Sonia Milena Girlado Makes the Business Case For Equality

When the new members of the Empresas Publicas de Medellin (EPM) board of directors took stock of the company’s position at the beginning of 2022, they had questions. They wanted to know about profits and losses from their utilities in Colombia along with plans and strategies for affiliated subsidiaries of Grupo EPM across Latin America. But they also asked about EPM’s ongoing commitment to achieving gender equality.

Men make up most of the workforce in the energy sector in Colombia and sexual harassment is common in the machismo environment. EPM employees worked steadily for a decade to develop diversity and inclusion policies and expanded initiatives targeting equality, but the Board wanted to know how these efforts contributed to the company’s bottom line.

For an answer, the Vice President of Human Resources turned to Sonia Milena Giraldo Giraldo in the company’s Human Development office. “She asked for resources, so I shared materials from Engendering Industries,” Sonia said.

In 2021, Sonia had attended the USAID Engendering Industries Accelerated Program at the Universidad de Los Andes in Bogota, Colombia. During the weeklong course, instructors shared studies from the McKinsey Global Institute and other institutions that showed how improving gender balance on male-dominated teams can improve companies’ profits, drive innovation, and reduce turnover.

Sonia knew that she needed buy-in from the Board to carry out new equity initiatives and she recognized that they would be more receptive to a business argument than a moral case for equality. So, she carefully crafted a presentation, working to weave together details that she learned from the program with evidence that EPM’s equity efforts had already benefited the company by earning positive media attention, attracting top talent, and helping secure a loan that required equity initiatives.

The board loved it, Sonia said. “Now, the leaders are empowered in terms of talking about gender equality and the initiatives that the company is working on.”

As a result, EPM has committed to continue existing equity initiatives and Sonia has been able to drive changes for the company’s 8,000 employees. And Sonia’s effort has also helped shape equity action at several of the other companies that make up the Grupo EPM.

“Reaching gender equality is a long road,” Sonia said, “but EPM has been recognized for its efforts and now we have an opportunity to increase our impact and share what we have learned.”

Before the Engendering Industries, Sonia had no formal training in gender equity work. She had her own experiences as a woman working in Colombia’s male-dominated energy industry, but she didn’t feel confident that she had the tools to advocate eloquently for change or defend equity initiatives to senior leaders. But, during the course, coaches shared a framework of best practices to improve gender equity alongside case studies that sparked vibrant discussions among participants.

“What I liked is that we all had different experiences and I could have discussions with people from other companies in the sector who had different knowledge,” Sonia explained, “and I also had the chance to meet people who knew a lot about the subject.”

After the course, Sonia worked one-on-one with a USAID-funded change management coach to apply Engendering Industries best practices across EPM. In 2021, women made up 30% of EPM’s workforce, and only 44% worked in technical roles compared to 58% of men. Sonia wanted to target change in these traditionally male spaces and so she developed two different initiatives.

First, she hatched an idea to develop a new internship program for women to study technical electrical work in partnership with the Servicio Nacional de Aprendizaje (Nacional Training Service or SENA). EPM leadership agreed to a 15-month paid program and opened the applications in December 2021.

Next, Sonia worked to change the language in EPM’s job advertisements. Where postings often featured pictures of men and had text that seemed tailored to potential male applicants, she worked to shift the message to be gender inclusive. Though data is still being collected on the results, the number of female applicants for internship programs seems to have increased already.

And now Sonia is working to expand these practices from EPM to the company’s subsidiaries around Latin America. “We have a working group with four of our electricity subsidiaries that meets once per month,” Sonia said.

These activities build on EPM’s decade-long work to improve gender equity, including certification in 2021 by Equipares, a UN program that identifies equity gaps and potential solutions. “Reaching gender equality is a long road,” Sonia said, “but EPM has been recognized for its efforts and now we have an opportunity to increase our impact and share what we have learned.” Sonia’s work now is to lead the effort to drive change moving forward.

“When I started the course, it was important for me to understand basic definitions of things like misogyny and ways to unpack biases,” Sonia reflected, “Now, I have the knowledge and capacity to answer when someone asks me for an explanation of why we are doing this.”