According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO,) one of the main obstacles to the consolidation of societies is the scientific and technological crisis seen in certain regions throughout the world.

Latin America is one of those regions in crisis; one that faces the challenge of boosting its development through public and private policies that foster innovation in order to increase regional competitiveness. At the same time, the region must also tackle social inequalities, especially when it comes to the gender gap.

These two subjects might not seem connected, but in fact are correlated. Delving deep into the analysis of gender allows us to better understand the inequalities between men and women in the areas of education, labour and income. This, in turn, leads us to link such inequalities to a lack of regional competitiveness.

Several regional analyses indicate that closing the gender gap can boost competitiveness. This is because, among other things, there are many women in the region and they have undeniable influence as key players in the world of labour and human capital. Women offer potential to be capitalized on, as well as blind spots to be tended to.

In Mexico, for example, women have been shown to perform better than men in college. Nevertheless, they are less interested in careers in technology and engineering, which are crucial for innovation. In addition, we know that 57.6% of Mexico’s most highly qualified women do not join the workforce (CEPAL, 2002). This represents an ineffective use of human capital that could negatively impact not only Mexico’s competitiveness, but also its human development.

On the other hand, the misconception among corporations regarding the supposed differences between men and women, especially in productivity and costs, greatly affects access to jobs, as well as labour conditions, for both genders alike. It is women, however, who are more disadvantaged.  This misjudgement has its roots in women’s historical role as mother and homemaker. It’s a perception that prevails and leads to women being seen as costly to employers, due to their “permissions” and lack of availability; something that negatively impacts both their chances of being hired and the amount they are paid.

However, figures exist that contrast with this perception of women’s inefficiency and cost. Studies have measured the performance of men and women in the workplace and found women to perform slightly better, especially in terms of their capacity to adapt and learn new procedures. (I do not believe these studies are absolute or point to the only truth, in the same way that corporate perceptions might not always hold true.)

Anyone who works alongside women quickly realizes their strong sense of responsibility, their level of commitment and dedication, as well as their effectiveness and excellent management skills. That is why I think the discussions in Latin America should focus on tending to our human capital – men and women alike, who need the training to be more effective. We need to make a concerted effort to foster an educated and industrious younger generation, one that can make decisions – with innovation and efficiency, and without gender bias – in society’s most demanding areas: science and technology. Only then can we compete in the global labour market, which today is better equipped than we are.

Our goal in this great region of Latin America should be to seek justice and equality for every man and every woman. This will bring about growth, innovation and competitiveness.

Author: Angélica Fuentes is Chief Executive Officer of Grupo Omnilife-Chivas and is a Member of the Global Agenda Council on Women’s Empowerment.  

Image: A technician works in the control room inside Furnas hydroelectric dam, running at only 15 percent of capacity due to low water levels, according to the dam’s operator, in the city of Sao Jose da Barra in the state of Minas Gerais in Central Brazil, January 14, 2013 REUTERS