Gender equality in Latin American politics

Patricia Gabaldón. Professor. IE Business School

16 May 2012

Women have achieved higher levels of participation in political power in Latin America than any other world region. But the lives of Latin America outside the upper echelons of power are very different.

If we could draw up a map of gender equality in politics around the world, the area extending from Mexico to Argentina could be considered as the region with the highest levels of participation by women in political life - from Chamorro in Nicaragua, to Bachelet, in Chile, or Rousseff in Brazil, Fernández in Argentina and Chinchilla in Costa Rica. It is even possible that the next president of Mexico will be a woman, namely Josefina Vázquez Mota, the candidate for PAN (National Action Party). Figures provided by the World Bank show that the percentage of women who hold political positions in Latin America stood at 24% in 2010, the highest percentage of all world regions. The average percentage of women in politics for the rest of the world currently stands at 19%, and just 15% for Europe. And these figures do not take into account that in the majority of cases in Europe women hold less powerful positions than their male counterparts, which is not the case in Latin America.

But it hasn’t always been this way, and, as in the rest of the world, women in Latin America have traditionally been underrepresented in the political arena. Why are there now more women in positions of political power in Latin America than anywhere else in the world? On the one hand, general progress in the education sector in Latin American countries has improved women’s situations vis a vis men, most of whom already had access to education. Also most Latin American democracies are relatively young regimes which meant that women joined them in similar conditions to men, thereby enabling women’s entry into the political sphere, affording the same opportunities as those enjoyed by men, given that many organisms established minimum quotas for women of between 25% and 30%. Moreover, the visibility of women presidents with different ideologies and leadership styles serves as an incentive for other women to follow their example by going into politics, or simply joining the labor market. The Latin American population sees women politicians as being more honest than their male counterparts. You could even say that they are seen as being more committed to the fight against social injustice, a very feminine trait, including the fight against poverty and corruption, with a special focus on education policies. We could also consider the possibility that the population sees voting in women as a way reshape the political scene.

This achievements of women politicians in Latin America is an enormous step forward in terms of women’s rights and their position in social and political spheres, but realities for women in the general population in these countries have not improved at the same rate. We cannot forget that there is a marked imbalance in the incomes of women and men in these same countries, and the large number of women in the upper echelons of politics should not blind us to the fact that a great many other women are suffering the effects of serious socio-economic problems, such as unemployment or extreme poverty, to a greater extent than men, as they struggle to bring up a family. It is a very different situation to that of the women who are leading their countries, and one which threatens to exclude these sectors not only from politics, but also from social and economic progress.

One of the objectives of the United Nations Millennium project is to achieve gender equality, taking it to the next level by empowering women within social and political structures. However, if we look beyond social justice criteria, it is not so clear that the gender of leaders is a key factor when it comes to achieving economic and social progress, given that ideology, leadership styles, and a country’s resources tend to take precedence over gender. Advances in matters of gender, and particularly in terms of women reaching positions of power, are closely linked to the consolidation of democracy, social development, and sustainable and fair economic growth. The key challenge is to manage to transfer women’s progress in the field of politics to the rest of Latin American society, in such a way that it becomes the norm rather than the exception.

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