In naming a woman to head Latin America's largest firm, the Brazilian oil company Petrobras is giving a boost to gender parity in a region that has seen women rising well beyond their US peers in politics and starting to populate executive suites.
Maria das Gracas Foster, a veteran of Petrobras who holds chemical and nuclear engineering degrees, has been named to replace Petrobras chief executive officer Jose Sergio Gabrielli.
Latin America has five female political leaders, meaning that more than 40 percent of the region is headed by women. But women there have lagged behind those in the United States when it comes to climbing the corporate ladder.
That is starting to change. Women have increasingly joined the workforce and attained the same education levels as men. And as women have gained visibility politically, biases have started to disappear, pushing open doors in the private sector.
"When men and women see the accomplishment and authority of women in public life, then it changes attitudes," says Rebecca Reichmann Tavares, regional director for the Southern Cone for UN Women in Brasília. "The only way to eliminate bias is to have experience."
In Brazil, women hold 13.7 percent of the top executive positions of the 500 largest companies, up from 6 percent in 2001, according to a 2010 study by Ethos Institute. Ms. Foster's role in Brazil is expected to bolster that trend, as Petrobras is one of Latin America's most influential companies.
"This is very important for Latin American women, especially since petroleum is a nontraditional industry for women," says Lidia Heller, a founding member of the Latin American Network of Women in Management.
Women are heads of state in Brazil, Argentina, Costa Rica, Trinidad and Tobago, and, most recently, Jamaica. Latin America has also implemented quota laws for legislatures, a trend that began in Argentina in 1991 and has spread to about a dozen countries. Women's representation in national legislatures rose from 12 percent to 22 percent between 1990 and 2010, according to the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).
But that push for parity has not found its way to the boardroom. According to Catalyst, a research firm in New York, in the US 16.1 percent of top board seats are held by women (see chart). The biggest economies in Latin America are much further behind, with 6.8 percent in Mexico, 5.1 percent in Brazil, and 1.9 percent in Chile.
A longstanding strain of machismo runs through Latin American culture. Women have had more success on the political field because of democratic transitions in the region, while the corporate world is still male-dominated. "In a company it's a smaller group of people, largely a male hierarchy, who gets to decide who goes up the ladder," says Irene Natividad, president of the Global Summit of Women. "It's not a democracy."
Societal changes are helping foster change, however. The economically active female population grew from 42 percent in 1990 to 52 percent in 2008 in urban areas of Latin America, according to ECLAC. Wage disparities have narrowed from 69 percent of men's wages to 79 percent.
Gina Zabludovsky, a researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, says that of the CEOs of the 500 most important companies in Mexico, about 4 percent are women. Women make up 14 percent of general director positions, up from about 8 percent a decade ago.
"So it is changing," she says, "but not changing as fast as the changing presence of women at the university and in the workforce, and especially what is not changing is their responsibilities at home."
Corporate quotas next?
But Ms. Natividad expects many countries in Latin America will move closer to the experience of Europe, which started with quotas in politics and then implemented gender parity policies at the board level.
The Catalyst report puts Norway at the top for women on boards, with 40 percent. "I think it will spill over to the private sector [in Latin America] at some point," she says.
Enthusiasm in Brazil is high. Its quota laws have not functioned as well as they have elsewhere in the region, leading to lower rates of participation of women in politics.
But President Dilma Rousseff's inauguration was an important boost, especially as she has named women to her cabinet and put them at the highest levels of her staff, says Ms. Tavares. She notes that Brazil trails only Japan in the number of companies that have signed up for UN Women's Empowerment Principles program.
"There are many examples in Brazil right now, including Foster and the president, which have created a very positive environment for women's rights," says Benjamin Goncalves, who coordinated research for the Ethos Institute study.
With women at the top, more have a chance to make it there as well. For example, according to press reports, Foster and President Rousseff are good friends, showing how one woman's success can foster another's.
Or as Joan Caivano, director of special projects including women's leadership at the Inter-American Dialogue, puts it: "There's a new 'old boys' network among women."