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Three Important Lessons on Breaking Barriers in a Male-Dominated Workplace

For some, International Women’s Day (IWD) is a celebration, a day to shine the spotlight on women’s economic, political and social progress and achievements. For others, the day represents a call-to-action – a platform to draw attention to those issues that still need to be addressed. For me, International Women’s Day is both a celebration and a day to declare, “We’ve done a lot to be proud of, and we must do more.”

Throughout my journey as a professional Latin women working in the region and in the US, I met a number of incredible women and men who both supported me and gave me invaluable lessons. Sometimes those learnings came as a result of direct mentorship and other times they came from listening and observing inspiring leaders. There are three observations and lessons that I found valuable in my own career and I believe they will help other women.

  • A very wise and senior female executive said that in her experience, women, when in group settings dominated by men and presented with the opportunity to volunteer for a new project or task will invariably hesitate. She encouraged women to just go for it. Don’t deliberate and don’t dwell on debating if you’re 100% ready. Take a leap and volunteer to lead a project or participate in task.  Additionally, many of us are often the only woman in the conference room, at the leadership retreat, or brain storming in a strategy session. We need to use those opportunities to speak up, speak often and support our female colleagues at all times.
  • Study after study shows that while women overall are more likely to receive an education, they are still lagging behind in entering careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, commonly known as “STEM.” In fact, within service-based professions across Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), women today represent the majority with 81% compared to men in the same field, according to a study conducted by the International Labour Office and The MasterCard Foundation. What women don’t realize is that careers in the STEM field allow them the opportunity to be financially self-sufficient, determine their own career fates, and positively impact the world through their leadership and creativity. But how do we encourage women to not only pursue careers in STEM but also become leaders? In a highly competitive global market, companies are beginning to understand why integrating talented women into their leadership structure is imperative for sustainable economic growth and innovation in both developed and developing markets. STEM-related companies, like MasterCard, are no exception. For me, it starts with helping young girls to show them how to break down stereotypes, educating them on their career potential and leading by example. There is a place for women in the boardroom.
  • In LAC we’re seeing that more and more women are joining the workforce. According to a study conducted by UN Women, LAC saw one of the largest increases in women’s labor force participation rates of all regions – from 40% in 1990 to 54% in 2013.  However, according to the same study, the presence of young children in the household is associated with lower employment rates for women but higher rates for men. Returning to work after having children is usually a tough decision for most women. I was one who decided that I wanted to have it all but I realized throughout the process that my best self was the successful ‘integration’ of my professional and personal lives, not a balance between the two. I also learned to place a greater value on the quality of the time I spent with my family, not the quantity. There are many companies today that provide supportive working conditions and flexible hours for their employees. I would advise women to make sure that they work for a company that helps them to achieve a successful integration of both roles.

Finally, someone recently asked me what advice I would give my 25-year-old self, and it was pretty simple. Know what you want and go for it, challenge yourself and work hard. Get out of your comfort zone and if you make a mistake, learn from it. Seek out those you can learn from and this means counting on both men and women and never be afraid to ask for help. Life is short, enjoy the journey and remember that keeping a smile on your face opens doors.