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Rethinking roles: The President of one of Colombia’s largest financial institutions discusses gender inclusion

Santiago Perdomo

Achieving true equality is a challenge, particularly for countries that value traditional gender roles in both the workplace and household. We spoke with Santiago Perdomo, President of Banco Colpatria, to discover how one of Colombia’s largest financial institutions is advocating for change and leading by example.

By Shelley White

Santiago Perdomo is looking forward to the day when executive positions at his company are split evenly between women and men—fifty-fifty.

As President of Banco Colpatria, one of Colombia’s largest financial institutions and an international operation of Scotiabank, Mr. Perdomo is determined to lead by example when it comes to gender inclusion in his country.

“As such a large company in Colombia, I think we have a responsibility to teach other companies the importance of gender inclusion, all the way up to the top levels of an organization,” he says.

Mr. Perdomo is backing up his words with action, setting measurable goals to drive change and get to that fifty-fifty target. At the end of 2015, the overall workforce of Banco Colpatria was 50 per cent women, he says, but when it came to the top levels of management at the bank, the percentage was not as high.

“At the end of 2015, we had 34 per cent women in the top levels of Banco Colpatria, so we started to set some goals,” he says. “Our goal was to have 37 per cent of women in top positions at the end of 2016, and we are going to end the year at 39 per cent, so we have exceeded our goal.”

“It is very important to have metrics and to push everyone in the organization to work towards a better balance between male and female,” he adds.

While Mr. Perdomo believes that gender inclusion is about fairness and equality, he points out that businesses also benefit from putting women in top positions.

“It’s proven that organizations that have gender inclusion perform better,” he says. “These organizations have a better work environment, they serve and fulfill customers’ needs better and they are true community supporters.”

It’s an argument borne out by research—a 2011 study by non-profit research group Catalyst Inc. found that companies with three or more women board directors significantly outperformed those with no women board directors. In the study, companies with the most female board directors bested those with the least, earning better return on sales (ROS) by 16 per cent and return on invested capital (ROIC) by 26 per cent.

“It’s proven that organizations that have gender inclusion perform better”

As well, a McKinsey & Company study analyzed 180 publicly-traded companies in France, Germany, the UK and the U.S. between 2008 and 2010, and found that companies with more diversity on the executive boards (specifically, women and foreign nationals) performed better. Returns on equity (ROE) were 53 per cent higher for companies in the top quartile of diversity versus the bottom quartile.

There is work to do in Colombia when it comes to workplace gender equality, notes Mr. Perdomo. At the root of the problem is the “unconscious bias” that many people have when it comes to gender—seeing men as more suited to management and women as being more suited to the domains of home and family.

Mr. Perdomo says that when he began to explore his own attitudes, he had to admit that he himself had unconscious bias. But by being aware of it, he’s been able to move past it and encourage others to do the same.

To this end, the bank holds regular conferences, discussions and focus groups on the topic of gender inclusion to help make employees more aware of unconscious bias. At the executive level, representatives from Banco Colpatria’s branches around Colombia meet regularly to share best practices and discuss how to improve gender inclusion with their employees.

“It’s important to educate the men [of Colombia], because in this country, many men believe that women have to do everything in the house—the kids, the homework, the household, etc. We know that shouldn’t be the case and that as men, we need to help in the home,” he says. “And second, in the workplace, we need to help create opportunities for women to succeed, whether that is offering flexible work arrangements or encouraging them to take the challenge and apply for more high profile positions.”

Supporting women is a priority for Banco Colpatria, says Mr. Perdomo. The bank has hosted several events for women in their organization featuring female executives from inside and outside the bank, sharing their stories of challenge and reward and engaging in interactive discussions. As well, updating bank policies around flexible work schedules have improved the ability for women and men to balance competing priorities.

Mr. Perdomo says his dedication to gender inclusion has been partly motivated by an inspiring woman in his life—his wife, Cristina.

“She works in a brokerage house in Colombia. We have discussions about many things and I have to say that she has influenced the way I think. She often makes me see the subject from a different perspective,” he says.

In February of 2016, Scotiabank hosted an International Banking Leadership panel in Toronto called ‘The Power of Inclusion,’ and Mr. Perdomo took part, joining Scotiabank country heads from Mexico and Chile. More than 200 employees attended the event that was also webcast to international locations. The event was moderated in Spanish so panelists were able to speak in their native tongue and be inclusive of the Bank’s many Spanish-speaking employees watching in person and online (with real-time translation provided for English speakers).

“[My wife, Cristina] works in a brokerage house in Colombia. We have discussions about many things and I have to say that she has influenced the way I think. She often makes me see the subject from a different perspective”

The three country heads reflected on their experiences as leaders and discussed gender equality in their countries and organizations. Mr. Perdomo talked about how women at Banco Colpatria are gaining more and more prominent positions.

“In the steering committee, we have three women out of eleven members. Before, we had none,” he told the audience. “These are women with vast experience who are adding so much value to the organization.”

The panel was a great experience, says Mr. Perdomo, and a reflection of Scotiabank’s continued leadership in the area of diversity and inclusion.

Closer to home, Mr. Perdomo says he hopes Banco Colpatria’s initiatives will influence not only his employees, but other companies and organizations across Colombia.

“It will be better for our country, so it’s important to change minds everywhere, in every town.”