U.S. News & World Report | Why the Americas Need More Women Leaders

Come Sunday, Brazilians will turn out for an election in which the top two candidates are women. That President Dilma Rousseff and former Environmental Minister Marina Silva are competing to lead Latin America’s largest economy now comes as little surprise in a region that accounts for a third of the world’s women presidents.

But Latin America doesn’t just lead in terms of the number of heads of state. Nicaragua has the world’s highest percentage of female ministers, while four Latin American countries rank in the top 20 on that count. The Americas as a whole has the highest percentage — over a quarter — of women in parliamentary positions; only the Nordic countries, when separated out from Europe, supersede that rate. The United States does little to help the average, as the percentage of women in the House of Representatives ranks it a dismal 83rd. And while speculation abounds over whether Hillary Clinton could be the first female presidential nominee in U.S. history, over a dozen other countries in the Americas have already had a woman as a head of state.

One reason for Latin America’s greater rate of female political participation is the use of quotas to increase women’s representation. Fifteen countries have legislated quota systems mandating rules about the minimum percentages of women candidates, funding for women’s campaigns, or even equal representation for female candidates on ballots. For example, in Costa Rica, where a third of the country’s lawmakers are women, half of all candidates must be female. Colombia’s 2011 gender quota law led to an increase in female candidates from 20 to 35 percent in that year’s local elections.

But is having a woman president or quota law enough to achieve gender parity? It seems the answer is no. Back in 1990, the U.N. recommended that women hold 30 percent of all leadership posts by 1995. Currently, only six Latin American countries— Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Mexico and Argentina — have a high enough ratio of women lawmakers to meet that benchmark. Brazil may have a woman president and a quota law dictating that one third of lower house candidates are female, but women hold less than 9 percent of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies.

Moreover, can women achieve parity in public office when they lag on equal access to economic leadership? Latin America falls behind most of the world when it comes to women in corporate governance, with women occupying less than 6 percent of board positions in the region’s top 100 companies, and the majority of those companies having no female representation on boards at all. A2012 report found that there were as few as nine female CEOs among Latin America’s 500 largest companies.

Women’s economic participation can be as crucial to a country’s well-being as parity in political representation. Studies show that having women in corporate governance improves a company’s performance, leading to better stock valuations and returns on equity, while having at least one woman on a board reduces the risk of a company’s bankruptcy by 20 percent. Research shows that women become more effective leaders than do men over time, and that not only does increasing women’s participation in the workforce help boost gross domestic product, but so can having a female head of state.

Besides, the world may be ripe for women to ascend, both as heads of companies and heads of state. A female leadership style, based more on consensus building than confrontation, lends itself to peace over war, as well as the collaborative nature of the information age.

The numbers are clear: Having women in leadership roles makes good economic sense and, by bringing different issues to the policy agenda, helps create more inclusive societies. Rousseff recognized this need during a speech she delivered in March for International Women’s Day, saying that, though she saw advances for Brazilian women during her term, “many barriers still need to be broken to draw down gender inequality.” Even as women advance — not just in Brazil, but across the Americas and globally — there’s a long way to go.