Susan Segal and Isabel de Saint Malo at the 2018 COA Symposium.

Susan Segal and Isabel de Saint Malo at the 2018 COA Symposium.

Experiencias: Isabel de Saint Malo on Keeping Women in the Workforce

We need to be less harsh about returning to work after family leave, says Panama’s former vice president in the debut podcast episode, hosted by AS/COA’s Susan Segal.

In the debut episode of Experiencias: Conversations with Women Leading the Americas, AS/COA’s President and CEO Susan Segal sat down with Isabel de Saint Malo de Alvarado, who previously served as vice president and minister of foreign affairs of Panama. They discussed work-life balance, parental roles, equal opportunities for women, and how to be a productive mentor.

In Latin America, many women fail to return to the workforce after childbirth. Reasons vary from a need for flexible work schedules to a lack of affordable childcare to unequal division of childcare and home tasks.

De Saint Malo, who started her career at the UN Development Program and is now a senior advisor there, shared a story from one of her first days as vice president, when her husband needed to take their daughter to the doctor. She asked her mother if her father would know what to do.

For de Saint Malo, it was a wake-up call: she had never let her husband—“not asked, but let him”—take on this role. “We as women need to share. It’s not only sharing the burden, but it’s allowing them to have some of the experiences as fathers,” she says. 

Couples in younger generations are already doing this, she adds, which is key to women staying in the workforce. Prior to her service in the public sector, de Saint Malo was a consultant for a few years part-time, working in the morning and then spending the afternoon with her children. “[This] shows how there are so many different opportunities for women. Women can stay in the workforce, women can leave [but come back], women can work part time, and be able to try to do everything,” comments Segal.

“We need to be less harsh on evaluating women when they have left the workforce and want to come back,” says de Saint Malo. “When I’ve been an employer…and looked at a resume that has five years empty, it’s not empty! It’s five years full of work—a different type of work that is also valuable.”Improving the gender balance in the region isn’t only to the benefit of women, but also important for men, families, growth, and countries, says de Saint Malo. There should be a renewed focus on policies to support women in the labor force, as they are forced to take on additional childcare and educational duties due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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This episode was produced by Luisa Leme and Sarah Bons. The music in this podcast was performed at Americas Society in New York. Learn more about concerts online at