At the World Economic Forum on Latin America that was held in Mexico last March, participants discussed how to “reduce the skills gap, decrease societal divisions, create inclusive growth and equal opportunities for all—including women and young people—and ultimately maximize the region’s potential.” The timing of the meeting—right before Mother’s Day—highlights the important strides that Latin American women have made in political and economic participation, accomplishments that are underscored by the fact that three of South America’s twelve leaders are female—and all are serving their second term.
Across the board, Latin American women are becoming more highly educated and starting to surpass their male counterparts. As Figures 1 and 2 indicate, women are, for the most part, enrolled in higher education at equal and in some cases at higher rates than men and participate equally in the labor force as professional and technical workers.
However, women in Latin America continue to lag behind men when it comes to decision making positions. In the political realm, women only hold 23 and 21 percent of the region’s parliamentary seats and ministerial positions, respectively. In the corporate sector, the gender imbalance is even starker. In a of a sample of 551 firms, only 16 firms have a female CEO and only eight percent of board members and 12 percent of executives are women. Latin America is second only to East Asia in its corporate sector gender imbalance.
Evidence strongly suggests that the roadblock to women’s advancement in corporate ranks is stubbornly lodged at the juncture to upper management. Latin American women not only have equal levels of education, they also represent over 60 percent of graduates with social science, business and law degrees, the categories most directly related to leadership skills.
Latin American leaders would do well to work toward breaking this bottleneck to advancement.
There is near universal consensus among policy makers and economics that giving women equal access to education and the workforce will have positive multiplier effects for the economy. Gender equity is linked to economic growth and development in a number of ways. When girls and boys have the same access to education and when barriers to participating in the workforce are eliminated, employers can pick from a larger pool of talent, selecting candidates based on achievement and merit. Reducing the gender gap can increase labor productivity and improve the country’s human capital by increasing the talent pool and eliminating barriers to innovation.
One way to help bring more female talent into the upper leadership ranks is to provide more paternity leave. While much attention has been focused on maternity leave, more maternity leave reinforces expectations that women will do the bulk of childcare. Figure 3 plots Latin American countries against the countries with the greatest gender balance in their corporate boards along with days of paternity leave. While we do not claim to establish causality, the relationship is quite clear. Gender neutral family leave policies are one step towards equalizing opportunities for women to participate more equally in the workforce.
Given the advances women have already made, a legal change to increase fathers’ roles in the home and thereby free up women to return to their careers offers a powerful means to helping women overcome the barriers to upper level career advancement.