Professional Women Are Gaining Momentum...

As Mexico knocks at the First World's door, the number of professional women pursuing full-time careers is growing. Women are assuming a more vocal role in national politics and widening the cracks in the solidly male business hierarchy.

In the past two decades, women have taken a much higher profile in politics than they have in business. But even Mara de los Angeles Moreno, Mexico's most politically powerful woman as majority leader in the House of Deputies, is still acutely aware that she's a test case. "I have a double responsibility because they'll judge other women by me," says Moreno. "They'll say: `The old bags can't do it."'

Like the single-minded heroine in Mexican novelist Laura Esquivel's best-selling book and critically praised movie, Like Water for Chocolate, who sought her own way out of the constraints of turn-of-the-century society, Mexican professional women are seizing whatever space they can find. Today, the private sector, not politics, is witnessing a new round of changes. Increased education is partly responsible, creating a larger number of qualified women. In 1970, women accounted for one in five of all professionals (defined in government statistics as over 25 years old with more than four years of higher education), and that figure had barely budged 10 years later. By 1990, however, women were one in three.

Equally important is the shift in attitudes. In the past four or five years, it has become common to see women at executive levels in the financial sector, particularly in the international division. And multinationals are hiring women to direct marketing and human-resource units.

Women also are finding niches outside of large companies. Areas that hardly existed 10 years ago, such as environmental consulting and computer programming, typically offer less rigid management structures. And women are increasingly starting businesses, says Gina Zabludovsky, a resarcher who has surveyed women business owners. Women are also reaching higher positions in industries where they have long been welcome, such as advertising and the media. Lilia Barroso, 40, is Latin America media director at J. Walter Thompson de Mexico, the country's second-largest advertising agency.

Some women are even finding places in manufacturing. Mara Guadalupe Escartn, a 36-year-old administration and finance director for appliance maker Organizacin Mabe, says she hasn't faced any barriers to her ascent during her 10-year career with the company.

Even so, women who run family businesses find they must be registered under a man's name before a bank will provide financing, says Zabludovsky. In response to this problem, one group of women business owners is setting up a credit union for women entrepreneurs. "Women complained about getting credit from banks," says lawyer Luca Ruz de Teresa, who's organizing the credit union. "They were told: `You're going to spend the money on jewelry."'

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