Shipping Diversity Abroad

By DeeDee Doke Nov 1, 2003

HR Magazine, November 2003

U.S.companies learn they can't simply export. U.S.-centric diversity initiatives to Latin American operations.

When Nivaldo Venturini moved his family from their native Brazil to the United States six years ago, the act of enrolling his daughters in elementary school forced him to classify himself and them in an unfamiliar way.

What race were they? The choices on the enrollment form included white, black, Native American and Hispanic. “There wasn’t an ‘other,’ ” recalls Venturini, the Sunrise, Fla.-based vice president of finance of the Latin American zone of Chubb Group of Insurance Cos. So the confused Venturini ticked off the designation he felt came closest to representing his family—Hispanic—although most Brazilians, who speak Portuguese, would never define themselves that way.

“We don’t have to ‘check the box’ in Brazil. We don’t see ourselves as one thing or another—we see ourselves as Brazilians,” Venturini says. “But my first experience in the United States was to have to ‘check the box.’ ”

Venturini’s experience illustrates a basic truth about Latin Americans’ view of diversity: The U.S. version doesn’t translate well south of the border. Subsequently, as more U.S. companies adopt workforce diversity as a global policy, HR directors are finding that one-size-fits-all programs will not work, and might not even be understood in their Latin American operations.

Just as the course of U.S. history has shaped perceptions of diversity here, the historical antecedents of our Latin American neighbors have painted some of the same underlying issues in different shadings, nuances and subtleties.

In Latin America, for instance, a group that is under-represented in certain segments of the workplace—or even among all workers—may not be a minority within a country but actually the majority population.

Another example of misconception is racism, which in Latin America is linked less to the question of racial or ethnic origin but is commonly expressed in terms of socio-economic status. The subtlety, however, is that poor Latin Americans typically have indigenous Indian or African roots while wealthier ones usually trace their heritage to Europe.

“As much as color/race is a definite issue, they don’t own it or acknowledge that race has the bearing it does [have in those countries],” says Kimberly B. Davis, managing director and HR executive for the Latin American region of J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. in New York.

Before U.S. companies implement diversity programs in Latin America, two important steps are needed: Education of their Latin American workforces that diversity is needed for business reasons, and an understanding by U.S. parent companies of what “diversity” means from a historical perspective in that region.

For instance, U.S. companies often are surprised when they have to convince the very groups they’re intending to promote through diversity programs that there are notable gaps in their status compared with other groups.

And, U.S. companies quickly learn they can’t simply export their U.S.-based diversity programs to Latin America, where the concerns are different, says organizational consultant Carol-Susan DeVaney of DeVaney-Wong International in Hollywood, Fla., who has worked with U.S. companies on diversity issues in Latin America.

Starting with Gender Equality

Preventing workplace discrimination—in a legal sense—is a fairly new concept in Latin America. For instance, in 1996, the Statutory Convention of Buenos Aires approved a measure forbidding workplace discrimination on the basis of gender, age, race, religion, political ideology or sexual orientation, making Buenos Aires, Argentina, the first Spanish-speaking city in Latin America to address all traits, according to a study by the International Gay and Lesbian Association in Brussels, Belgium.

In 2001, Brazil made reforms to its Civil Code to eliminate gender-based discrimination. But, research indicates that these policies are not commonly enforced and women are denied equitable treatment, according to a 2002 report by the Canadian International Development Agency.

Generally, all Latin American countries now have such laws, however, the specific types of discrimination that are banned may vary by country, says Marcelo Castro Fox, the official for the International Labor Organization’s Equality and Employment Branch in Geneva. He adds, “The problem is not in law, but in the practice.”

Most victims of work-related discrimination in Latin America are women and members of the continent’s indigenous ethnic groups, with issues ranging from access to work and training to pay, Castro Fox says.

Because gender gaps in pay and leadership roles persist in most Latin American countries, the diversity efforts of U.S. companies—including Chubb, J.P. Morgan Chase and Eastman Kodak of Rochester, N.Y.—began by tackling this issue.

“About four years ago, I was talking with my boss about the necessity of spreading diversity throughout the Latin American zone, and we started talking about this: What would help us get success in the beginning?” says Stanley Bloom, senior vice president of HR at Chubb’s Latin American zone.

With the answer being gender equality, Bloom launched Chubb’s diversity discussion in the company’s seven-country Latin American zone (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela) with a focus on women’s issues.

Enter DeVaney, who was born in Panama and speaks fluent Spanish. She began working on the Chubb initiative with a tight budget; most of her contact with Chubb workers would be through phone and e-mail. She was warned, “Don’t expect people to understand what you’re talking about for the first year.”

To start the education process and to promote buy-in from workers at Chubb, the company selected representatives from operations in each of its seven country locations across all levels of employment for a women’s development council. The key criterion was the ability to speak some English, since a common business language was needed.

Once selected, the council convened a three-day meeting in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with the aim of defining the group and its charter and raising gender consciousness from a Latin perspective.

“They were not aware of what issues there were for women in the workplace,” DeVaney recalls. “And their beliefs were basically a reflection of the population’s.”

Initially suspicious, the women selected for the council wondered why they had been singled out for participation. They varied in age, held jobs that ranged from high-level management to low-level clerical and basically shared only the commonality of being female. “Some were fearful of being seen as an ardent feminist or troublemaker, and that this could [negatively] affect their careers,” DeVaney remembers. “I have to say, there was always the risk that that could happen. We were throwing them out there as change agents. We were asking a lot.”

Colombian lawyer Angela Prati, who now works in marketing at Chubb’s Mexico City office, was one of the seven women chosen for the council—and she didn’t relish the assignment. “I felt, ‘Oh, don’t bother us. We’ve got more important things to worry about.’

“But,” she says now, “I was wrong.”

By exploring various women’s issues and how these issues play out in the workplace and on the home front, the women began to recognize the effects that gender-based societal limitations and exclusions were levying on their lives, such as regional statistics showing that women were being paid 30 percent less than their male counterparts for similar jobs, and the low participation by women in developmental training programs.

As a result, they were encouraged to think of ways they could introduce measures of change within the organization. “We were not expecting a revolution. There are some things you can do that don’t cost a lot of money, that aren’t a threat to the organization and are fun,” DeVaney says.

“This was more of what I would call the ‘Swiss cheese approach’: lots of little bites until you had a big hole,” DeVaney says of the process.

Small “bites” indeed. Diversity in Latin America is in its nascent stages, so education and acceptance of its importance is a huge step, says DeVaney. Future steps, such as ensuring the managerial ranks adequately represent the workforce population and customer base, still need to be tackled, she recognizes.

Progress with Discomfort

Of course, some women are making their marks in the upper echelons of corporate Latin America. Viviana Donikian and Alicia Rohr stand out from the crowd. They are executives running major departments for their U.S.-based companies. Rohr holds the top HR position at DuPont’s South American operations (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Venezuela), and Donikian is the first woman ever to lead HR for the Ford Motor Co.’s Argentina and Chile operations.

But the women, both based in Buenos Aires, downplay their achievements. “I was very lucky. It wasn’t my objective,” says Donikian, who also was Ford’s first woman manager in Argentina. “I was just the girl who was working in compensation some years ago.”

In fact, the process of setting professional goals was not a familiar activity a decade ago for most Argentine women. Rohr remembers feeling ill at ease when DuPont first introduced personal career planning meetings some years ago in an effort to help its female employees develop their long-term ambitions. “My first reaction was ‘Goals? This is not a good thing.’ I was uncomfortable with that,” she says.

That discomfort lingers today, on the part of both Latin American business and high-potential women armed with newly minted MBAs. “Women are not integrated into business like they are in other parts of the world,” acknowledges Horacio Quiros, Buenos Aires-based corporate HR director for Argentina’s media conglomerate Grupo Clarin. “But we are in transition in that sense.”

One reason may be that family pressures to marry and take on traditional roles of wife and mother weigh heavily on Latin American women, noted the HR professionals interviewed for this article. As a result, women doubt that they can successfully balance the demands of being both a traditional Latin American homemaker and a high-powered investment banker. “They don’t see a long career,” says Maritza Diez, vice president of HR at J.P. Morgan Chase, who is responsible for recruitment and development in a division that includes New York and the Latin American region. Diez finds it hard to retain women in the 24/7 world of investment banking.

To help tackle this issue, J.P. Morgan has launched a major career development program specifically aimed at retaining its high-potential Latin American women recruits, who hold MBAs and have worked for the company for at least a year. A key element will be the selection of a senior male sponsor—a tangible way to involve men in the program—from within the region for each of the top women identified. Each sponsor will then be held accountable for helping to develop the career of the woman under his guidance.

Stretch assignments, such as involvement in high profile, sophisticated deals, will be among the tools available to help progress the woman’s career.

“We are making sure we pay attention to our top talent, to make sure we are listening,” says Diez, a Dominican Republic native.

Throughout much of Latin America, particularly in Argentina where unofficial estimates place the unemployment and underemployment rate at a combined 50 percent, economic crises have stifled recruiting. The possibility of greater acceptance in the workplace for women has been wiped out by the lack of available jobs.

Still, when times get better, DuPont’s Rohr would like to create “clear development plans for talented women in the organization, monitor their progress and try to attract women in the marketplace for higher level positions.”

At Ford, Donikian still finds herself working eye-to-eye with a continuing reminder that women have not yet achieved the status and recognition of most men. As HR director, she handles union negotiations at Ford, where union membership has remained all male. “Imagine the union!” she says. “For the last 40 years, they have been negotiating with men.”

And the toughest part of being the first woman in the job? “Getting the union to validate me as the person they have to negotiate with. I’m still facing that, to be honest,” she says. “But the first year was the toughest.”

Diversifying Beyond Womens Issues

While there’s still work to be done on gender equality, U.S. companies have begun adding more issues pertinent to Latin America.

Over the past 18 months, the Chubb Latin American zone women’s council has evolved into a total diversity council and widened the diversity discussion further. In Colombia, for instance, greater diversity awareness has allowed the debate at Chubb to spread to an area that might surprise their North American colleagues: The discrimination faced by citizens who share surnames with the country’s notorious drug cartel families.

Discovering underlying issues like these takes time, Chubb and other organizations have learned. “It’s like peeling an onion—you get closer and closer to issues that are most difficult to talk about,” DeVaney says.

Eastman Kodak has been traveling a similar path as Chubb, from the creation of a women’s council through to a total diversity council in the photographic supply and imaging company’s Latin American region. Elements of Kodak’s drive for diversity in Latin America include a mentoring forum, high-profile emphasis on diversity issues through awards, visible commitment from the company’s top leaders, and links forged with outside advocacy groups, which promote the causes of Latin America’s lower socioeconomic classes, such as African-Brazilians.

“The African-Brazilian has suffered in silent discontent,” says Milton Maretti, Eastman Kodak’s Sao Paolo, Brazil-based HR director for the Latin American region. “They have accepted their situation silently, and we are trying to empower them to be more present.”

Maretti states that no topic at Kodak is off limits to its Latin American diversity council members—even gay and lesbian rights, which many believe to be the ultimate Latin American taboo. “It’s on the agenda as something they want to discuss. They brought it up,” Maretti notes.

No gay Kodak employees in the Latin American region have yet identified themselves, “but I sense it will get to the point where that will happen,” Maretti says.

Charting the Future

Kodak’s diversity goal is to have its customer base reflected in its workforce—a social aim that assumes an underlying business case. Is it possible to quantify the Latin American region’s diversity in terms of profits, savings, losses or return on investment?

“The answer is yes,” says Maretti. “It’s part of the productivity equation. Have we got employees performing to their highest potential?”

HR directors concede that efforts to reinvent diversity for this new audience still have some way to go before success is fully achieved. And the economic conditions that continue to cripple parts of Latin America must be turned around before companies can take a fully realistic measure of what has been accomplished.

But Maretti and others are optimistic. “You have to walk before you can run,” he says. “And we believe we can run.”

DeeDee Doke is a freelance business writer based in Cambridge, England, and a former editor of Global HR magazine.

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