We Are Our People: Promoting Women’s Leadership at Pro Mujer

January 11, 2012

Click here to read the entire article in Spanish on the Center for Microfinance Leadership’s website


During the Center for Microfinance Leadership Management Development Program and Training of Trainers held in Quito, Ecuador, 22 managers from 17 institutions in 8 countries across Latin America and the Caribbean came together for a 6-day training focused on developing transformational management skills for microfinance leaders. Among the group were a number of extraordinary women representing Pro Mujer in Argentina, Bolivia, Mexico and Nicaragua. As the participants were getting to know each other, a common trend began to emerge: delegates from Pro Mujer had started as clients of the institutions where they now work as managers.

A core focus at Women’s World Banking is to promote principled and visionary leadership for the microfinance industry. Key to achieving this mission is to ensure that institutions have a pipeline of highly qualified women who represent the current and future leadership of high-performing, meritocratic microfinance providers committed to the double-bottom line.

The work of WWB’s Center for Microfinance Leadership around leadership development and institutional gender diversity stresses the importance of leadership pathways – how do staff, and in particular women, view opportunities for growth and professional development? And, how does the institution nurture talent and provide equal opportunity at every level?

WWB’s Organizational Gender Assessment research suggests that internal promotions are an important part of the talent retention strategy for many MFIs as their operations grow in size and scope. Existing staff bring institutional knowledge, technical capacity and alignment with the mission. In many increasingly competitive labor markets, a sense that an institution offers opportunities for career growth can be a strong differentiator when choosing an employer. The reputation of an institution as a place that serves women—both as clients and staff—can also make a difference in attracting a more diverse workforce.  The stories of Pro Mujer’s women managers who have experienced growth trajectories within the organization that once served them provide a practical illustration of these findings.

Over the last two years, 30 to 40 percent of promotions across Pro Mujer have been internal. Unfortunately however, hiring for some top management positions reveals that, “the world is still not a fair place for women,” says Eugenia Acosta, Director of Human Resources for Pro Mujer. Recently, when recruiting for an executive leadership position, out of 67 pre-screened candidates, only 6 candidates were women. According to Acosta, “that is the reality of Latin America and we need to fight so that [one day] 60 out of 67 applicants are women.”

Key weapons in the fight are talent development, strategies to identify and leverage high potential employees and succession planning to create clear pathways that work for women and men. This process ultimately begins with recruitment. In order to find the right people, Pro Mujer is currently working to modify and streamline their recruiting policies across their country operations. They no longer advertise for Credit Officers with finance degrees nor do they require that applicants know how to amortize a loan. These are skills that can be taught while more intangible values such as vocation of service, results orientation, love for mission, and compassion are seen as something that cannot be learned. WWB’s gender diversity research also confirms that the language used in recruitment materials, as well as the distribution channels used, can have a significant impact on the profile of applicants.

At the heart of Pro Mujer’s business, as with all good microfinance, is an intimate knowledge of clients. For managers like Juana Bustinza Vargas, Neighborhood Center Manager, Puno, Perú, being close to the client and the opportunity to interact with rural women is the thing that has given her the most satisfaction in her four year professional trajectory with Pro Mujer. Pro Mujer’s strategy is to bring in people, such as Juana, who are aligned with the mission of the organization and who are sensitive to clients’ needs. And, who knows the clients better than a client?

Though the transition from client to staff did happen sporadically at Pro Mujer in the past, the focus on this career pathway has become more intentional in recent years. Says Acosta, “not everyone in the world is an entrepreneur and not all clients are going to want to have their own business; some want to work with us – we give them an opportunity. They know the clients.”

The stories of the three managers that follow illustrate some of the practices that WWB considers as key success factors for microfinance—true customer-centricity and the power of institutions that infuse their mission and values in their day to day operations, culture and approach to managing a key resource, their people.

Mariela Rodriguez, Neighborhood Center Manager, Argentina, first heard about Pro Mujer through a neighbor. At first she was resistant but eventually was convinced to join a group, known as an “asociación comunal,” made up of women who live in the same neighborhood. Once she became a client of Pro Mujer, Mariela was particularly impacted by the loan officer assigned to work in her area. She inspired her clients by fostering a sense of belonging and opportunity. Also inspired by the range of opportunities that Pro Mujer offers to women professionals, Mariela eventually joined the staff as a Client Advisor. Her unique contribution to her work is the ability to communicate the spirit and mission of Pro Mujer to internal and external clients, thereby engendering a real commitment to the organization in a diverse range of stakeholders.

The power of role models illustrated by Mariela’s story is something that is also found in WWB’s research on gender diversity. For clients, seeing women in professional and leadership roles, from loan officer to CEO, is often a great source of inspiration and motivation to succeed.  Likewise, from a human resources standpoint, in order to successfully attract women candidates WWB recommends using successful women employees as recruiters, sending them to meetings with potential women applicants to talk about their own experiences with the institutions.

Mariela has served as a Client Advisor, and, currently as Neighborhood Center Manager. This path was made possible through a combination of trust and support from management, achieving strong results in each position and stellar performance evaluations. Having a stable job gives her the satisfaction of contributing to her household. It also makes her feel personally fulfilled to know that she plays a role in making Pro Mujer’s mission a reality. The biggest impact of her time with Pro Mujer has been the possibility to develop as a professional within the organization, taking advantage of opportunities to build her skills and abilities through courses, workshops and trainings such as the WWB Management Development Program.

In the future, Mariela has plans to continue working, and growing, with Pro Mujer.

Like Mariela, Yeris Calderon, Client Training Specialist, Nicaragua, has been inspired in her career at Pro Mujer by the words of colleagues who have supported her. Also like Mariela, she first learned of Pro Mujer through word of mouth and was attracted to join because of the comprehensive services offered to clients such as financial education and health. Though Yeris was hired because she demonstrated the right competencies for the job, she also believes that former clients have a unique understanding of the human elements of the business and are well-positioned to build strong relationships with clients.

Yeris was motivated to make the transition from client to staff member by a personal desire to grow professionally, the possibility of creating a better future for her children and to become part of an institution committed to reducing the level of marginalization of women in Nicaragua by giving them the tools, skills and self-esteem to transform their lives.

The transformation that Yeris hopes for in her clients is something that she herself has also experienced through her career. When she first joined Pro Mujer, she was surprised by all of the things that she was capable of, chief among these skills, her resilience and capability to learn from failure. “I believe,” says Yeris, “that people don’t care how many times they fall but rather how many times they get back up and the enthusiasm for self-improvement every time they do.” Studies on the business case for gender diversity often point to women’s tendency to be more risk-averse than their male counterparts as a positive contributor to corporate stability and the financial bottom line. However, willingness to take smart risks and stretch assignments, and a professional environment that allows employees to fall and get back up, can be key factors in achieving professional growth.

Continuing her career trajectory from Client Advisor, Credit Advisor, Sales Leader and Credit Officer, Communal Bank, Yeris plans to continue honing her skills to become specialized as a trainer. In the future, she sees herself as a professional woman who continues learning daily and sharing what she learns back to the people that surround her.

María Guadalupe Águila Sánchez first became a client of Pro Mujer Mexico  in 2005, a time that she recalls as the worst economic crisis of her life, during which neither she nor her husband were able to find work and struggled to support themselves and their three young children. Though she was operating a small enterprise selling denim pants to friends and family, without a steady stream of income to the household, she began going into considerable debt.

Much like the stories of her colleagues, her first introduction to Pro Mujer was when a friend invited her to a community meeting. After covering some basic household necessities, Guadalupe reinvested her first loan into her business. Through the accounting exercises at her repayment meetings, she realized that her business was lucrative and started to access progressively larger loan amounts. Once her husband found work, she was able to invest the entire loan balance into her business, and through her profits, make a larger contribution to the financial wellbeing of her family.

When her application to join the staff was approved, her already growing feeling of self-confidence became even stronger. Just as the loan officers were once her role models, Guadalupe has become a role model to her daughter who likes to say that she too works for Pro Mujer, volunteering to help set up chairs and pass out materials for events, with as much enthusiasm as Guadalupe herself.

Guadalupe worked as a Promotora for one and a half years, before being promoted to Neighborhood Center Manager in 2009. This promotion gave her an added boost of confidence and, though at first she was nervous to take on this new level of responsibility, she knew that the promotion represented the institution’s belief in her capacity to do more. In 2010 Guadalupe became Regional Manager, Northeast Mexico State, with oversight over 6 Neighborhood Centers.

Guadalupe says that Pro Mujer changed her life by not only helping her economically but also through training she has received that has given her the opportunity to reflect on who she really is and what she wants to achieve. She feels that she has learned as much from the clients she works to serve as from the institution itself. WWB’s work with leaders often reveals the importance, and challenge, of finding time to reflect. Through leadership trainings for the microfinance sector, one of the Center for Microfinance Leadership’s many objectives is to provide reflective spaces like those that Guadalupe has found invaluable in her own personal and professional development.

The accomplishments of Juana, Mariela, Yeris and Guadalupe demonstrate what can be achieved through the powerful combination of role models, customer insight and institutional focus on developing people. In the words of Eugenia Acosta, “we are our people. That is what makes Pro Mujer special.”