandemic.