Interview: Sylvia Fazio

23 January 2016

Silvia Fazio is CEO of WILL LATAM (Women in Leadership in Latin America), an NGO whose work includes sharing best practices aimed at closing the gender gap and promoting women in leadership roles, and assisting organizations in establishing careerdevelopment programmes for women. She is also a corporate partner at Chadbourne & Parke LLP, leading the Brazil desk at their London offices.

What was the original motivation behind the creation of WILL?

It was very much related to the simple fact that initiatives of this type were lacking in Latin America. The position of businesswomen has improved a great deal in almost all Latin American countries over the last 20 years or so, but there is still a lot to be done. One of our most important missions is to get Latin American women into leadership positions.

If we take Brazil as an example, less than 8% of board-level positions are occupied by women. And yet if we look at the most renowned universities in Brazil, more than half the students there are young women. They enter the labour market, they successfully reach a certain level in their careers – but then they hit a glass ceiling, which only a minority manage to break through.

Where does WILL operate?

WILL has its headquarters in São Paulo. We have chapters in London and in New York, and a new chapter being formed in Miami, Florida. We also have requests from several Latin American countries for new chapters which should be formed in 2016.

Our aim is to support Latin American women in achieving leadership positions, and we’re not restricted to those who are actually based in Latin America. The chapters in the US and the UK are very important in terms of our research, our partnerships with global organizations, and our efforts to gain support from Latin American women who have a global reach.

There are also men on the board of WILL: how do they contribute to an organization which is female-focused?

We welcome men to our debates and are very proud to have men on our board. They contribute a great deal. Our debates often go beyond the issue of gender – they’re often about fairness and meritocracy. Men seem to be increasingly aware of the unbalanced ratio male-female ratio in leadership positions. The vast majority of business leaders in Latin America are men, and we need to gain their support if we want to progress towards a more equal business environment.

What are the key issues and barriers preventing Latin American women from reaching leadership positions?

Many barriers are related to cultural values and tradition. Latin American societies still seem to be critical of women who focus on their careers – particularly when they become mothers. That’s the stage when women need support to continue to pursue their careers, if they wish to do so. It seems the business environment fails to support women when they most need to find a balance between their personal and professional ambitions. Other barriers are often related to the fact that the majority of men who are in leadership positions seem to feel more comfortable working with male colleagues, and end up failing to see the benefits diversity can bring to their business.

Statistics and research have been providing increasing evidence of those benefits, and our objective is to draw attention to that. It’s much easier to approach businesspeople with a view to promoting programmes for attracting, retaining and developing the careers of female employees when we have evidence that this will actually help their businesses be more successful.

Do you see any change in women’s or companies’ awareness of the issue?

I believe many women, particularly the younger generations, are much more aware of the difficulties they may face when trying to combine their personal and professional lives. The older generations seemed to accept that they needed to sacrifice a lot of their personal lives if they wanted to have a family whilst continuing to pursue their careers. Younger generations are less tempted to do so, and expect more support from their employers. Companies are more aware of this, but many lack the resources or genuine motivation to make things change.

How do you think WILL can contribute to removing such barriers?

WILL intends to contribute by promoting debate. We’ve been organizing a series of open debates with senior business leaders and politicians in São Paulo, New York, London, Brasília and Belo Horizonte. We’ve reached agreements with education and research organizations. We want to raise awareness about the situation for women in Latin America with regard to leadership positions. We also want to create the tools to empower women and make them feel more confident that they can achieve leadership in Latin America.