“You can be the first to do many things, and make sure you are not the last.”
Vice President Kamala Harris shared this advice she received from her mother, which has guided her life and efforts to empower women and girls as a public servant.
It is a very accurate advice because Harris, in the end, managed to be the first woman elected Vice President of the United States.
And I think this advice is very useful for us, too.
I am very happy to be with this enthusiastic group from AmCham and UNITEC to celebrate International Women’s Day.
Likewise, I am pleased to see in the audience some of my colleagues from the Embassy who are joining us today.
This day we celebrate the past, present, and future contributions of women to society.
We also recognize the challenges we have overcome and continue to overcome to reach those achievements.
I want to take a moment to direct a few questions to the women here:
Raising your hands, who here has ever walked into a meeting and found they were the only woman?
Has it ever happened to you that a new colleague, upon arriving at a meeting, asks “Where is the director?” Why do they assume the person in charge would have to be a man?
How many of you have been asked to serve coffee or treated as an assistant, even though you are you the one in charge?
Thanks to everyone who raised their hands.
As you noticed, I also raised my hand, because just like you, I have experienced each of those experiences.
Despite the challenges women face, big and small, we still have a lot to celebrate this International Women’s Day.
First, I want to acknowledge that almost half of AMCHAM’s Board of Directors is made up of women.
Not many boards of directors have an equal number of female and male members.
For this reason, I am pleased to see that the AMCHAM Board of Directors leads by example on the importance of women’s leadership in the business sector.
I am aware that women face great challenges to reach leadership positions.
I also recognize that many men have stepped in to elevate their female counterparts.
Thank you for your commitment to promoting gender equality.
In Honduras, it is evident that women play an extremely important role in society.
In the political arena, women have been, and continue to be, active participants.
It is noteworthy that, for the first time in Honduran history, the Supreme Court of Justice has a majority with eight magistrates, as well as the second woman in history as president of the Court.
Honduras also has, for the first time in its history, a woman as president: something we have not yet achieved in the United States.
Women also play a prominent role in the nonprofit sector.
However, one area where Honduras still lags far behind, relative to a world that is also quite lagging behind, is business.
This is something I perceive on a daily basis through my work in Honduras.
A study carried out by COHEP in 2018 indicates that the representation of women in companies in Honduras is abysmally small.
According to that study, 46% of women in Honduras are self-employed, 41% receive wages, and 13% are unpaid family workers.
So it is not surprising that only 36% of MSMEs are run by women.
Looking at the private sector, according to data from the International Labor Organization (ILO) from 2016, women hold only 41% of mid-level and senior management positions in Honduran companies.
At the global level, the World Economic Forum estimates that in current proportions, gender equality in business can be achieved by the year 2133.
That is to say, 110 years from now.
This projection of progress in the labor market is not enough.
We should not accept this reality, in which not even our grandchildren will live in an equal world.
The fact that women deserve economic opportunities and fight for their dreams goes beyond a feeling.
Have you ever wondered why the participation of women in business is important?
Some studies reveal that a better gender balance on boards of directors increases the value of shares and improves financial performance.
A greater gender balance in leadership positions also contributes to a better overall performance of organizations.
I think we agree that the participation of women in the business arena is important and that, at the same time, we have a challenge.
Continuing with the next question: Why do we have this challenge, and what can we do about it?
If we live in a society where women are respected, where we have opportunities, and where we can access education, why do we still have a long way to go so that women are more present in the business sector?
Why do women still have lower salaries than men for doing the same work?
Why do most entrepreneurs think of their sons first – and not their daughters – when their succession takes place?
This is a problem we face here and in the United States.
Today I want to talk about some of the underlying factors, and some of the changes that we can start implementing right here – both women and men – for the greater benefit of society.
Who here has heard of the term “unconscious bias”?
This refers to a prejudice of which we are not aware, and which occurs outside of our control.
They are the hidden inclinations that make up the worldview in most people.
These unconscious thoughts can determine how welcoming and open the workplace is to different people and ideas; and almost always result in employment discrimination.
What do you think are some of the unconscious biases against women in Honduras?
Something that personally, I think has an effect is the magnitude of the objectification of women.
I have noticed in various publications when they report on female leaders, they tend to focus more on fashion aspects and their appearance, while the stories on men tend to focus more on their business success.
Or even worse, when they sexualize women, regardless of their social class, as if their physical beauty were the only thing of value that women possess.
In fact, I saw a recently published cartoon in which some interpret that the cartoonist sexualized President Castro to criticize her.
You never see sexualized cartoons to criticize men in politics.
These cartoons are disrespectful.
Those posts are not funny at all.
The fact that an artist draws such a caricature and that its publishers allow its publication, shows a total lack of respect for women.
That is not acceptable and is a sign of an even more serious problem.
It is well documented that the attitudes and behaviors associated with successful men in power are considered negative – or even as character defects – when displayed by women.
This is called the “double standard.”
This represents the notion that if women act feminine, then they will not be perceived as leaders.
But if they act more traditionally masculine, they will not be liked by men or women.
One interesting thing about unconscious biases is that they are propagated by both women and men.
However, the good news about these prejudices is that we can change them.
It takes time and effort, but each and every one of us has the ability and the responsibility to analyze our preconceived notions.
Only being aware of our own prejudices, and those of our community and workplaces, is that we can begin to combat them at the organizational level.
For men in the public, such as business leaders who are aware of their own biases and who strive for a healthy and equal work environment.
I encourage you to be the champions, mentors, and promoters of current and future women leaders in business.
To the women here, please do not let your own assumptions about what you are capable of be a barrier to striving for top-notch jobs and wages.
I will share an example of my own.
When a highly sought-after leadership position became available, I almost didn’t apply, because I was focusing on capabilities I didn’t directly fill.
If I had decided not to compete, I would have had a 0% chance of getting that position. In the end, I applied for the position and was selected.
Trust yourself, dare to compete.
You have nothing to lose.
This also applies to female students.
Don’t let them close the doors on you.
Women: They can be engineers, businesswomen, and scientists, among other careers.
Your only limitation should be your imagination.
Fight for your intellectual curiosity.
Women leaders in the private sector, you understand very well the challenges of being enterprising women.
You have overcome many challenges, and in the process gained the wisdom to support others.
Women entrepreneurs from marginalized and rural groups need mentors, access to finance, and business advice.
Under a USAID program, Banco LAFISE Honduras established a new division “SMEs with a Gender Focus”.
This new division offers tailored financial products and $10 million in loans to women-owned and run businesses, to reverse the trend of women entrepreneurs who do not have access to capital in Honduras.
For example, through the PYME (MSME in English) Mujer Program, Cándida Azucena Castillo had access to a loan of two million lempiras.
In 2016, its factory created a method to use recycled plastics to manufacture polyduct hoses.
Today, his business employs 50 people, mostly women, and sells to the national market.
Another example is Alba Rosa Benítez, a young farm owner.
Alba is a benchmark who has motivated more women to join the leadership school of COMSA to start growing the best coffee on their own farms.
Alba’s farm has an ecological and holistic approach to coffee production.
She promotes innovative technology such as solar coffee dryers, and fights for quality and a better price for their products.
The U.S. Embassy has provided Honduran women with practical skills, networks, and resources needed to create sustainable businesses through the Academy for Women Entrepreneurs.
Completion of this program has allowed participating women to increase earnings in their sales, create new jobs, improve the promotion of their brand and products, and legally establish their companies.
Now I would like to share a series of concrete actions that we can take together.
First: Be open to diverse ideas and the creation of professional spaces for women’s participation.
When you go to a meeting, invite the women to sit at the table and participate in a meaningful way.
And be open to the diverse ideas of women.
Second: Stand up for women.
As I mentioned, we don’t try to do it, but we fall into the trap of the gender equality gap, which puts women at a disadvantage.
The good news is that with this increased awareness, it’s easy to make a few small adjustments to make a difference.
All of you can join efforts and support women.
If you hear a woman called “aggressive” or “nasty,” first take the time to find out exactly what she did and ask yourself, “Would I have the same reaction if they were a man?”
Finally: All of us are influenced by unconscious biases.
If we recognize this, we must commit to supporting the next generations of diverse entrepreneurs.
Let’s invest in them, with mentoring, resources, and opportunities.
They will see that fostering the great talent and potential of entrepreneurs and businesswomen will result in exponential growth in benefits for the private sector and economic opportunities for Honduras.
So, reflecting on the aforementioned points:
Start building networks and don’t forget to take advantage of them.
I know that there are many women in business groups in Honduras, which are incredible.
I recently attended a Vital Voices event where I had the opportunity to meet many talented Honduran businesswomen who offer mentoring to MSME owners.
The important thing is to surround yourself with women and others who support you, and who are committed to supporting not only her success as a professional woman, but also the success of all women in general.
Know that in this, I personally and the United States Government will be your strong ally.
Before I go, I would like to make one last point.
Studies have shown that when economies fail, women are the first to lose their jobs, so promoting inclusive economic growth is a critical part of building a just society for women.
We are concerned about the impact that the new Tax Justice Law will have on job creation and economic growth.
We applaud the government’s efforts to reduce abuse of tax liens, but the best way to mobilize more revenue for the government is by increasing formal economic activity, especially for women.
In a country that is not regionally competitive due to high electricity and labor costs, competitive tax incentives are essential for job creation.
This not only discourages new investment but could encourage existing businesses to relocate to another country.
We hope that the government does not lose sight of the long-term goal in the search for short-term revenue.