Equity, diversity, and inclusion are becoming increasingly important workplace issues, particularly for women who face greater challenges succeeding in male-dominated industries. We recently spoke with Astra Castillo, Senior Director of Infrastructure & Project Finance at Fitch Ratings, who shared her perspective on these challenges. Astra, who has been working for Fitch Ratings for 13 years, joined as an Associate Director and is currently a Senior Director, leading part of the Latin America team analyzing credit risk in several asset classes of infrastructure project transactions, including transport, energy, and social infrastructure.
Astra believes that women share similar challenges regardless of the industry they work in. Companies are noticing and increasingly taking a strong position on inclusion, equity, and diversity. Financial services, where Astra works, is predominately male, particularly in Mexico, which is a country deeply rooted in a male-dominated culture. “In my 20 years of professional experience, the main challenge I have faced is gaining and maintaining credibility; to get them to believe in what I can do, and to be treated the way they would treat a male in the same position. Another significant challenge that I have had to overcome in the last five years was to learn how to match my professional life with my role as a mother in order to find the right balance that works for Fitch, my family and I. Dealing with these challenges has taught me valuable skills, but above all, the importance of patience and emotional intelligence," she says.
Astra’s extensive career experience has helped her to identify certain advantages and disadvantages that women experience throughout a career in financial services. As for the advantages, she believes the opportunities for women to rise to leadership positions are increasing, which consequently promotes equity. Another advantage is the flexibility of being able to work remotely, which makes it easier to successfully manage both work and family needs. However, among the disadvantages she finds is that senior management positions have been predominantly held by men, which could slow the transition to having more women in managerial positions. The financial sector also often requires frequent trips and long working hours, which can be hard to manage when you have young children.
Mexico, like many other countries, has a long way to go to reach gender equality, especially when challenges around the gender pay gap still exist. Astra realizes how difficult it is to achieve a perfect 50/50 balance due to women abandoning their careers in the early years, often due to caregiving responsibilities. As a result, in the labour market, there are fewer women than men and, therefore, there is a smaller proportion of female presence in the highest hierarchical levels of organizations. It is also believed that women will settle for lower wages, and unfortunately, in many cases, this is true. Astra believes that even if the pay gap is not fully closed, setting this as an objective is important to making progress towards solving the issue of gender equity.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also had an impact on the career opportunities for women, but Astra says it has also given us great lessons:
- The unexpected can happen.
- We do not have the absolute truth. What you think is one way is not necessarily so. We must be more open-minded.
- Flexibility proved to be the best asset, and this applies to all aspects of life, beyond work.
To reverse the gender gap, Astra strongly emphasizes that “the most important element is education. I come from a very traditional Mexican family, where being a woman means that you must be at the service of others; I am convinced that gender inequality is born at home. An education based on meritocracy, without privileging a certain gender, is essential. All of us as parents have the need, and at the same time, the obligation to teach our children to look at the world from a perspective of equality and empathy. This will not only make them better people, but it will prepare them to live in what I hope will be the society of the future. To achieve this, we must first examine ourselves and acknowledge our own biases as, ultimately, the support of this male-dominated culture also exists among women and not just men. I believe and hope that there is less and less room for this gender gap.”
When asked how Fitch Ratings develops or implements policies related to diversity, inclusion, and equity from a gender perspective, Astra proudly points out that Fitch is a very employee-oriented company – its most precious asset is its people. It has a culture of support for its staff and has focused intensively on the issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion. Some recent programs to support the company’s goals include:
- Pandemic Caregiver Support: Financial support to all staff who are caregivers to cover the additional expenses associated with the pandemic.
- Credit Path: A workforce reentry program (in credit analytics and research) aimed at women who left the workforce, in most cases due to caregiving responsibilities. It is a full-time internship during which they are given all the tools they need to return to work with confidence. Many of the graduates have been hired at Fitch upon completion of the program.
- Forward Path: This program identifies high performing mid-career women and provides on-the-job training to build their skills in preparation for increased responsibilities and potential promotion.
Astra's last words sum up the message that the importance of perseverance is one of the main lessons learned throughout her career. Her advice to all women seeking a successful career is: “Women must find what drives them and establish their career goals based on what fulfils them; we must stop being so shy, speak more about our achievements and promote them. Finally, we must not let other people's attitudes towards us define us or allow us to be treated in an unrespectful way. We have to raise our voice even when it doesn't seem easy."