In Latin America, a boot camp for high-potential women in the public sector aims to break the male hold on political decision-making by creating a new generation of female leaders. The intensive program involves coaching sessions, mentoring, skills training, networking opportunities and lectures by inspirational women leaders – such as the Vice President of the Dominican Republic. Currently, across the region’s cabinets, ministries, congresses and political parties, only one in four leaders is a woman.
Results & Impact
The first cycle of the program, which involves two groups of 30 participants in the Dominican Republic and Panama, has not yet finished. It is modelled on an established parallel initiative run by the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), which aimed help its female employees take on more leadership roles. Out of 162 graduates there, 40% have been promoted and 38% have taken on new work assignments outside of their regular jobs. The program also helped the IADB reach its target of a workforce with 40% women leaders.
Government ministries of the Dominican Republic and Panama, the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), INCAE Business School
The program takes place over half a year through three four-day sessions, one of which happens online. The sessions include individual and group coaching with executive professionals, panel discussions, presentations from experts, a team project to solve a challenge facing the country, individual career development planning, networking and skills-building around assertiveness, communication, and leadership. Participants also have to find a male mentor that attends certain activities. The IADB is running the programs but works closely in partnership with various government ministries in the Dominican Republic and Panama. There are tough selection criteria for female participants: they must be nominated by their ministry, write a supporting essay, already work in middle management roles, have at least two years of public sector experience, and demonstrate the potential to take on senior government positions.
Dominican Republic, Panama, IADB
Women and girls
Cost & Value
Initial funding totalled $150,000
Running since 2013
One hurdle the program has already faced involves measuring results. While the IADB has data available on the women who took part in its internal program, measuring the career development of participants in the public sector in various countries is difficult. Another challenge is ensuring that the program's quality remains high as it grows with limited resources. A crucial aspect is bringing in top senior expertise.
In 2018, the IADB will run a similar program in Peru for both public and private sector women working in the extractive industries.
An intensive boot camp is training a new generation of female leaders across the public sector in Latin America.
Women currently occupy just 25% of leadership positions across the region’s congresses, cabinets, public administrations and political parties. When women are in top roles, they are often in “soft” sectors.
“Most women that are in leadership positions are in traditional ministries, like the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, the Ministry of Health or the Ministry of Education. It’s very rare to have women appointed in ‘non-traditional’ sectors,” said Maria Teresa Villanueva, Lead Specialist on Gender, Diversity and Inclusion at the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB).
“Decision-making for budget allocation and government expenditure is male-dominated. Women still face a lot of barriers to access those positions: cultural barriers in terms of perception that women don’t have skills to lead, the gendered division of labour, and so on.”
The six-month leadership development program is funded and organised by the IADB, in partnership with several national governments. It began as an internal initiative within the IADB itself, where it increased women’s leadership to a target of 40% and today has 162 graduates. This success soon attracted regional attention; the program is now in its first round of 30 participants in the Dominican Republic, and will in two weeks kick off with another 30 in Panama.
This success soon attracted regional attention. The program began its first round of 30 participants in the Dominican Republic in 2017, followed by another 30 in Panama.
“All the studies that we’ve seen show that when you have diversity in a team, there is a better decision-making process in terms of how the resources are assigned. For example, you see that when you have more women at the Congress level, you see that the budget allocation is more about social investments that benefit the majority – kids and women, in addition to men,” said Villanueva.
The idea is to accelerate and improve the leadership skills of women that are already at middle management level and have demonstrated potential to become senior leaders. Participants are nominated by their ministry, must write a supporting essay, have at least two years of public sector experience, and ideally hold a master’s degree.
“We’re very rigorous in the selection of the women; it’s a real investment in their leadership and career development,” said Victoria Cárdenas Simons, Head of Leadership and Development at the IADB.
The program takes place through three modules over half a year – one of which is virtual – each made up of four full-day sessions. The sessions involve coaching with executive professionals, individual career development planning, networking, communications and influence skills training, and a team project focused on solving a challenge facing the country. The IADB brings in inspirational female leaders – such as the vice president of the Dominican Republic – to share their stories in TedTalk-style presentations.
“When you have more women at the Congress level, you see that the budget allocation is more about social investments that benefit the majority”
Participants also have to find a male mentor to attend certain activities and support their progress. “It is really critical and important to involve men – not only male leaders, but also men in the same position as these women, because otherwise ‘women’s leadership’ is just considered an issue for women. We need to have the other 50% of the population involved and aware of how critical gender equality is for the region,” said Villanueva.
While the program has been seen as a success within the IADB – as well as meeting its female leadership target, 40% of participants have been promoted and 38% have taken on new work assignments outside their regular job – tracking and measuring impact within national public sectors will represent a significant challenge.
“In the public sector, this data will be more challenging. It would be really expensive to have a formal evaluation. We are tracking some information, and the women commit to reporting to us once a year how they are doing in terms of professional development. And we are getting anecdotal evidence,” said Villanueva.
“We are doing a base-level evaluation on each module. For the latest module in the Dominican Republic in July, we had a very high score – an average quality index of 4.8 out of 5 – that measures how much participants knew before, how much after, and how much they valued the training,” said Vivian Roza, the program coordinator at the IADB.
Another hurdle is satisfying increasing demand, both from the long waiting list of potential participants where the scheme is already running and from new countries wanting their own version.
“The real challenge is accommodating all the women who want to come into the program – it’s resource-intensive. The difficulty is going to be in maintaining the quality of the program with limited resources,” said Cárdenas Simons.
“The system should give more opportunities for women to lead, but we also have to improve our networking skills and make our voices heard”
The IADB initially funded the schemes with $150,000, but to meet this challenge, the next round of the program – to be launched in 2018 in Peru – will involve financing from an additional funding source.
“We’re going to be doing it in the extractive sector, which has very few women in leadership positions. It’s going to be one program of 30 women – in both the public and the private sector – and an advantage is that it will create areas of collaboration between sectors that have not collaborated as often as they could,” said Roza.
While the program can do little about the structural factors behind gender inequality in politics – from women’s extra caring and household responsibilities, to hate speech and gendered violence – the idea is that getting women to the top also requires changes in individual behaviour, so that women take the opportunities that are available.
“This type of training and boot camp is important. The system should give more opportunities for women to lead, but we also have to improve our networking skills, make our voices heard, and be aware of the possibilities that are available,” said Villanueva.
This initiative is the first of its kind in the region, and results are yet to be seen. But the idea of bringing the sort of leadership training program long popular within the private sector to the public could have a great effect – not only in Latin America, but throughout a world that still lacks female public sector leadership. While the G20 public service workforce is now numerically gender-equal, women still hold barely a quarter of senior positions.
(Picture credit: Flickr/PresidenciaRD)