Transforming Gender Roles in Latin America

With Haas partnership, Colombian multinational takes the lead on building an inclusive, sustainable culture

Colombia-based industrial conglomerate Grupo Argos broke new ground as the first company in Latin America to name a woman as board chairman. The $4 billion multinational also extended the length of maternity leaves, adopted flexible policies to accommodate work-family balance, and hired more women into traditionally male-dominated roles—from managing IT to driving cement mixers.

Now the cement, real estate, and energy conglomerate has embarked on a top-to-bottom culture overhaul, and has partnered with Berkeley-Haas to bring science and practice into their vision. The multi-year partnership includes training, sharing of leadership expertise, and mentorship through the UC Berkeley Center for Executive Education (CEE) and Berkeley-Haas.

The partnership is one of many custom and open-enrollment programs CEE offers around the globe, but the program is unique because of the sweeping vision of Grupo Argos' CEO: to not only make the company a leader in inclusivity, but to influence the region's broader business culture.

"We hope to develop a model of leadership that encourages equal opportunities for promotion and development," says CEO José Alberto Vélez. "Additionally, this program supports the creation of a collective consciousness about the respect for differences, a principle that is consistent with our corporate culture."

Last August, Grupo Argos flew in 55 female managers from its holding company and subsidiaries throughout the Americas and abroad to Berkeley for an immersive course on equitable leadership with Prof. Laura Kray and Assoc. Prof. Dana Carney.

On April 4, Kray and Carney will travel to Grupo Argos headquarters in Medellin to teach a week-long follow-up course to the same group of women. It's an unusual opportunity, Kray says: she's taught variations of the equitable leadership course many times, but never to such a large group of women from the same organization.

Assoc. Prof. Dana Carney & Prof. Laura Kray

"They were sent here together and given this time to do this work. That was part of the magic," she says of the Berkeley course. "There were a lot of women who said they came in with doubts about the work-life tradeoff and doubts about themselves as leaders. They came out saying they are equal to men as leaders, they bring unique skills to the workplace, and it's worth the sacrifice to stay in the game."

In addition to the focus on gender equity, the Berkeley-Haas/Grupo Argos partnership also emphasizes innovation and sustainability. The company's full board convened in Berkeley last October for courses on innovation with Prof. Toby Stuart and adaptive leadership—which emphasizes techniques to lead in fluid, uncertain situations—with Sr. Lecturer Homa Bahrami. 

Latin American women have moved into the workforce in record numbers, yet they are still largely shut out of leadership roles: women occupy 5.6 percent of board seats in the region's 100 largest companies—the lowest of any world region except the Middle East—and serve as CEOs of less than 2 percent of the 500 biggest companies, according to an analysis by the Americas Society/Council of the Americas.

Colombia is the leader among Latin American companies in terms of women moving into leadership roles, and the Grupo Argos subsidiary Cementos Argos stands out as the country's equal opportunity trailblazer, becoming the first firm in the country to receive a gender equality certification from the United Nations Development Program.

The recognition is especially notable since the conglomerate grew out of the solidly male-dominated cement industry before diversifying into four other sectors in 17 countries, including the US. Although 63% of the 100 employees in the Grupo Argos holding company are women, just 13 percent of the 9,000 Cementos Argos workers are women. 

Jorge Perez, senior director of talent and culture at Cementos Argos says the company has set a goal to reach 30 percent women by 2025.

"This isn't a topic that is only interesting for women, but for everyone," says Perez, who also attended part of the Berkeley course with Kray and Carney. "We hope to plan a similar course for men soon."