Cultural beliefs in Latin America are still a strong barrier for women to succeed. Here’s how to change the status quo.

By Ilana Milkes (Founder, World Tech Makers)

As a human being — and as a woman — it is somehow shameful to accept that less than 60 years ago women were granted the right to vote in my home country of Colombia.

Here’s a quick rundown of the history of women’s rights:

“Democracy” was invented in Athens in the 5th century BC. Uruguay, always at the forefront when it comes down to social issues in the region, led the “women liberation movement” in 1917 followed by Ecuador and Puerto Rico (1929), Brazil (1932), Cuba (1934), El Salvador (1939), Panama and Guatemala (1945), Argentina and Venezuela (1947), Chile and Costa Rica (1949), Bolivia (1952), Mexico (1953), Peru, Honduras, Nicaragua (1955) and finally Paraguay in 1957.

But the realities in Latin America are far from democratic.

Although there have been considerable improvements in terms of political representation with presidential posts occupied by women in the past two decades (Michelle Bachelet in Chile, Vilma Rousseff in Brazil, Cristina Kirchner in Argentina, Laura Chinchilla in Costa Rica, Violeta Chamorro in Nicaragua and Mireya Moscoso in Panama) the facts remain alarming and representative of what happens at the larger picture throughout the world.

Let’s look at the facts:

  • Fewer than 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women

  • At least 1 in 3 women around the world has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused

  • 41 million girls worldwide are still denied primary education

  • From the 2 billion people considered poor in terms of financial income, 70 percent are female

  • two-thirds of illiterate adults are women according to Women’s Rights Work studies from 2010 and median annual incomes for female workers continue to be lower than their male counterparts (US Department of Labor, 2013).

Tough Realities Come Back to Cultural Issues

A few months ago, I decided to act on a dream. After learning how to program and realizing first-hand how much value and impact technology skills can have in our societies, my vision of bringing a disruptive technology education model to Latin America started to unfold. I took a semester off, packed bags and headed to Colombia and Brazil.

The thrill of traveling, scouting the technology and entrepreneurship ecosystems and getting to talk to the change makers in the region intensified as I became more and more aware of how underrepresented women are when it comes down to decision-making roles within those ecosystems or creation-making positions. It was painful to accept that cultural beliefs are still a strong barrier for women to succeed. Many leaders of the ecosystems are not making efforts to proactively improve the odds for women to reach their full potential.

Software development side

The software industry has unimpressive numbers when it comes down to gender equality and diversity in the United States with less than 25 percent of the workers being women (Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2012).

In Latin America, the situation is worse. With little efforts to measure those existing gender gaps the probabilities of narrowing them down are diminished – assuming that what you can measure, you can improve. It thus becomes almost impossible to make an accurate data-based assessment of the current state of affairs.

When I attended meetups or coding dojo events, the ratio of women versus men did not go over 1:20. Brazil tended to have better female representation, which could be explained by the size of the country and its demographics.

Entrepreneurship side

From an entrepreneurship perspective, my observations were very similar. The entrepreneurship boom that started a few years ago in the region has celebrated the success of only a handful of women who have taken the lead as entrepreneurs or software developers and have been able to grown their businesses beyond the “startup” phase.

Among technology entrepreneurs there are Bel Pesce from Brazil, Lucila Suarez from Argentina, Tania Zapata from Colombia and Sally Buberman, also from the land of Tango. Many of these women have strong connections with the United States, which brings up another issue: the socio-economic inequality in the continent. Is it a coincidence that most of these women come from either middle-class or upper-class families?

Those Who’ve “Made It” Need to Help Others Do the Same

Determined to connect with other women in similar situations, I learned about initiatives like MET (Mujer, Emprendimiento, Technologia), Ellas 2.0, and Women Tech Makers, which is powered by Google. Finding those networks was comforting, but the reality is that women have fewer educational opportunities in developing countries where violence against women happens daily and cultural beliefs continue to hold societies back. The women who “make it” either come from privileged backgrounds or end up leaving their home countries.

So besides having to overcome the challenges every entrepreneur has to overcome, women have to face cultural and perception challenges ingrained in the collective minds of the majority of Latin Americans.

To change this reality, the efforts will have to go beyond personal interests to succeed, gender or socio-economic statuses. The women and men who “make it” could make more efforts to help other women succeed – with that I mean proactive efforts that go beyond belonging to a paid women network and leaving the country.

The women and men in the technology ecosystems could stop attributing gender to profession and success to gender. Simply being more aware and cognizant of the effects centuries of collective brainwashing is just the start, but we all start somewhere.

How else can we help Latin American women rise as entrepreneurs and technologists?