Internationalisation can mean exposure to different norms, adoption of international practices, and a suppressing effect on individuals’ negative attitudes, write Michel Hermans, William Newburry, Marcelo J. Alvarado-Vargas, Carlos M. Baldo, Armando Borda, Edwin G. Durán-Zurita, José Maurício Galli Geleilate, Massiel Guerra, Maria Virginia Lasio Morello, Sergio M. Madero-Gómez, Miguel R. Olivas-Lujan and Anne Marie Zwerg-Villegas.

Women are increasingly reaching organisational leadership positions. This shift is particularly notable in Latin America where the percentage of women in senior management positions is growing despite historically low female workplace participation and a legacy of traditionalist gender roles.  But is this a general trend?  And what are factors driving this shift?

Our recent research for the Journal of International Business Studies begins to answer these questions, suggesting that women employed by organisations which operate internationally or pursue expansion beyond the Latin American region are more likely to receive support in their career advancement than women employed by companies with a local focus.

(Airport, Hernán Piñera, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Differences in the persistent gender gap in access to senior management positions are not due so much to biological characteristics as to gendered beliefs regarding men’s and women’s roles in organisations and leadership. Individuals who have a traditional gender role orientation believe that public roles related to work and bread-winning correspond to men, whereas women should fulfill the private, family role. By contrast, individuals who have an egalitarian gender role orientation believe that the separation of roles to be fulfilled by women or men is less strict, and that both men and women can engage in work and family roles.

While an egalitarian gender role orientation suggests a certain interchangeability between men and women, a traditional gender role orientation translates into prescriptive gender norms. Women’s career advancement is particularly susceptible to the effects of such norms as success in managerial positions and consideration of women for promotion to such positions typically require behaviours that are considered inappropriate. Liking and the perception of personal qualities are important drivers of hiring and career advancement decisions and performance evaluations are frequently biased in favor of liked individuals. Additionally, the availability of resources that support professional development through mentoring, training, special projects, or international and cross-functional assignments depend to a large extent on social acceptance.

Traditional gender role orientations have historically characterised most Latin American societies. Accounts of early 20th century factory employment reflect social concern about working women’s virtue and the survival of the family. Increases in female employment during the 1990s did not lead to significant changes in women’s share of leadership positions, as women frequently engaged in temporary or informal jobs. Traditional gender role beliefs continue to condition women’s career outcomes. For example, in a study on gender-based wage equality Latin American countries were among the bottom 41 nations out of 131 examined.

Women in Latin America have often engaged in temporary and informal work (Alfonso Lomba, CC BY 2.0)

While ‘machismo’, or the shared beliefs that emphasise male dominance, continues to be an obstacle to women’s career advancement, the last decade has witnessed a significant increase of women in leadership positions in Latin America. This suggests that that contextual factors moderate the relationship between gender role orientation and attitudes towards women’s career advancement. We found one explanation in the internationalisation strategies firms have developed as rapid globalisation has taken hold in the region. More specifically, we found that employees who perceive their organisation’s internationalisation to be strategically important may suppress traditionalist gender role orientations and display behaviours and attitudes that are congruent with more egalitarian global standards.

Several mechanisms allow this attenuating effect to occur:

  • First, the direct effect of a traditional gender role orientation on attitudes towards women’s career advancement is weaker as a result of exposure to different and evolving expectations regarding the role of women in the workplace. When a firm from a more traditionalist country becomes more international, its employees are more likely to interact with female employees of foreign companies, which may affect their views.
  • Second, firms that internationalise are likely to adopt international practices of global competitors. This tendency leads employees from countries with traditional gender orientations to realise that in order to perform well individually and contribute to organisational goals, they need to adjust to global – and more egalitarian – expectations.
  • Third, organisational socialisation allows firms to convey the importance of internationalisation to their employees. To the extent that employees perceive their organisation’s internationalisation to be important, they may either consciously or unconsciously suppress their individual beliefs regarding gender roles, which should moderate their effect on acceptance of women in the workplace and attitudes towards women’s career advancement.

We found that firm internationalisation not only moderates the direct relationship between gender role orientation and attitudes towards women’s career advancement, there is also a mediated association through acceptance of women in the workplace. That is, to the extent that more women enter the Latin American workforce and occupy senior management positions, attitudes towards women’s career advancement change. Firm internationalisation also moderates the effect of gender role beliefs on acceptance of women in the workplace, which allowed for a positive indirect effect on attitudes towards women’s career advancement.

Overall, our study suggests that women in Latin America are more likely to be supported by colleagues and organisational practices in organisations that operate internationally. Considering that women in Latin America increasingly achieve equal or better educational levels than men, we expect further increases of female participation in the workforce. Our research can help organisations to build better workplaces by understanding the mechanisms that promote positive attitudes towards women’s career advancement.

• The views expressed here are of the authors and do not reflect the position of the Centre or of the LSE
• This post is based the authors’ article “Attitudes towards women’s career advancement in Latin America: The moderating impact of perceived company international proactiveness” (Journal of International Business Studies, 2017)
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Michel Hermans (IAE Business School, Austral University, Argentina), William Newburry (College of Business, Florida International University), Marcelo J. Alvarado-Vargas (College of Business and Innovation, University of Toledo), Carlos M. Baldo (Everett Dobson School of Business and Technology, Southwestern Oklahoma State University), Armando Borda (ESAN Graduate School of Business, ESAN University, Peru), Edwin G. Durán-Zurita (Universidad Privada Boliviana, Bolivia), José Maurício Galli Geleilate (Manning School of Business, University of Massachusetts Lowell), Massiel Guerra (Universidad del Desarrollo, Chile), Maria Virginia Lasio Morello (ESPAE Graduate School of Management, Escuela Superior Politécnica del Litoral, Ecuador), Sergio M. Madero-Gómez (Tecnológico de Monterrey, Mexico) , Miguel R. Olivas-Lujan (College of Business Administration and Information Sciences, Clarion University of Pennsylvania), and Anne Marie Zwerg-Villegas (Universidad de La Sabana, Colombia).

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