I recently wrote a blog post for Red PROLID, a platform created to connect women in the public sector throughout Latin America. The post is about my research on gender quotas in Brazil, specifically the paper Dr. Kristin Wylie (James Madison University) and I wrote together published in 2016. Since the original post was published in Spanish, I decided to share the English language version of it here. Thanks to Andrea Diaz for inviting me to share my thoughts on an issue that I am deeply passionate about.
As of June 2017, 55 women are members of the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, equating to 10.5 percent. This places Brazil at the bottom of the Interparliamentary Union’s Women in Parliament World Classification. The situation is not much better at the state and local level, where 11.3% of women have a seat in a State Assembly, and 13.5% of women hold a seat in one of the thousands City Councils in the country. The low number of women in legislative positions in Brazil is puzzling especially since the country has a 30% gender candidate quota law for these three positions. Why doesn’t the candidate gender quota law work in Brazil? The short answer is limited party support. But the full picture is more complex.
Established in 1995, the Lei de Cotas required every party running for a legislative seat (City Council, State Assembly, and Chamber of Deputies) to allocate 30% of their candidacies to the most underrepresented gender in their party ticket, which have always been women.
Pushed by the Bancada Feminina in the early 1990s, the Lei de Cotas was severely watered down by male party elites. The final law, signed and implemented without much fanfare, was full of loopholes allowing the party to continue to run lists with virtually no women. In a co-authored paper published in 2016, * my co-author Kristin Wylie (James Madison University) and I elaborate on the loopholes present in the law and the institutional structures that rendered the Lei de Cotas practically meaningless. We argue that the nature of the electoral system, the large number of parties, and the male dominance of party leadership made for a quota law that had limited impact on the number of women elected to office.
Brazil’s open-list proportional representation system is the first obstacle. Because voters chose an individual and not a party ticket (like the closed-list system present in Argentina), candidates are competing with both other parties and candidates within their own party, since candidates need individual votes to win a seat. Add that to the extremely high number of parties (35 as of this writing), and you have the recipe for one of the most competitive and expensive legislative elections in the world. So when party leaders are selecting their party list and selecting whom to provide support during the elections, they will likely rely on established politicians (overwhelmingly male) or individuals directly connected to the leadership of the party, who tend to be extremely male-dominated.
The loopholes of the law combined with a general unwillingness by local party elites to truly empower and elect women led to very disappointing numbers. Between 1994 and 2008 the percentage of women elected to the Chamber of Deputies rose from 6.6% to 8.8%. Parties were nominating more women as candidates, but very few parties reached the 30% threshold because of loopholes that allowed them to run full male tickets while still being compliant with the law. So in 2009 Congress passed a mini-political reform that, among other things, sought to close at least some of the loopholes present in the Lei de Cotas, namely the “reserved” clause of candidacy allocation (for a detailed discussion see Wylie and dos Santos 2016), * a five percent allocation of party funds to promote women’s participation, and a mandatory ten percent of the party’s allocated TV time to women candidates.
The mini-reform led to more women candidates, but still failed to increase considerably the number of women elected. Parties continued to find ways to undermine the law by nominating candidatas laranja, women candidates who were listed as candidates but did not truly campaign. The overwhelmingly male party leadership across the country continues to ignore the issue of women’s under-representation in order to maintain their status-quo.
Supporters of women’s representation in Brazil continue to fight for a stronger quota law and for increased women’s representation. I believe that, in order to significantly change the number of women elected to legislative positions in Brazil, electoral law needs to go beyond the candidate level, encouraging or forcing parties to include more women in party leadership positions. Until parties move away from the “all male clubs” mentality, women will have to continue to fight from the outside, severely limiting the impact of the Lei de Cotas.
* If you would like a copy of this paper, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org