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Women Leaders Ponder Latin America's Gender Gap
The Washington Diplomat / May 2010

By Larry Luxner

CARTAGENA, Colombia — Some 35 powerful, influential women gathered on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum for breakfast last month to discuss why there aren't more powerful, influential women like them running Latin America's largest companies.

Susan Segal is president and CEO of the New York-based Americas Society and Council of the Americas. She says not a single woman ranks among the 30 best-paid executives in the United States. And only seven women make the list of the 200 best-paid executives.

In 2009, just 15 percent of the boardrooms of Fortune 500 firms and only 11 percent of the Global Fortune 200 had women as directors.

"Now there's almost an equal number of men and women in entry-level posiitons," she told her audience over croissants and Colombian coffee. "But someplace, women are getting lost in the system."

In Latin America, female executives are even more poorly represented at the board level. Only 3 percent of the presidents or CEOs of companies in Argentina, Colombia and Mexico are women — and most of those are family businesses or small enterprises. That share drops to 2 percent for Ecuador and Peru, and 1 percent for Brazil.

To rectify the imbalance, several countries in the region have passed quota systems, but enforcement is spotty at best.

In the political arena, women seem to fare better. In Argentina, 40 percent of the legislators are women. In Peru, women comprise 29 percent of all legislators, and in Brazil, 8 percent. In the United States, only 17 percent of all members of Congress are women, meaning the U.S. lags behind Argentina, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru and Venezuela.

"One thing Cristina Kirchner has done is create a strong role model for women in politics and business," Segal said. "Chile, one of the most conservative countries in the hemisphere, elected Michele Bachelet, an unmarried mother of two, as president. Costa Rica now also has a woman president, and it's very possible that the next president of Brazil will be a woman as well."

Saadia Zahidi, director of WEF's Head of Constituents, noted that three countries in the region — Barbados, Ecuador and Argentina — rank among the top 25 when it comes to gender parity, while only one country in the region, Guatemala, ranks among the bottom 25.

"If you're able to measure a problem, you can bring hard numbers and data to that problem and thus help find a solution," said Zahidi,, noting that "we're now at the crossroads. Perhaps it was the economic crisis that made it come to a head. Perhaps if Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Brothers and Sisters, things would have been different."

Worldwide, Iceland tops the gender parity index, with a score of 0.82 on a scale of 0 to 1. Scoring the worst is Yemen, at 0.46.

"In terms of education and health, the gap between men and women is fairly small in Latin America, but when it comes to economic participation, the gap in Latin America is bigger than in North Africa," said Zahidi, a native of Pakistan. In the area of political empowerment, women seem to fare best in Western Europe, though overall, women have only 60 percent of the economic power of men, and only 17 percent of the political power.

"Gender parity is by no means a luxury," she said. "Countries need to be aiming for this if they want to use both halves of their economic potential efficiently. Out of 115 countries we've been covering since the first year, 86 have made improvements. Four years is a short time, but when we translate those few percentage points into the hundreds of millions of women who are healthier and better-educated, that represents tremendous progress."

In fact, every region of the world — including the Middle East and North Africa — has made progress in the gender parity index since 2006, while some countries like Chile have improved their scores by as much as 10 percent, "driven by concentrated policies in addition to societal trends," she said.

On the other hand, "out of all the companies we surveyed in Brazil and Mexico, none had any targets in place for improving gender parity. And 72 percent of all companies don't attempt to measure any salary gap between men and women, even though we know it's a problem."

Elaine Dezenski, director of global strategies at Georgia Tech Research Institute, said even in countries with lots of educated women, one of the biggest problems is that the business world is very conservative.

"When looking to fill a high-profile position, the easiest thing to do is find someone who looks as close as possible to the person who had that position before. There's almost a self-preservation desire to keep the pool as small as possible," she said. "The best way to break that cycle at the corporate level is to demonstrate that there are strong economic reasons to have the most capable people in these roles. People with different skill sets can be equally successful. Women moving up the chain donít always have the same set of high-school experiences."

Susan Silbermann, regional president of Latin America for New York-based drugmaker Pfizer, said the men's club has existed for years because it's comfortable.

"We like talking about our earrings and our shoes, and it's different in a roomful of men," she explained. "We respond to crises differently. Our genetics are different."

Silbermann pointed out that women make up half the world's population, yet make 90 percent of family health-care decisions in almost every country in the world.

"There's an unconscious bias" against women, she noted, using as an example the disproportionate number of men selected over women as musicians in symphony orchestras, even though the women performed just as well at auditions. That changed dramatically once a partition blocked the conductor's view of the job candidate, and hiring decisions had to be made solely on the basis of the musician's performance.

"But in companies, you can't interview people behind a screen," said Silbermann. "You have to look at a woman with potential, and encourage her to move ahead. Everybody in this room should be responsible for mentoring at least one woman in your organization."

Beatríz Leycegui, Mexico's undersecretary for international trade negotiations, said that in 2005, only seven of 153 countries surveyed had women finance ministers. Today, only five years later, that has tripled to 21 women finance ministers.

"All seven directors of the WTO have been men. Every secretary general of the UN has been a man. No women have been directors of either the IMF or the World Bank. It's a cultural thing," she said.

"More than just changing conditions for the workforce, you have to change the whole educational system. For example, women are required to pick up their kids at very strange hours. When my kids were very young, I suffered from this. All the mothers are there, and if you're not there to pick them up, the kids really suffer."

Fabiola Sojet, national executive at General Electric International Inc. Colombia, said she easily spends 30 percent of her time in networking activities.

"It's true that we've been discriminated for centures. We can analyze the causes of that for days, but if you think about the statistics, it's really positive. In the last few years, we've seen things improving," she said. "It's going to take time and hard work, but in the end, it's in the companies' interests. It's in our hands to promote other women and help young leaders. We don't need to be like men to be successful."

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