Meet a Woman Who’s on a Mission to Break Down Gender Barriers in Latin America
In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month this past August, we revisit an interview with Luly de Samper, head of Johnson & Johnson's Women’s Leadership & Inclusion initiative in the region, to hear how she's working to create a more equal, gender-diverse workforce in countries like Brazil and Colombia.
By Kaitlin Ahern
Developing women leaders has been central to Johnson & Johnson’s mission since the company was founded in 1886. Case in point: Eight of the company’s first 14 employees were women—and by the early 1910s, they led a quarter of the company's departments.
That legacy of championing women lives on today in full force: Globally, more than a third of the company's executives are female, and in the U.S., over 40% of management positionsare held by women. This year, Johnson & Johnson was named Latina Style Company of the Year for its work providing career opportunities to Latinas in the United States.
Central to this mission of empowering women is the Johnson & Johnson Women’s Leadership & Inclusion (WLI) employee resource group, aimed at advancing the potential of women to achieve gender equality at all levels—across all businesses. Founded two decades ago, and known until recently as the Women's Leadership Initiative, WLI is the company's most popular employee group, with close to 8,000 members across more than 170 chapters worldwide.
Last year, Luly de Samper, Regional Vice President, Ethicon Latin America, one of the Johnson & Johnson Medical Devices Companies, was tapped to oversee WLI in Latin America.
We asked de Samper, who is based in Colombia, to discuss the crucial role WLI plays in Latin America—and her personal connection to its mission.
Why are you so passionate about helping to advance women’s leadership?
I’ve been lucky to get to where I am today and to grow quickly in my career because of the support and flexible policies in place at Johnson & Johnson. So when the opportunity came to lead WLI Latin America, it was like the stars aligned—I want to help more people succeed, both now and for generations to come.
WLI has been strong in other regions of the world for the last 20 years, but not as much in Latin America. I saw an opportunity to capitalize on what has been developed globally and make an impact in my region.
My goals also go beyond Johnson & Johnson. I’m the mother of four Generation Z children, and advancing a gender-diverse workforce is a personal objective and my way of helping to build a more inclusive world for my children.
What kind of challenges do working women in Latin America face?
Women represent only 9.2% of the executive workforce in Latin America, and only 4.2% of CEO positions are held by women in the region. Globally, 10% of companies have a woman CEO, so we’re at less than half the global average.
The main challenge in Latin America is the cultural mindset. We've historically been a patriarchal society, which is reflected not only in behavior but also in business culture and structure. Despite these challenges, there have been significant advancements in gender equality in some countries in the region, such as Argentina, Brazil and Colombia.
In Colombia, for example, Johnson & Johnson has 1,500 employees; 750 are women and 49% of them sit in leadership positions as managers or higher. In Mexico, our medical devices leadership team is more than 50% female.
Can you tell us more about the recent update to WLI's mission?
On June 28, at WLI's annual global meeting—held for the first time in Latin America—we announced not only the group's name change to Women's Leadership & Inclusion, but also an important shift in scope.
WLI has been committed to advancing women’s leadership by growing, nurturing and propelling groundbreaking female leaders so that together we can better fulfill the responsibilities outlined in Our Credo, Johnson & Johnson’s guiding mission statement.
That hasn’t changed, but we’ve realized this commitment is everyone's responsibility. It's not just about women pushing for women—it’s about setting the imperative of a gender-diverse workforce and striving to better reflect the markets we serve. Because men are in such strong leadership roles, they play a very key part in this process—otherwise, we’re never going to be able to achieve equality.
One of the things we've been working on is unconscious bias training, which is really raising awareness of cultural predispositions or prejudices we don’t even realize we have. As part of that, we’re asking men to talk about what kind of work experience they want for their daughters. Conversations around that have helped put things into a totally different perspective for many of our employees.
Similarly, we're asking male employees to become WLI ambassadors. We're being much more intentional in how we involve men. We're having them speak up about the importance of having diverse and inclusive teams and ensuring there's a female perspective in the workplace.
What other company programs are helping women in Latin America?
We’re encouraging women’s appetite for advancement through more communication. In addition to one-on-one mentorship, we have a program where a female leader from the region speaks with a small group of 10 to 15 women and answers their questions in an intimate networking space.
It’s as simple as that, but it’s impactful. Hearing firsthand how someone you admire is able to have a successful career and a family makes becoming a leader much more realistic and desirable. It shows you don't have to be a superhero to achieve professional success.
What are your hopes for WLI in Latin America?
I think we’re on a roll, but we still have a ways to go. We currently have about 100 active members—almost all of whom are women. Having men as active WLI members is critical, as well as making sure we represent different generations and perspectives.
Of course, we want equal participation and leadership for women across Johnson & Johnson, but I'd also like us to be more vocal about these issues outside the company. We have a lot to share when it comes to lessons learned about women’s advancement, and I think we should embrace that. I truly believe we can create a better, more inclusive world for generations to come, not only at Johnson & Johnson, but in our communities as well.