As our Women’s Hemispheric Network prepares to celebrate the eighth anniversary of its launch, we sat down to talk with AS/COA President and CEO Susan Segal about the shifts she’s seen take place in women’s leadership over recent years, from why so many Latin American countries now have gender parity in cabinets and legislatures to what it will take to boost women’s roles in the private sector. As she explains: “Companies that have more women—and not just that, companies that have more diversity—make better decisions, run better companies, are more productive, and more efficient.”
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AS/COA Online: You cofounded AS/COA's Women's Hemispheric Network in 2012 and we're holding our eighth annual conference in New York on October 17. Over time and through these programs, which take place all over the Americas, what has been the most striking change you've seen in terms of women's leadership?
Susan Segal: We’re finally beginning to see more women engaged in leadership positions in Latin America. Not enough. In fact, in September, during our meetings here with a number of different presidents, we didn’t have enough women in the audience, which upset me a lot. We need to have many more women. But I do see that the number of women who want to be engaged and that want to take up leadership positions in the workforce is increasing. And the sense of confidence that young women have, that they can be someone and be accomplished, be successful, and juggle being a mother and a great professional is increasing every day.
I think that’s the biggest difference that I’ve seen. It’s not that it's going to happen overnight, but it’s all about creating the network, and the space for women and men to support other young women and create the environment where success can happen.
AS/COA Online: We've seen a great deal of progress in Latin America when it comes to gender parity in politics. Several countries—such as Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Mexico—have or nearly have equal gender representation in their cabinets, for example. But there's been a lag in the private sector. Women only hold 5 percent of board positions in Latin America. Do you think what's happening in politics can influence the private sector?
Segal: That is a really interesting question. Let’s look and examine why in politics you’re seeing change in a lot of different places. Number one, in the legislative branch, there have been a number of different countries that have imposed some form of quotas ensuring that the right number of women are given positions or allowed to become candidates for congressional or senate positions. I think that is beginning to change the legislative proportions of women versus men in a number of different countries.
In terms of cabinets, I think that leaders are realizing that 50 percent of the population in their countries are women and, therefore you need appropriate representation of women in your cabinet. What I’m particularly interested in is that in many countries—for example, in Colombia and Chile—some of the top ministers are women. So, it’s not just the “minister of mujeres.” It’s technology, energy, and foreign affairs. We’re seeing women not only taking up positions as ministers but really important positions within the cabinets.
I think that it should influence the private sector. But, unfortunately, it has its own mind and its own motor. Where I think you’ll see more influence in the private sector is foreign companies, and the leadership of foreign companies putting women in more senior positions. If you look at Microsoft, MetLife, Scotiabank, or JP Morgan, you will see across these companies that there are internal guidelines and work to support women and make sure there are women in senior positions. I think what you’re seeing is some of the leadership positions for foreign companies in local markets will really drive the process to get more local companies to incorporate more women into leadership positions for competitive reasons.
AS/COA Online: As somebody who had a long career in banking and who is also a champion of this issue, what case do you make to the private sector in terms of why there is a need to increase women's leadership?
Segal: Well, 70 percent of all consumer decisions in the home are made by women. I rest my case on that front. 50 percent of all young people today graduating from universities are women, so think about the loss when you don’t incorporate women into the workforce, and they’ve all gone to university—that is a loss to the economy. A third reason is that it increases productivity and profitability. Companies that have more women, and not just that—companies that have more diversity—make better decisions, run better companies, are more productive, and more efficient. And the results are there for the shareholders, whether it be a private or public company.
This interview was lightly edited for clarity and length.