Covid-19 and the case for inclusion in Latin America

GC investigates how the global pandemic has impacted diversity, equity and inclusion in Latin American corporate life

Since the Covid-19 global pandemic took the world by surprise in January 2020, no shoulder has been left untapped by the virus, which continues to intrude into personal and professional lives.

Latin America was hit hard, both in terms of health (by summer 2020, the region was declared the epicentre of the pandemic) and economic impact – Latin American GDP fell by 7.5% in 2020.

As it continues to bruise the population, Covid-19 has stressed societal fault-lines, leaving communities and countries grappling with uncomfortable facts – unequal risk of infection and severe illness according to socio-demographic factors like age, disability, ethnicity and affluence – and ethical questions, over access to healthcare and vaccine equity, for example.

We have seen that inclusion can be a matter of life and death. But Covid-19 has raised the stakes for diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) in corporate life too, as the workforce struggles to cope with its challenges. In August 2020, McKinsey surveyed over 1,000 executives and over 2,500 employees in large companies across 11 countries. The resulting report uncovered worries around mental health, work-life balance, and workplace health and safety, the connections between workers and employers, and job opportunities. But the gravity of hardships varied along demographic lines:

‘In every country, members of diverse populations reported additional challenges and felt them more acutely than their nondiverse counterparts. For example, nondiverse employees in the United States have experienced, on average, one acute challenge during the Covid-19 crisis, in addition to several other moderate challenges (those that are reported as being felt “somewhat” by respondents). Their diverse US colleagues reported 1.6 acute challenges.’

Furthermore, workers in emerging economies, like many in Latin America (the research looked at Brazil, Mexico, China and India as well as Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the United States), have felt the effects most starkly:

‘The severity and prevalence of these challenges, such as with mental health, were far higher in developing countries than in developed nations. Among diverse groups, these concerns were both higher in number and felt with greater urgency.’

Women, LGBTQIA+ people, people of color (POC) and parents were found to be struggling more, the report said.

Women at risk

Taking the first group, the pandemic has hurt women more than men at the societal level. In its July 2021 report, Gender Equality and Covid-19: Policies and Institutions for Mitigating the Crisis, the IMF set out the issues facing women across the world. Comprising 70% of the health and social care workforce, women are at greater risk of infection. They are also at increased risk of extreme poverty – likely to work in pandemic-scarred industries such as retail or hospitality, and in less secure or informal jobs, while housework and childcare duties have meant that, in some countries, women are even leaving the workforce. Meanwhile, lockdowns have led to a growth in gender-based domestic violence; school closures endanger education for girls, as many simply may not return to school when they reopen, and the digital inclusion gap for women threatens to widen.

Alexandra Blanco is general counsel at Pro Mujer, a Bolivian non-profit dedicated to empowering women, and is seeing this play out on the ground in Latin America:

‘In Bolivia, people have lost their jobs, we believe that’s been a major setback for women. We have data regarding the setback of Covid-19 especially in Latin America, that’s been extremely hit. The governments have not been able to react properly to support people or companies so it’s going to be a major hit and it hits women. Schools in many countries have not reopened, so you have women trying to navigate home school, women that have lost their jobs and are trying to also home school, and they don’t have places to take their kids and to look for other employment,’ she explains.

‘You don’t see a program to reactivate the economy as you do in countries that are more stable financially, so definitely I think Latin America is probably one of the regions that are going to take one of the biggest hits.’

Digital inclusion

Sheila La Serna, chief legal officer at pension fund manager Profuturo AFP, describes the economic background to the pandemic’s impact on Peruvian women:

‘We have a lot of informality – our economy is 70% informally employed. 95-99% of enterprises in Peru are micro and small enterprises and at least 70% of them are led by women. During the pandemic, a lot of women had to shut down their businesses, so my impression is that the gender gap will increase in future years. Women and men have a gap of almost 30% in terms of salary – women will earn 30% less than men in terms of formal jobs. But in terms of entrepreneurs, which are normally not official – they do not pay taxes, they have very little workforce – the kind of business that really helps women who are very ambiguous.’

La Serna explains that women in Peru often run service industry organizations such as beauty parlours, as entrepreneurs commercializing whatever they can, often in the face of technology inequity.

‘Very broadly speaking, the economic impact in Peru of the pandemic has been huge. We have more poorer people than 30 years ago. But, at the same time, people are reinventing themselves. They have proven resilient – that inventive and creative minds of women and men that are fostering the implementation and creation of new businesses and business models very digitally,’ she says.

‘We don’t have equal internet for everyone, so that informs everything. Every business that is engaging in digital and digital transformation is just riding the wave with the pandemic, but those that are not favored with that internet connection – not only the resource itself but the internet capabilities, for example, to be able to understand what e-commerce means, all the technological skills, are something that we are struggling with in some parts of the population. A lot of them don’t have resources like laptops. The government is working on that – there’s a governmental plan to improve the resources and the capabilities of entrepreneurs and to just reduce the technological gap in Peru.’

Corporate life

But what of corporate Latin America? The picture is not rosy, either. The female GCs we spoke to in Latin American countries all emphasised burnout and mental health strains among women in the workplace as significant pandemic-related impacts that have informed the D&I agenda.

And that is borne out by the stats. Seven out of ten female executives in Latin America believe that Covid-19 will negatively impact gender equality, according to the Esade Gender Monitor Latam report published in 2021, which surveyed 1,000 female executives in Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru. 41.4% felt that the pandemic would be detrimental to their prospects of promotion.
A woman’s place?

‘I think the pandemic was really hard, especially for working moms. When I talk to my female friends, the word that they always use is: “exhausting”. Because, in Latin American countries, for the most part of the time, the house tasks and raising the children, care, falls more to women. Also we have a lot of contract terminations across the country, and across the globe, and women were hit more than men,’ says Ana Paula de Almeida Santos, former head of legal for Rock Content in São Paulo.

The McKinsey report talks about the ‘double-shift’ – of work and household tasks – and the pressures these place on the mental health of women around the world. But these pressures can be more acute in emerging economies:

‘Women are also more concerned than men about increased household responsibilities – suggesting that the stress of the “double shift” continues to be a gendered issue around the world. Women in emerging economies such as India and Brazil are two to three times more likely to report challenges as their peers in developed countries, suggesting that gender and local context may have a compounding effect.’

Until a more equal distribution of household tasks is achieved, and with pandemic-related work from home seeding additional work at home, many corporations have stepped up to provide the flexibility needed for corporate professionals to keep the plates spinning.

‘Before, I think that companies didn’t believe very much in working from home, and now, if you want people to be good and healthy, you have to start to understand their needs, how they think, how they feel. It is not very important anymore if they are going to be at home for a shift, because, at the end, what you require is that they accomplish their work, not when. They are going to be a better worker and they are going to fight for you,’ explains Alejandra Bogantes, legal manager for Costa Rica and El Salvador at Walmart México and Central America.

La Serna agrees: ‘I have a lot of members of our team that are mothers, or they have to take care of their parents who are old, and they have different schedules. So, the baseline for us from the pandemic has been flexibility, to be very supportive of the team, more flexible than before the pandemic on schedules, and to provide them with all they need to have a good performance in the company,’ she explains.

‘We try to balance and be flexible. We do not, for example, schedule meetings too early in the morning, because some have home school tasks, or they have to take care of their parents, or maybe they are sharing the laptop with their little kids,’ she said.

São-Paulo-based Amanda Lee Cotrim Lopez, senior Latin America legal director for ADP, describes one company solution for lessening the burden of homeworking.

‘Latin America has a strong culture of women being primarily responsible for household activities. Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, lunch breaks have not been like before, when we would go to the cafeteria, buy our lunches and still have a few minutes to relax. Now people have to prepare lunch, feed their kids, help elderly people or other people at home with them. This is a huge burden that unfortunately is falling mostly on women associates. With this is mind, we decided to allow our associates to extend their lunch breaks from 60 minutes to 90 minutes during the work from home period in the Covid-19 pandemic.’

She adds: ‘This is something that directly impacts our women associates. But as we also allow our male associates to take a longer lunch time, we would expect them, if they live with a partner, to take this time to also support any household tasks.’

Gender-based violence

In one instance, we heard how corporate support can extend beyond pragmatic support for women working remotely, and into the existential. Levels of gender-based violence were extremely high in Peru even before the pandemic became a pressure for fraught households and, on top of the physical and emotional cost, the World Bank estimates that this violence is equal to 3.7% of GDP in lost productivity for the country. Sodexo in Peru has tried to tackle this issue head on during the pandemic.

‘Of all the numbers that were critical, it was the number of women that suffered violence during the pandemic, because most gender-based violence is in the home. People who suffer violence are in the same room all day with the aggressor and you have to consider all the depression and the fear that the pandemic brought us. So, violence increased a lot during the pandemic. That’s why we made a statement about violence, and we launched a campaign looking “behind the face mask” to help people that are suffering violence to speak up,’ says Mariana Olivares, director of legal and corporate affairs at Sodexo Peru.

The impact of the pandemic on diverse groups goes well beyond gender equality. While not focused specifically on Latin America, the McKinsey report found that LGBTQIA+ employees were more likely to report feeling isolated and fear losing ground at work. People of color in majority-white countries were concerned about career progression, balancing tasks at home and career progression, as well as workplace health and safety. Parents faced challenges over school closures, reporting worries about household challenges, mental health concerns and career progression.

Back in the closet

Francisco Robledo Sánchez is a consultant and strategist in LGBTQIA+ labor inclusion in Mexico and runs the annual HRC Equidad MX Global Workplace Equality Program, an index that accredits companies in Mexico based on their LGBTQIA+ inclusiveness.

One of the biggest problems he has seen in the LGBTQIA+ community in Mexico has been stress experienced by those forced by lockdowns to go back to live with people who discriminate against them, effectively putting them back ‘in the closet’.

‘We ran a survey a couple of years ago and asked people how “out” they were with their family, friends and co-workers. At work, 56% of people are in the closet. 65% are in the closet with their family, and only 20% in the closet with friends. For people going back to wherever they call home, with the people they call family or whoever they live with, 40% of people had to go back in the closet,’ he says.

‘But for people that were actually out at work, and not out with family or friends, work was their safe place. Companies are still finding their way on how to build online safe places for LGBTQIA+ workers that are doing home-based working, so it’s been a big challenge for people to actually be comfortable and be who they are while at work, when not having those safe spaces anymore.’

Robledo Sánchez adds that the suspension of face-to-face events has presented a challenge for companies engaged in LGBTQIA+ inclusion to demonstrate their commitment.

‘It’s easy just to put your flag out, participate on a Pride march, sponsor an event. But now that everything turned digital, they didn’t see the opportunity of sending out messages, having webinars, putting this conversation on the digital platforms. That’s why we have to push training, so anyone can be a sponsor or a spokesperson for LGBTQIA+ issues in their company, other than having the easy part of just using the marketing tools,’ he says.

The whole person

But the GCs we spoke to for this report also stressed that the pandemic was not all bad news for DE&I in the corporate landscape. For some, like Carolina De Nardi, chief counsel for Latin America at Zoetis Inc, it brought an increased sense of empathy.

‘You’re talking to me at home. I can have dog barking noise, or my child, whatever noise it could be. And then, as a consequence, you start to look for the person as a person, not just as a professional,’ she says.

‘Although the pandemic was dark times for some people, I do believe that it brought us the ability to look to the other person and see more than just an email. I think that it helped us to take a better look into diversity and inclusion inside our organizations. I do not have, let’s say, a thousand employees, I have a thousand people that are part of a thousand families, and they have a thousand histories behind them. The pandemic helped me to understand more about my team, to understand their histories, their fears, and what they want, not only talking about career aspirations, but talking about their life goals.’

Empty seats

With working from home not just tolerated but mandated, less emphasis on presenteeism could be beneficial for women with childcare responsibilities, says María José Van Morlegan, director of legal and regulatory affairs at Edenor in Argentina:

‘When you go to the office, and you see a man and a woman, and you see that the woman has to run away to resolve something at school or a medical situation, it’s like: “oh, she’s leaving work, she’s not taking enough care of her duties.” No one asks about what that guy is doing at the same time – if he’s going to football practice or having a lunch or playing golf. The pandemic allows us to see that she is responsible, she is good at work, she can do everything the same as a man. You see men saying, “I have to arrange this maybe in a couple of minutes, because my wife has to go to her job, so I have to take care of the baby”, which is an opportunity to see the possibility of both doing the same thing.’

One GC sees the rise of remote working as an antidote to the brutal reality of corporate law firm parenthood – if burnout can be managed.

She says: ‘I remember when I stopped working in law firms and moved to the corporate world when my first kid was born, because the law firm work seemed to me incompatible with motherhood; I could not get that to work. This will probably change the way we work in the future, because (women) didn’t have to choose between motherhood and working, they could have everything in the same place. And although it was not easy, it was probably better for a lot of us than leaving our babies and going to the office until late at night.’

Such optimism might not have yet translated into increased opportunities for women just yet: 82.8% of female executives felt that men were being preferred for management roles according to the Esade Gender Monitor – Latam report – up from the 2020 report of the same name.

Zooming towards inclusion?

The less formal video call is commonly seen as a tool for strengthening inclusion, not only for women but for other communities too – although not everyone in the Latin American corporate world is pleased with this prospect.

‘The freedom of the people, of the gender expression that they felt at home, it was priceless. A lot of companies had to rewrite business dress codes for the digital area, because they found that people were just so free. LGBTQIA+ people started to express themselves much more freely, growing their hair, using make-up and accessories, and people were starting to see that as a problem when they were looking into the camera,’ says Robledo Sánchez.

‘These months will be very decisive on how we are going to come back to day-to-day work in the office, where people are freer on expressing and dressing and being themselves.’

Video calls were also reported to widen access to information across geographical divides as well as demographic ones, with the potential for digital DE&I training to reach areas where a face-to-face event could not. In some cases, the candidate pool has even been extended outside the typical metropolitan areas from which talent would previously be drawn.

‘Our data protection officer is from the Northeast and she’ll be working from there, she’ll be coming to meet with us from time to time. Before the pandemic, this was impossible, because you just thought that everyone had to be in the office 100% of the time. We have seen many initiatives within Nubank to welcome people from different regions – because Brazil is such a huge country that just having this diversity in terms of regions brings a lot of value to the teams,’ says Pedro Frade, legal director at Nubank in São Paulo.

Improving access

Tech-assisted working can be a double-edged sword for people with disabilities, however – broadening access to previously inaccessible locations or buildings, while creating potential obstacles depending on individual needs. At Walmart, Bogantes describes how the Costa Rican Ministry of Health mandated an office for client services, for colleagues with hearing loss, impacted by face mask use, for example, to access additional support during the pandemic.

Adds López: ‘For people with disabilities, we had to accelerate accommodations, we had to accelerate this evolution to understand their needs, to understand that they had to be working from anywhere. It’s been a journey.’

As companies in Latin America have adapted to new ways of working and the resulting inclusion challenges, legal teams are often poised to support the transitions in ways that can promote equality. At Walmart, the legal team has provided guidance for Walmart’s client services offices, such as preparation for government inspections.

At Sodexo, Olivares not only leads the legal team in Peru

but also the local diversity and inclusion program, and has stepped up as an advocate to widen access to public health information.

‘I wrote an article about the responsibility of the company in the vaccination process. Although the decision about being vaccinated is a personal one, the company can do something from the position of employer and that’s giving information, giving the chance for people to hear from specialists about vaccination, because sometimes the discussions are between neighbours or relatives. I feel part of our responsibility as leaders was to provide information to our people so they can decide if they want to be vaccinated or not, and also give all the permissions they need to go to the vaccination centre,’ she explains.

Her legal function also has an important role to play as the pandemic shifts into a new phase and companies adjust to ways of working that can be sustained long term:

‘The screen is not enough, we need to return to the coffee table, to improve our capability, and we are tired, also. So we are now in the process of switching, in some instances, from remote work to this hybrid way of working, half and half, so people feel comfortable and feel safe as well. I feel that’s something very related to legal. I think we need the correct balance, because working from home has a lot of benefits, but it also raises some lines about duties. I don’t think that people 100% respect the schedule, the day, so we need to also remind them that we have schedules, that we have process [for a reason]. People and their families will have burnout, people will have some mental health issues. We have to understand that,’ she says.

‘As legal, we need to be at that table in that discussion – it’s not only how we want to make it as a company, but we also need to respect the labor regulations. I think that legal has really a great opportunity to work on this topic.’

Looking to the future

Societal divisions exploited by the virus are not new, but many of the solutions innovated by corporations in Latin America and the senior corporate counsel who are engaged in DE&I, are. It may be the case that Covid-19 has set the clock back on inclusion. But many are more hopeful: that as corporations, and as people, we have learned more about each other and our needs, and that this new understanding can be the bedrock for a more inclusive future.

As Valéria Schmitke, regional general counsel for Zurich Latin America puts it:

‘Some people are saying we retroceded 10 years in terms of D&I. I’m not sure about that really. Let’s see how the society recovers from this pandemic. History shows that after pandemics, after big crises, society flourishes. So let’s see. We will continue to work.’