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Brazil's Petrobras names first female CEO

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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.

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