Latin America Leads by Example on Women’s Leadership

Data set forth in a recent Atlantic Council report shows that ushering in female leadership at the upper echelons of society is “not just a moral decision,” but a strategic one, Michele Flournoy, former under secretary of defense for policy at the US Department of Defense, said at the Atlantic Council on May 31.

“You have to take a comprehensive, systematic approach” to gender equality, said Flournoy in a keynote address. “From a talent-management perspective, why would you keep half of your talent off the table?” she questioned. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

Flournoy described how business literature and research, such as that compiled in the Atlantic Council’s newest report, Women’s Leadership in Latin America, show that when women are included in leadership roles, from the realms of business to peace and security processes, companies and governments experience greater success. “One of the most important things about this report is just putting the data out there,” according to Flournoy. “All of the data is there,” she said, “we just have to actually act on it.”

Echoing Flournoy, Jennifer Klein, former deputy and senior adviser at the Office of Global Women’s Issues in the Office of the US Secretary of State, said: “What we know, it’s incontrovertible. What we know is that there are really high costs to inaction and really high benefits to women’s leadership.”

However, Flournoy, who, in her capacity as under secretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration was the highest-ranking woman at the Pentagon and, therefore, frequently the only female voice at the table, said that the burden of action to empower women falls not only on those in command, but on women themselves. Her advice to those who find themselves the only woman in the room: “If it’s going to bother someone, that someone shouldn’t be you.” Sharing her own experiences as a female leader, she said it is essential for women to “make it clear why there’s no question why you’re there at the table.”

Despite the increasing success of women and the widespread understanding of benefits associated with diverse leadership, “this is a work in progress,” said Flournoy. “We’re still a long way from where we want to be.”

One region with a great deal of success in facilitating female leadership is Latin America. With ten female heads of state and many more in positions of power throughout both the public and private sectors, the region is a model to all parts of the world striving for gender equality. Women’s Leadership in Latin America “seeks to leverage the region’s compelling case studies into larger dialogues” on how to bring more women into positions of power, Capricia Marshall, ambassador-in-residence at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, said in introductory remarks.

Following Flournoy’s keynote, Klein joined Laura Albornoz Pullman, director of CODELCO; Angelica Fuentes, founder of the Angelica Fuentes Foundation; and Alma Arzaluz Alonso, a congresswoman in Mexico’s Green Party, to launch the report and discuss its findings. Maria Cardona, a political commentator on CNN, moderated the discussion.

Ultimately, in Latin America, “there’s an underpinning of laws” to address gender inequality at a structural level, said Klein, who also serves as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Law Center.

Alonso described the important role of government-led reform, using Mexico as a case study. She claimed that education is key to improving access of both genders to greater opportunity. According to Alonso, with Mexico’s recent education reform, more girls have the basic tools necessary to pursue advancement in the workplace. Helping them to get there, Mexico’s labor reforms provide benefits for businesses promoting gender equality in their hiring practices. “For all those businesses that employ more women, there are tax incentives,” she said.

Pullman, the author of the report, claimed that there are also specific programs to effectively enforce gender equality standards among businesses. Those who meet a certain percentage of female employees are rewarded. As a result, she said, Latin America has made gender equality a competitive standard.

Most notably, many Latin American countries have adopted quota laws regulating female participation in government. For example, in Brazil, 30 percent of parliamentary candidates must be female.

“Quotas have worked in Latin America,” said Klein. Alonso claimed that quotas have increased the proportion of women in government, working as legislators and drafting laws to improve gender equality.

“Laws and rules are a tool for progress and I am completely convinced that quotas help,” said Pullman. She claimed, “they’re efficient measures that will instantly change cultural perceptions” by putting women in positions of power. According to Klein, female leaders must be visible in order to inspire other women to reach their potential.

“If you look at Latin America, the impact of quotas is clear: you will get more women into office and into positions,” said Flournoy. However, when considering how Latin America’s methods might be exported to the United States, she claimed: “I think the imposition of quotas is extremely unlikely.”

While Pullman supports the quota laws in Latin America, she said the increasing success evidenced by female leadership has not change the fact that “we need to continue to justify why 50 percent of society should be at the highest levels.”

“The benefits have been there for a long time…and it’s evident in the numbers,” she said, however, “sometimes I wonder if this is really efficient.” According to Pullman, compelling data alone “is not enough; we can’t change people’s mentality with that.”

“We need a key that’s better refined” to the task of promoting gender equality, she said. “There are many keys here, but there’s something missing, and that’s why women aren’t at the top, even though we should be.”

According to Fuentes, the key is that “women have to believe in themselves, have to really go out there and do what they believe they’re capable of.”

However, “we’re not going to get to that point until the people making decisions are either women themselves or men who really truly understand the message and have the key,” said Cardona. According to Flournoy, “if you have serious leadership and accountability on these issues from the top, you don’t necessarily need a legal quota.” However, she said, “it takes enlightened leadership.”

In this regard, the panelists agreed, men have an important role to play. “They’re indispensable,” said Flournoy, adding: “Women cannot achieve the goals we have by ourselves. Men are still in the vast majority of positions of power [and] they have a responsibility…to pull women into the ranks.”

“Unless we understand that we have to cooperate with men, things are not going to move along faster,” said Fuentes.

Rachel Ansley is an editorial assistant at the Atlantic Council. 

Image: (from left) Maria Cardona, political commentator on CNN, moderates a discussion with Michele Flournoy, former under secretary of defense for policy at the US Department of Defense. (Atlantic Council/JuanFelipe Celia)