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Latin America's Female Leadership Paradox

Despite the high profile women presidents of Brazil and Argentina, the fairer sex is notably underrepresented in cabinet positions across Latin American governments.

Brazil's Dilma Rousseff and Argentina's Cristina Kirchner -- the exceptions that prove the rule
Brazil's Dilma Rousseff and Argentina's Cristina Kirchner -- the exceptions that prove the rule
Sandra Cesilini

BUENOS AIRES — Female cabinet ministers in Latin America are few and far between. They are rare even in countries such as Uruguay, which has just one even though it is considered one of the most advanced with regards to education levels, and Argentina, where there are just two despite a strong progressive discourse there.

This bias seems to apply whether the president is male or female, left- or right-wing, from an academic background or a president of the people. Indeed, part of the paradox is that there are currently several elected female leaders in Latin America: Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, for example. Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla has, unlike many of her peers, been notably effective in promoting women to positions of influence.

There is a cultural barrier that has meant many politicians fail to surround themselves with female collaborators, even though there may be a large number of extremely able female professionals, trade unionists, politicians and leaders in their country. It doesn’t matter whether the top decision-makers have different politico-ideological views on other issues. When it comes to selecting strategic partners, women are out.

Despite the rap on Latin America overall, there are some countries with a significant female cabinet presence. Nicaragua has over 50% women, Bolivia nearly 40%, and Ecuador 39%. In these cases, equality has been immortalized in recently updated constitutions. In other countries, despite not being constitutionally mandated, individual leaders choose to promote equality of the sexes. They include, for example, Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010) in Chile, Chinchilla (2010-2014) in Costa Rica, Rafael Correa (2009-2013) in Ecuador, Alan García (2006-2011) in Peru, and Hugo Chávez (1999-2013) in Venezuela.

“The appointment of female ministers has not been consolidated or become commonplace,” according to the Economic Commission for Latin America. “From 2006 onwards, the presence of women in ministerial cabinets has not only not been maintained, but the regional average has actually decreased from 26% in 2006 to 18% in 2011.”

So why are “quota laws” currently in force in many Latin American countries — requiring that women hold a certain percentage of seats in Parliament, for example — not reflected within government administrations and other areas of society?

It is difficult to explain this inconsistency. A plausible hypothesis is that international co-operation organizations active in Latin America — that favor laws very similar to those in force in Europe — force the elite to adopt perspectives that are more inclusive with regard to certain issues (such as parliamentary participation) than the views they hold in other areas of daily life. On the other hand, the quota laws don’t cause disagreements with religious or economically powerful groups and therefore their adoption is easily achieved and has very little impact on political debate.

Gender equality has had a strong influence on the inclusion of women in the public sphere, but much remains to be done before we will see a significant female presence in the day-to-day decision-making bodies of trade unions, the economy, cultural organizations and — it goes without saying — the government.

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