María Cavalcanti, President and CEO of Pro Mujer, talks about gender and leadership with the Portal
María Cavalcanti joined Pro Mujer as President and CEO at the beginning of this year. She spoke with the Portal de Microfinanzas about the future of the organization under her leadership, the importance of offering products and tools to accompany clients during their entire life cycle, and the benefits of women’s leadership in the microfinance sector in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC).
What is your vision for the future of the organization under your leadership?
Pro Mujer is now entering its 26th year of operation. We began by supporting women in El Alto, Bolivia with education. While working with them, we discovered that there were greater needs, and at that time, it was a good moment for microfinance; microfinance institutions were becoming very strong in Latin America. Our founders, Lynne Patterson and Carmen Velasco, began to offer small loans, and from there, Pro Mujer grew quickly in the area of microfinance. Through communal banks, we supported women who had no credit or banking experience.
We grew in two ways - by providing capital and financial education, teaching them how to be managers of their own money. We continued to grow and then ten years ago, we saw that we could do much more. We saw that we had a platform of women with the potential to become entrepreneurs and we began to offer them training and access to health services.
But we still have much more to do, and in this new stage for Pro Mujer, we see that we are ideally placed to take advantage of the network of 250,000 women we currently serve. Over the course of these last 25 years, we have disbursed over $2.8 billion in small loans, and worked with over a million women. Today, we are expanding our presence to better respond to the diverse and changing demands of our clients. The idea is to become a large-scale, sustainable platform, which provides services and tools to women in Latin America during their entire life cycle. This is something that goes beyond two or three services.
These days, the microfinance sector faces new challenges, with many institutions worried about strong competition, partly because there is a level of saturation in many markets. In this context, loans to traditional microfinance clients - low-income women - are playing a reduced role in some MFI portfolios. How do you think these changes in the microfinance sector could affect, or be a challenge to, the traditional model of Pro Mujer?
The sector is changing, and it’s changing for several reasons. Because of competition - there is more saturation in the capital markets. And also because today’s women have more experience managing their finances and they are looking for other types of services. For Pro Mujer to make its platform even more relevant, we have to offer a range of products and services that are truly diversified and that meet the needs of our clients; from insurance to different types of loans, savings, and support so women can become owners of their own properties and build better housing. These women want to move forward with their finances and we see that the market doesn’t offer them the variety of products they need with tools that can support them, such as mobile payments, insurance, a way to save, or access to loans for their children’s education.
At Pro Mujer, we see this as an opportunity. We want to support other areas, like entrepreneurship. We have 250,000 women as clients and many of them are micro-entrepreneurs. We see that there is great potential to work with them so that they can enter the formal economy and grow their businesses from small to medium-sized. It is support that goes beyond financial education; it is business support.
Additionally, we see that we need to create new offerings in health and education. Many of our clients are looking for more training so that they can find jobs with more competitive salaries where they can grow.
Pro Mujer is here to look for solutions that empower the women of Latin America. This means that we don’t want to be focused on a microfinance product that was designed 30 years ago. Our commitment is to provide women with innovative products that are relevant to them, so that they can prepare themselves for the next 5 to 10 years of their lives.
Speaking of leadership, do you see Pro Mujer as an example for other MFIs in the region in its promotion of women’s leadership? Do you feel that Pro Mujer’s board is committed to having a woman as CEO? Why?
Pro Mujer sets an example for Latin America and other regions. Few organizations can boast such a high percentage of women’s representation; 70% of our staff and 95% of our clients are women. We don’t necessarily want an all-women organization, but we believe that diversity is necessary and that we must always push for dialogue that is very inclusive. But what I see in the region is that only 18% of MFI board presidents in Latin America are women. And women make up only 31% of board members and 39% of senior management (figures from the study, in Spanish: Empezando por casa: El liderazgo femenino en las entidades de microfinanzas en América Latina y el Caribe).
This needs to change because gender equality is not only a social and moral obligation but also an economic imperative. It is very important to understand that having diverse ways of seeing and responding to a situation helps organizations economically.
Right now, I believe that Pro Mujer is a model for other MFIs in LAC, because they see the need to reach a female clientele, but they still don’t see the advantages of actually placing women in strategic positions and, above all, in their leadership.
Do you believe that the microfinance sector needs more women with experience like yours, in the public and private sector?
Yes, and there is a huge percentage of highly-qualified women in Latin America. Women in the region outperform men in terms of education and professional experience. But what happens is that as much as women grow at the beginning of their careers, they don’t advance further and are not accepted into higher leadership positions. And that is what we need to change. Pro Mujer can be a model for the rest of the world. There is still so much to do in this area. There are lots of women with experience; what we need is to have the courage, resolve, and strategic thinking to have gender diversity at leadership levels.
What do you believe are the barriers that women in Latin America face to reach leadership positions in microfinance?
The internal and external barriers in financial institutions are the same that society imposes. In the microfinance space, we have to change these societal stereotypes, introduce a new way of thinking. Microfinance came about as a response to a social problem and when we don’t have gender diversity in microfinance leadership, we are sending a contradictory message. We need to be socially conscious and advocate for equal gender representation.
When I speak with our clients, many communicate how they feel more comfortable talking with another woman. This is why it is important that work groups be mixed, made up of women and men, who understand that there is a diversity of problems, and thus, a diversity of responses needed. For me, it is unacceptable that we don’t have full gender equality and female representation in microfinance. It doesn’t make sense.
Have you ever come up against these barriers? What can we do about them?
Every day, every morning, every afternoon, I have faced these challenges. When I began in the area of strategic consulting at the end of the 90s, my company was happy because they had finally reached 3% of women in its leadership, and that was a lot for them. We have changed a great deal since then, but there is still so much left to change.
We see report after report that shows that participation and gender diversity in financial institutions not only adds to the social and moral environment, but also the economic. In financial institutions there is a 7% to 15% higher profitability when there are women on the board and in leadership positions. They are more profitable than other financial companies, so gender diversity is not only an ethical question but also an economic one.
When a woman is General Manager of an MFI in LAC, there is, on average, a higher percentage (54%) of women in senior leadership positions compared to when a man is at the head (33%) (Source, in Spanish). This is important not only because women are leading and bringing a diversity of responses, but also because this shows a commitment to diversity within the organization’s staff.
For my entire professional life, regardless of the industry, I have faced these types of challenges. This is why I am committed to working at Pro Mujer and to changing this reality for women today and, above all, for the next generation of women leaders.