In the past few decades, Latin America and the world have seen a significant change in women’s participation in society. Girls and women are graduating from school and university education at levels that exceed those of their male counterparts. Women are also entering the workforce in larger numbers than men. According to the International Labour Organization, in about two more decades women will make up 50% of the region’s workforce.

While this increased participation has undoubtedly contributed to recent economic growth, Latin America’s economic and social future relies on women taking top leadership positions across society. There, unfortunately, progress is still slow.

There are three main reasons why women leaders are crucial for Latin America’s competitiveness and social progress. First, at a time when the biggest challenge for companies is to attract the best human resources available, women are still an underutilized and undervalued source of talent.

Second, women today represent the largest market in human history. They control an estimated 67% of all purchases in Latin America and 80% in the United States. The global women’s market will represent nearly $30 trillion before the end of this decade. For anyone thinking of women as “a segment”, think again; they truly are the market. But so far, men are still designing products and marketing campaigns for women. Wouldn’t you want decision-makers who understand this market?

Third, women are the largest untapped source of diversity for leadership teams. Since a couple of decades ago, leadership research has identified diversity among executive team members as a major driver of innovation, creativity and performance. A recent study of Fortune 500 firms shows that leadership teams containing women perform significantly better in financial terms.

In order to change our current reality, we need to address two major challenges. The first involves work-family balance. In Latin America, maybe more than in other regions, women carry the bulk of household responsibilities, including the care of children and elderly parents, thus impeding their advance towards positions of higher responsibility. Moreover, the onset of motherhood can often represent the end of a professional woman’s career, since after leaving work to take care of a family it is hard for her to restart her career. Solutions to this challenge require innovative schemes that include flexible work hours, telecommuting, “mobile offices” and unconventional career paths.

The second challenge is harder to address because it involves the sort of workplace discrimination that stems from unconscious bias. It is now well documented that the attitudes and behaviour associated with men in power are considered negative, or even as character flaws, when displayed by women. The difficulty in dealing with such biases starts with the need to raise consciousness, before being able to tackle them at an organizational level.

The Centre for Women’s Leadership (CWL) was launched in 2008 with a view to significantly increasing the number of women in top leadership positions in Latin America. The first objective was to raise awareness among business leaders in the region about the opportunity. As part of its MBA programme, the CWL offers courses on the obstacles women face in reaching top leadership positions in Latin America. Other executive programmes support women at various management levels in their growth and success. The CWL also strives to promote change in a wider sense: we are conducting research into women’s participation in top leadership in the financial industry in Latin America, and are in the planning stages of a report that will identify potential national-level action points.

It is a well-known fact that boosting women’s participation in the economy can bring about faster growth. What academic research has not yet explored is the role of top leadership participation in that equation. Since women represent the market, and can offer talent and diversity, clearly there is a strong connection that needs to be highlighted and strengthened. In Latin America, top leadership is gender-challenged. If we overcome this challenge, our region’s future will be better and brighter.

Author: Arturo Condo, INCAE Business School, President (YGL Class 2008, Founding Curator Global Shapers-San José Hub). He is participating in the World Economic Forum on Latin America 2014 in Panama City.

Image: Chilean president and former executive director of gender equality body U.N. Women Michelle Bachelet (C) smiles during her speech as she is welcomed by supporters upon her arrival at Santiago airport March 27, 2013.