By Stephanie McNulty

With last weekend's inauguration of Dilma Rousseff as Brazil's first female president, the United States fell farther behind the hemisphere's trend toward diverse, inclusive government. The disparity is important because women in power are more likely than men to push policies that promote equality.

After she was elected with 56 percent of the vote, Rousseff said, "I would like very much today for fathers and mothers of daughters to look in their eyes and tell them, 'Yes, a woman can.' " She has promised to advocate reforms that reduce poverty, increase equality, and improve the lives of families and children.

Brazil's election stands in stark contrast to our November congressional elections, after which the number of women holding seats and leadership positions declined. Furthermore, five women have become elected heads of state in Central and South America since 1990, while not one woman has been a major party's presidential nominee in the United States.

In addition, about 24 percent of government ministers in Latin America are women, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, as are 18.5 percent of the members of lower legislative houses and unicameral legislatures. Women held only 21 percent of U.S. cabinet positions in 2008, and they make up only 16.8 percent of the outgoing Congress, according to the United Nations.

The United States is ranked 72d for female legislative representation, below Cambodia, Ecuador, Mozambique, and Uganda. The share of state governors who are women is less than in Ecuador, Chile, Honduras, and Panama.

This means Latin American girls and women contemplating running for office have more role models than their northern counterparts. Electing women to office also improves the quality of life of women and their families. Leslie Schwindt-Bayer of the University of Missouri has shown that female Latin American leaders are more likely to introduce legislation that improves women's health, promotes education for women and girls, and increases penalties for workplace sexual harassment.

This is not to imply that further improvements are not needed for women in Latin America. My research has shown that Peruvian women are not adequately represented in local-level forums in which budgets and development are discussed and debated. In many of the region's countries, very few women are elected to subnational government positions such as mayoralties or governorships, and women are often excluded from important legislative committees. But important strides have nevertheless been made.

American society is not immune to gender inequalities, and it would certainly benefit from electing more women to office. It's time to take an honest look at why that's not happening.

Many countries have increased the number of women in politics through mandated gender quotas, leadership training programs, and political-party reforms. While such policies are worth considering, we also need to seriously consider female candidates on their own terms. As long as they are portrayed primarily as witches, bitches, or bimbos, we will continue to fall behind our neighbors in this crucial aspect of a healthy democracy.

Stephanie McNulty is an assistant professor of government at Franklin and Marshall College and the author of the forthcoming "Voice and Vote: Decentralization and Participation in Post-Fujimori Peru" (Stanford University Press). She can be reached at stephanie.mcnulty@fandm.edu.