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“I first defined myself as a feminist when I was 14,” recalls Maria Perdomo – known as Mia to her friends. “I was re-reading an old diary recently, and it’s there. There’s an entry which reads: ‘I understand I am a feminist.’”

The 32-year-old, from Bogotá, Colombia, has now made feminism her business. Perdomo is the co-founder of Aequales, an organisation striving to promote gender equality in the workplace. It’s also the home of the first-ever gender equality ranking system for companies in Colombia and Peru.Founded four years ago, Aequales began with 40 corporations on its books. Now it has 800 and has expanded to Mexico – and Perdomo and her business partner, 31-year-old Andrea de la Piedra from Lima, are only just getting started.

“We aren’t going to stop until we’re in every Latin American country,” Perdomo says. “We have big dreams.”

‘So much change needed’

Aequales turns a profit by offering training to companies which covers unconscious bias, female leadership, long-term strategies, gender-neutral recruitment processes and even “new masculinity” workshops for men that include topics like gender violence and bias.

It’s a radical approach in a region where many men still believe women don’t belong in the workplace. The co-founders faced “a lot of scepticism” when they launched Aequales, primarily from business leaders who simply did not understand why it was necessary to implement gender equality. 

“Even when they did understand, they didn’t want to pay for it,” Perdomo says. “’Why would anybody pay for gender equality services? Why do we need gender equality?’ These were just some of the questions we were asked. Making companies realise they have a problem and then charging them to solve it? That was difficult.”

Andrea de la Piedra (left) and Mia Perdomo (right) at a Plan International event highlighting the importance of protecting the rights of young Latina girls (Credit: Aequales)

One 2018 report found gender inequality in business costs countries around $160 trillion because of the difference in lifetime earnings between men and women. A 2015 report from management consulting firm McKinsey Global Institute found advancing female equality in the workplace could add $12 trillion to global GDP by 2025. But even when women’s participation in the workforce increases, as it has in the LatAm region over the past decade, from 47% to 52%, it doesn’t mean participation is equal. Women in LatAm are more likely to participate in informal or less productive work, rather than high-wage jobs.

Perdomo describes female economic empowerment – together with reproductive rights – as “the most important aspect” of female freedom. “A woman with money or economic independence is a woman who can escape violence, make decisions for herself and her children, and have power,” she says.

Only 7% of board members in Peru are women - Andrea de la Piedra

But it is not just about pay. “Even when women do have pay equality, the issue of not having enough flexibility to be mothers has come up in every single workshop we have carried out with female leaders,” she says. “Paid paternity leave, female leadership goals and female CEO quotas are all important targets to strive towards.”

Although education for women in Colombia is fairly progressive – as are attitudes towards women in government office – the National Statistics Office (DANE) reports the gender wage gap is still around 20%. This is despite Colombia ranking 36th in the World Economic Forum’s 2017 gender gap report.

“Colombia is ahead of so many other countries in Latin America regarding gender equality, so people say ‘oh this is nonsense, there’s no need to talk about that anymore, we live in an equal society’,” Perdomo explains. “But there are still so many things that need to change.”

Women in the International Women's Day March in Montevideo, Uruguay in March (Credit: Getty Images)

Chance meeting

It has been a long road to get to where Aequales is now. Perdomo has a degree in psychology, a masters in human rights from the London School of Economics and, in 2014, was selected along with 28 other Latin Americans to participate in a four month-long leadership programme at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.

“There, I realised I could combine feminism with entrepreneurship and it could be a more effective way for me to make an impact, rather than working for an NGO. If I could reach money and power, then I could really help change people’s lives.” At Georgetown Perdomo, then 27, shared a room with 26-year-old de la Piedra, who was on the same leadership course.

De la Piedra was working as a journalist before she met Perdomo, work that had sparked an interest in gender issues. “I applied to Georgetown knowing I wanted to create a social enterprise. When I met Mia, that path became even clearer.” Perdomo recalls: “I lent her a copy of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. And I asked her if she wanted to build a project with me. The rest is history.”

Perdomo returned to Colombia with no job, having quit her position at the Ministry of Education to attend the bootcamp, and “nothing to lose”. She and de la Piedra entered a competition in Colombia for entrepreneurs called “Ventures” and won $5,000, which was enough to get their project off the ground. They grew their capital by offering private consultancy services to organisations, meaning they “never needed investors or donations”.

Business leaders gather at a PAR event in Colombia to hear the results of Aequales' PAR rankings (Credit: Aequales)

Perdomo and de la Piedra are heads of their own respective countries’ Aequales branch, but manage international projects, such as the rankings and Mexico, together. In 2020, however, they see their responsibilities changing as they take on more global roles as the business expands.

At the beginning Aequales looked for clients through cold calling, something Perdomo says had little impact. But once they had a few big multinationals on board, other companies were eager to follow. It took 18 months before Aequales reported its first profits, and the company now has eight full-time salaried employees across Colombia and Peru, and 10 part-time employees.

“Only 7% of board members in Peru are women,” says de la Piedra, explaining what drives her. “And the salary gap between genders is 29%. Every year we have more interest in our rankings. The first year we only had 22 companies on board. Last year, we had 275. But we still have a lot of gaps to close.”

‘Badge of honour’

Perdomo says Aequales has benefited from volunteers and business experts willing to help it get off the ground. Now, the company is well known across both private and public sector businesses in Colombia for its annual gender equality rankings. Participating is free, encouraging as many companies as possible to get involved. Aequales gathers data from a questionnaire which looks at areas like pay, recruitment processes, structure, work/life balance, inclusive communications – i.e. gender-neutral language – and promotion procedures. The companies are then ranked according to this data.

 

Paid paternity leave, female leadership goals and female CEO quotas are all important targets to strive towards – Mia Perdomo

The system has been well-received, says Perdomo, who describes it as “the most recognised gender equality mechanism for employment in our countries”. She says the top corporations in Peru and Colombia now use the rankings as a yardstick. “It’s been extremely useful for companies’ reputations, and they use it in communications with their stakeholders to show their commitment to gender equality.” In Colombia, Johnson & Johnson, PepsiCo and Pfizer topped the most recent rankings, while in Peru, the companies were ranked in three different groups based on employee numbers, with SAP, Accenture and Konecta taking the top spots.

The Aequales group functions as a members-only club; any company that is a member can use the logo on emails, marketing products and websites. Perdomo says that having an Aequales stamp proving ‘PAR’ status – meaning pair in Spanish, a nod to employing one woman for every man – is “a badge of honour”. 

It’s also helped build the company’s profile. “Business leaders approach us because they’ve heard about Aequales from other companies,” she explains. “They ask us to speak in meetings about how to achieve gender equality.”

There have been some unusual challenges along the way, including finding the right employees. “We’ve had to train every single person from scratch,” Perdomo explains. “Because it is such a new concept for people. What we do at Aequales is not taught in university, and people do not learn this in other jobs.”

And the size of the task can occasionally feel daunting.

“To see women treated as equals in Colombia… it would be what I hope most for,” Perdomo says. “But, as ambitious as I am, as much as I want it, I do not think I will see that happen in my lifetime.”

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