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Latin America Still an Unfair World for Women

(AP Photo)

July 27, 2012

One of the most pressing issues facing the hemisphere and the global community today is gender equality and female economic and political empowerment. How will we ever fully unleash the potential of our hemisphere as long as we fail to meaningfully engage half of its population?

In Latin America, women have achieved parity in access to education and healthcare, but have yet to attain political and economic parity. Women account for only 10.5 percent of board positions globally, approximately 16 percent in the U.S. and 7.2 percent in emerging markets. In Latin America, the percentage is even smaller. According to Catalyst, only 39 Fortune 500 companies boast female chief executives — and in most Latin American countries, the number barely rates a mention.

Economic empowerment of women is critical to making a real and lasting impact in the hemisphere. It is the key to reducing poverty and gender-based violence, and to achieving universal education and improving maternal and child health. Female economic empowerment must be addressed at every level of society — from the most impoverished to the most educated.

This requires active changes to cultural norms that dictate gender roles. The antiquated notion that a woman should stay at home with little or no economic independence, or that a woman is not qualified to become the next CEO or key board member, must be rejected. Overthrowing the gendered status quo requires education, training and mentorship in school and in the workplace. Women need to wake up and believe they can succeed.

I was raised to be a stay-at-home Mom but decided on a break out strategy to go to business school almost 40 years ago when there were very few women. When I graduated, I entered the world of Latin American Banking in the boom/bust years. Luck and circumstance were with me as I acquired a mentor in the chairman of the bank who gave me opportunity based on merit although I was paid a fraction of my male counterparts (which I only realized well after the fact). Very often I was the only woman in the room.

I have always worked and strongly believe that women can do it all. I remained on the job through the birth of my two children never thinking about or taking maternity leave but shaping and balancing my life around my children and my career. As I listen to the discussion around Marissa Mayer, the new CEO of Yahoo who happens to be pregnant, I think about how things have changed or maybe how things really have not changed as much as they should over the past 25 years.

Governments must also do their part. Early childhood education, daycare centers where mothers can safely leave their children, as well as equitable laws for maternity and paternity leave, are just a few areas. Incentives for businesses that support and invest in women should be explored.

Successful women have a role to play as well. Role models, networks and mentors are crucial to female economic empowerment, as is the incentivizing and availability of entrepreneurship training and financing for small businesses. We need more platforms for women to discuss their successes and — yes — their challenges at every level in schools, communities and companies.

From where will the leadership come? How long will it take to achieve gender parity?

We must start now, and the leadership must come from women CEOs of my generation. Young women graduating from high schools and universities today face a different world. They have the opportunity to become great businesswomen, to lead companies and sit on truly diverse boards of directors. As I have told my 22-year-old daughter many times, this is her generation’s moment — they are the young women that will shatter the glass ceiling, that will gain equal pay and know equal opportunity.

Bringing gender diversity to the table brings change: different points of view, different ideas, and ultimately better performance. All this makes plain economic and political sense. Women make up 50 percent of the hemisphere’s population, represent 50 percent of voters, and make over 70 percent of purchasing decisions. That’s the reality of our connected age. The time for women’s empowerment has arrived.

Susan Segal is president and CEO of Americas Society/Council of the Americas and publisher of the policy journal Americas Quarterly.