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Women in Chile's Next Government: Do Numbers Matter?

Women in Chile's Next Government: Do Numbers Matter?
Susan Franceschet | February 2014

Advocates of more equal representation of women in Canadian politics have looked to Latin America with envy as record numbers of women reach the executive branch of government: Chile, Brazil, Argentina, and Costa Rica have all elected women to the highest political office. Elsewhere, in Peru and Mexico, women have been credible contenders for the presidency. This is remarkable for a region popularly known for machismo and, until a few decades ago, repression and human rights violations by military dictatorships. 

When Michelle Bachelet assumes Chile’s presidency on March 11, 2014, she’ll be the country’s first former president to win a second election. She governed between 2006 and 2010, leaving office with approval ratings of more than 80%. Chile’s constitution prohibits consecutive terms for presidents, so seeking immediate reelection was impossible. In September 2010, Bachelet stepped into the global spotlight, taking the top job at the newly created United Nations body to promote gender equality, UN Women.

Even while living outside of Chile, Bachelet remained one of the country’s most popular political figures, prompting her return in 2013 to compete as the presidential candidate for a coalition of centre and left parties, the Nueva Mayoría. Although some predicted her victory in the first round of voting, held on November 17, she fell short of an outright majority. In the second round, held on December 15, she won 62% of the votes, easily defeating the conservative candidate, also a woman, Evelyn Matthei of the Unión Democrática Independiente (UDI). A casual observer of Chilean politics might conclude that a presidential election fought mainly between two women (one a former president) signals the achievement of women’s equality in politics. A closer look reveals a more mixed picture.

Women’s presence in Chile’s congress has remained stubbornly low since the return of democracy in 1990. That year, women won just 6% of seats in the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies. Fortunately, that figure has more than doubled. But even with the centre-left Nueva Mayoría coalition taking a majority of seats in the lower house in the 2013 elections, women won a mere 16.7% of those seats. Bachelet’s own party, the Socialists, only elected six women out of 34 deputies. Notably, women’s poor showing in congress did not result from sexism among voters. Indeed, few voters even had the option of casting their vote for a woman: women represented only 20% of candidates. Instead of voter discrimination against female candidates, women’s inequality in politics owes to an unwillingness among party leaders to nominate women as candidates.

Frustrated by the slow pace of change in the electoral arena, women in the political parties have lobbied male leaders to appoint more women to government posts. This strategy has proven fairly effective, and women’s presence has been greater in appointed posts compared to elected positions. The high point came in Michelle Bachelet’s first administration. During her campaign, she appealed to an electorate frustrated with the lack of turnover in the country’s political elite by promising to appoint “new faces” to her cabinet and, more remarkably, to have gender parity in government. In 2006, Bachelet made good on her promise, naming a cabinet with an equal number of men and women. Many of those appointed were indeed “new faces” who came from outside of the parties’ inner circles. Unfortunately, Bachelet’s pursuit of gender equality and political renovation was not welcomed by some of the old guard in the parties, leading to internal political crises in the governing coalition. In response, Bachelet shuffled her cabinet a number of times, and, in so doing, strict gender parity (50-50) was sacrificed. While her critics took this as a sign of failure, her supporters argued that the principle of gender parity ought to be interpreted more flexibly: parity is any situation where neither sex constitutes more than 40%. According to this view, cabinet parity was maintained throughout Bachelet’s term.

Notably, parity in government was just one dimension of Bachelet’s commitment to gender equality. As president, she also pursued policies to improve women’s integration into the labour market, address the gender gap in pensions, reduce unwanted pregnancy, and improve women’s protection from violence. Although achieving key legislative victories in these areas, she failed to pass an electoral reform that, among other things, would have improved women’s representation in congress.

Bachelet’s demonstrated commitments to gender equality in her first term, along with a 2013 campaign platform with fresh commitments to women’s rights and equality, including liberalizing abortion, generated optimism for her second term in office. These high hopes suffered in late January when she announced a slate of key appointments, including to her cabinet. This time, even a flexible 60/40 definition of parity was unmet. Women received 9 out of 23 cabinet portfolios (39%), 11 out of 32 under-secretary posts (34%), and just 3 out of 15 (20%) posts as intendentes (regional governors). How are we to interpret these disappointing numbers?

On the one hand, the very fact that these numbers were met with disappointment by some commentators in Chile shows how far women’s political equality has progressed. If a Canadian or American leader were to appoint a cabinet where women represented 39% of ministers, we would take it as a sign of tremendous progress. That Bachelet is criticized for failing to achieve gender parity shows just how much expectations about women’s equality in Chile have shifted. Yet on the other hand, these numbers do fall short of (even the more flexible definition of) parity, and equality advocates are right to demand that political leaders do more to bring about gender parity in politics. Women’s visible presence in top portfolios sends a powerful message to citizens that politics is no longer a male affair, and women, too, can aspire to leadership. What is more, the remarkable progress of women in executive office in Chile and the rest of Latin America makes the lack of progress in Canada and the United States appear ever more embarrassing. Advocates of women’s equal representation in politics here at home need models of effective gender parity elsewhere in the Americas as a way to put pressure on their own political leaders to take gender equality more seriously. In that sense, numbers do matter. 

Susan Franceschet joined the Department in 2006. Her research focuses on women and politics, gender quotas in comparative perspective, and gender and public policy. Her current research project "Gender, Representation, and Power in Executive Office: Parity Cabinets in Spain and Chile" is funded by a SSHRC Insight Grant (2013-2017).