Maria-Leticia Ossa Daza, Chair of the Latin America Practice at Willkie Farr & Gallagher, alongside Allan Cohen, research editor at The Legal 500: In-House Research Team, introduce the important topics discussed in this special report.

Latin America has a rich and diverse culture with a population of over 660 million people from many different ethnic groups and cultural ancestries. Due to the region’s diversity, it is essential for companies and their workforces to continuously prioritize the need for diversity and inclusion in their general work environments, including in their boards and senior management positions, which data indicates are more than 90% occupied by men, mostly from a similar ethnic group.

Studies show that Latin American women are underrepresented among the top echelons of the legal profession – as they also are in the wider corporate environment – despite having a higher level of education than their male counterparts on average (as is the case in Brazil, for instance) or them representing half of the students in law school (as is the case in Mexico).

In the region, both the legal profession and the wider corporate environment face similar challenges in terms of gender equality.

The causes of this inequality are perceived by women as being rooted in the traditional unequal distribution of domestic tasks, the culture of ‘machismo’ and unconscious bias. Apart from purely career-related consequences, these causes also result in other unwanted behaviours, such as workplace harassment, which is frequently mentioned by women when asked about their working conditions.

Much remains to be done in this regard, but over the past 20 years, diverse groups have been trying to raise their voices to increase awareness and fight for their rights and needs. In particular, women have launched initiatives which aim at empowering themselves into a force to be reckoned with and at making opportunities for themselves. They have created groups – like Lawyers in Skirts, in Brazil – to develop their network and mentor each other to achieve their career objectives.

These groups organise workshops and conferences about inclusion, diversity, and women leadership, and have brought to the public’s attention that the evolution of these issues is intricately linked to the economic development of their region and respective countries.

Indeed, gender equality has been proven to contribute to poverty reduction and economic development. According to a McKinsey study, there would be an 11% automatic increase in the global GDP if the gender gap were closed, and specifically, the Latin American GDP would increase by 14% if women were encouraged and assisted in participating as economic actors.

The groups have reached out to female lawyers from other jurisdictions, where accessing top positions is perceived to be easier, and often receive their support. The organisation WILL (Women in Leadership in Latin America), a São Paulo-based non-profit unit, now has advisory boards in Bogotá, the US and London, which enable them to have access to a wider audience and help established lawyers, as well as aspiring ones supporting them throughout their careers.

These organisations already see improvement in top-tier law firms and corporations, but they now want to reach all women with legal degrees, and even expand their programmes to universities, broadening their socio-economic reach into any social group or institution where bias might lurk.

Interestingly, despite women finding it challenging not to have peers to exchange ideas with when they make it to the top echelons of a law firm, it appears that some of these organisations – like Abogadas MX, in Mexico – are admitting men as workshop participants, allies and even board members and mentors. Generally, the non-profits have found this experience enriching, and have discovered that their presence brings the opportunity for a synergistic learning experience, showing that diversity is a question that concerns us all, regardless of gender.

In most cases, if not in all, these groups work towards women being in a fair competition with men – they do not advocate for women to be given extra rights solely based on their gender, but rather, an even playing field.

And indeed, after years of fieldwork, they conclude that lawyers can help:

  1. They can impact policies and laws through the specialized skills of their profession and demonstrate how important it is to support women in general. In several jurisdictions, women do not have access to courts or fair laws, for instance, and some gender-related legal issues, like gender violence, are still common in Latin America. Consequently, they feel that there is a lot of space to improve the laws, but also to give equal access to the court system.
  2. At a corporate level, lawyers can participate in advocating and creating policies for companies that need to adopt gender inclusion and diversity policies.
  3. Furthermore, employees rely upon legal departments to be stewards of ethics and good governance, meaning that these departments must set a good example and promote diversity and inclusion themselves.

Their influence over corporate policies might even be greater in the post-Covid-19 pandemic world. The above-mentioned McKinsey study shows that during the pandemic, women, LGBTQ+ people, POC and parents were found to be struggling more with issues such as mental health, work-life balance, isolation (from co-workers and managers) and job opportunities. These issues were also more pronounced in emerging economies and, in several jurisdictions, were accentuated by a surge in gender-based violence linked to the work-from-home policies.

Many companies have since attempted to offer more policies that are responsive to these struggles and provide greater balance, flexibility, and improve their internal communication.

Given the importance of D&I, this report intends to offer fresh perspectives and insights from across the Americas on where we are as a legal community and also suggestions on what is working to advance inclusion across the Americas.

Through interviews with leading GCs from all over the region, we found that though the situations and nuances differed from country to country, and some seem to be doing better than others there is much that can be learned from one another.

Colombia, for instance, has a high percentage of women in leadership positions, and women have space in the corporate world. In Brazil, however, gender inequality seems to come in addition to other discriminations, such as sexual orientation or ethnicity.

The consensus we found is that, in addition to improving the corporate culture, the legal and regulatory frameworks could be modified to help with D&I. For instance, more transparency could be asked from companies about their hiring/promotion processes and policies could be passed to protect D&I leaders within companies, etc.

However, implementing a change entails asking people to change their behaviour, which they might resist. This requires leadership, diplomacy and pedagogy, and to place the right people in the right positions.

Boards and management teams should always be transparent as to what they are trying to achieve, how they are trying to achieve it, and they should be able to measure the results of any new policy.

In a sense, leveraging the collective experience of a diverse workforce is not as simple as hiring different people and alchemizing their perspectives into corporate gold. Inclusion is as fundamental – it is essential to create an environment where diverse people can feel welcome enough to perform at their full potential.

Maria-Leticia Ossa Daza
Chair of the Latin America Practice
Willkie Farr & Gallagher

Allan Cohen
Research Editor
The Legal 500: In-House Research Team