BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – From the dish washers scouring plates in the kitchen to the cook flipping pancakes and cashier ringing up the change, there is one thing that unites the staff at this restaurant in Colombia's capital.
They are all women.
In fact, 96 percent of the 3,800 people employed by the Crepes & Waffles restaurant chain in Colombia and across Latin America are women. Not only are they women, but many of them are single mothers, and often the sole breadwinners in their families.
Having an overwhelmingly female team was not part of the initial business plan, said Beatriz Fernandez, who founded Crepes & Waffles as a small French-inspired creperie in Bogota 34 years ago with her now husband, Eduardo Macias.
But over the years, it has proven to be good for business and an effective way of lifting women out of poverty while fighting Colombia's macho culture, she said.
"Women are the motor of change, the backbone of a family. Colombia is a land of women. They're the ones who look after the children, take them to school, and provide for them," Fernandez told Thomson Reuters Foundation as customers queued for a table.
"So women bring more commitment to the job because they have a greater sense of responsibility for their families, with sometimes up to five children."
The chain, which has been billed as a model of women's economic empowerment in the private sector in Latin America by Colombia’s Rosario University, which awarded its owners business leaders of the year prize in 2008, has 34 restaurants abroad, including in Brazil, Panama, Mexico, Chile, Venezuela and Spain.
The only man found working at any Crepes & Waffles restaurant is the security guard at the door. Only in the Venezuelan capital Caracas, does the company employ a handful of male waiters because it is deemed too unsafe for women to leave work late at night, Fernandez said.
WOMEN LESS CORRUPT?
In Colombia, conventional wisdom has it that women tend to be less corrupt than men. Fernandez could not say if that was truly the case.
"But I can say that a woman looks after her job more than a man does because there's more at stake for her, " Fernandez said. "When a woman is the sole breadwinner for her children, she'll think twice before doing anything foolish that could get her sacked."
UN Women, the U.N. women's agency, says giving women jobs and more earning power improves gender equality and helps to combat poverty because women spend more of their salaries on their families than men do, which in turn means their children are better fed and educated.
According to the World Bank, over 70 million women in Latin America have joined the workforce in the past 20 years, reducing extreme poverty in the region by 30 percent in the past decade.
"Machismo crushes women. It makes a woman feel she's a possession and an object," said Fernandez. "By giving women jobs you give them economic stability and a better future for their children."
Her company stands out in a country where the unemployment rate in 2013 for young women aged up to 28 was 21.6 percent, almost double the jobless rate for young men.
In Colombia, it's not uncommon for employers to give women jobs based on how they look and ignore women aged over 40. It means women are more likely than men to end up in low-wage jobs in the informal economy, UN Women says.
"We don't require any particular experience to get a job at Crepes. We don't discriminate by age, appearance or if someone is illiterate," Fernandez said.
"When we look at a CV, we ask ourselves if any other company would hire them. And if not, then we will. We look for intelligence in the heart, a willingness to work and to transform."
Along with a starting salary of $390 – around 10 percent higher than the minimum wage - staff are entitled to private healthcare after a year with the company, access to low-interest loans and savings schemes to buy washing machines, homes and cars.
The company also runs a free arts centre where employees can take yoga and dance classes and workshops on how to keep children away from drugs.
Diana Rivadeneira started working at Crepes & Waffles as a dish washer when she was 22 and a single mother. Eleven years on, she now manages one of the restaurant branches.
"Crepes is a woman's company that understands what it's like to be mother. I'm well aware that without a university degree and being over 30, if I went looking for a job elsewhere I'd never be offered a managerial post and the kind of money I earn now," said Rivadeneira, as she and her team of 43 women sat down to lunch, while listening to Fernandez give her daily morning pep talk to staff on a mobile telephone.
Managing an all female staff, however, brings with it unique challenges, which often stem from domestic violence.
"Women are sensitive and emotional. Some come to work worried about their child who's sick. Others are depressed and bruised after having been beaten by their partners," Rivadeneira said.
There have been cases where the company has transferred employees to another restaurant branch, and even another country, so that women can escape abusive partners, she added.
"If a woman doesn't show up at work one day, it's because her child is ill and needs looking after. But if a man doesn't come to work it's often because he's gone out partying the night before," Rivadeneira concluded.