Brazil’s Gender Trouble: Sources of Inequality in Brazilian Institutions and Political Representation

Ana Balbachevsky Guilhon Albuquerque Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy Brazil Gender Trouble Inequality Feminism

On International Women’s Day this year, our current president, Michel Temer, diminished Brazilian women’s role in society to solely housewives and caretakers. In his official Women’s Day speech on March 8, 2017, he said, "I am absolutely convinced,…[that I know], how much a woman does for the household, for the home, creating a home for the children, and if society somehow goes well and the children grow-up well, it is because of its formidable home training and, surely, it is not the men who do it, it’s the women" (G1 Política, 2017a). Temer has been criticised for being the first Brazilian President to only nominate men for his presidential office, all his ministers, and personal staff since Ernesto Geisel - a President during the military dictatorship in 1979 (BBC Brasil, 2016). In contrast, Temer’s predecessor, Dilma Roussef, nominated 15 women to official posts while in office. This article analyses Brazil’s obstacles to a more feminist approach for its foreign policy, and shows how patterns of discrimination inside our institutions play a major role in political decision-making.

Brazilian society is still highly oppressive towards minorities in general. In the words of our late Ana Alice Costa, who was a very important figure for the Brazilian Academia and Feminist Movement, the genesis of the Brazilian Feminist Movement in the 1970’s was the “fight against authoritarianism in a cultural and economic modernization scenario, increased number of women in the workforce and higher education, and the influence of the international feminist movement” (BLAY and AVELAR, 2017: 77). According to research conducted by the Brazilian Institute for Applied Economic Research (IPEA), Brazilian women tend to do house chores, on average, 150% more than men. Also, Brazilian women’s average income in 2012 was USD $250/month while Brazilian men’s was USD $461/month (IPEA, 2017). This means that out of every hour worked in overall jobs around the country, men earn at least 30% more than women, on average. This comes in contrast to the fact that women in Brazil are more highly educated than men; Brazilian women earn higher degrees and stay in school longer than their male peers (O Globo, 2017). Thus, though they are investing more in their career path, women are still receiving less for their work.

Black women in Brazil tend to earn a third of what white men earn and 44% less than white women in the overall job market (MIGUEL & BIROLI, 2014: 45). By the end of 2015, while black Brazilians made up only 17% of the 1% richest population of the country, they made up 76% of the lower classes (Economia UOL, 2015). With this above-mentioned data, it is possible to understand how Brazilian society cultivates, in a way, historical power structures, racism, and “machismo” (the proper word for sexism in Portuguese). This is where Brazilian feminism comes in; as stated by Eva Alterman Blay, a Brazilian Feminist researcher, the “feminisms [in Brazil] came to act in historically built spaces, and have to deconstruct ideologies that dehumanize women in general, and in particular the black, the indigenous, the poor, and the foreign women” (BLAY and AVELAR, 2017: 96). This is true when we examine the lack of gender balance in our institutions - meaning fewer women than men in positions of power - not only in politics but also in academics and the private sector.

Juan Somavia pointed out that even though “we [the world] have made significant progress in advancing gender equality in recent decades [...] real obstacles remain” (WIRTH, 2001: 5) He states that the International Labor Organization (ILO) is concerned about “the patterns of attitudinal and institutional discrimination that continue to bar women from certain jobs.” These same patterns are detectable within Brazilian society. In highly hierarchical institutions, such as private enterprises, high-end political careers, and even in the academic profession, women still face obstacles in ascending to the top. It is not that these institutions are not open to women, but that there are social constraints that prevent women from being able to compete in equal capacity with men, and, in the long run, they end up falling behind. To understand how this pattern is present in our society it is vital to examine the academic profession, the private sector, and the political sphere.

Giving up on already-existing institutions is not a solution, but there must be a change. Brazilian feminists must be a part of that change.

It has been 85 years since the Brazilian Universal Suffrage, and women still only occupy 9% of the seats in Congress (Eleições UOL, 2014). Although women have been given rights to participate in public life and are now recognized by law as political subjects, Brazil is still far from gender equality. Looking through the list of diplomats currently working for Brazil’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs, it appears at first sight that there is an almost even breakdown of men and women throughout the diplomatic career when you take into account the less prestigious roles (Itamaraty). However, a closer look reveals only 17 female Ambassadors in contrast to 200 male ones. Meanwhile, this same pattern of a pyramidic gap is presented in academic careers: even though today there are 15% more women than men enrolled in Masters and Ph.D. programs (CAPES, 2017) at the University of São Paulo, women represent only 15% of the school’s Full Professor Faculty body (Jornal da USP, 2016). When we look to the private market, women today constitute 44% of the labor force, but only 16% of Brazilian companies have a female CEO, and even in middle-management positions there are only 19% of women occupying these roles (G1 Economia, 2017) - and this is not taking race into account either. It is important to conduct more research into how race and gender are intertwined and how this relationship affects gender vulnerability, especially for women of color.   

Today, women make up almost 50% of affiliated members of political parties (TSE, 2016); therefore the argument that women lack an interest in politics is both untrue and does not explain parliamentary gender inequality. Although women are 53% of the electorate population and represent almost half of the national workforce, Brazil has had only one female president (2011-2016), and currently has only one female governor out of 27 states. For this reason, Brazil was ranked as the lowest amongst Latin American countries on parliamentary gender equality (G1 Política, 2017b).

Politics is a hard field for women. Whilst family as a social structure provides career support for men, giving them an image of “the family man” that is important for the Brazilian conservative electorate, it might be a burden for women, who might be perceived as “bad mothers”, or simply are unable to leave their children to work. Luis Felipe Miguel argues that the lack of day-care centers, the widespread popularity of gendered domestic chore division - where women are responsible for taking care of the home - and the prevalence of work-related gender discrimination are the main obstacles for women who aim to enter this field (MIGUEL & BIROLI, 2014: 132). The 1997 female quota for Brazilian Elections Law mandates that 30% of candidates inside each political party must be women, however, it does not specify how many women should be elected, or even how much time and money should be invested on female candidates. It has, therefore, had little effect. In 1997 women occupied 7% of the seats in Congress; today women still occupy only 9% (Consultor Jurídico, 2016).

As a recent example of how political representation hinders political decision-making, the recent constitutional amendment (PEC 181/2015) which aims to put an end to the debate on legal abortion in Brazil (As Políticas, 2017) has been approved by 18 male deputies. In this amendment, the text reads “life starts in conception” and would make any abortion, including the ones already legalized in Brazil’s penal code, illegal. The only person who voted against this amendment was a woman: the only one present at the time. Even though there is no direct link between being a woman and being aware of women’s political agenda, it is important to notice that a white-male dominated Congress will not work in women's best interests with enough consistency or dedication to make real improvements or create public policies that would effectively diminish the gender gap in our society.

In conclusion, Brazil must keep pushing for more participation and representation for women in economic, political and public spheres if Brazil’s foreign and national policies and practices will ever reflect true gender equality. Giving up on already-existing institutions is not a solution, but there must be a change. Brazilian feminists must be a part of that change. As long as these cultural, social, and institutional oppressive structures exist, it is hard to envision a time where women and men will be able to work and coexist in true equality in Brazil.


Ana Balbachevsky Guilhon Albuquerque is a masters candidate in International Relations at University of São Paulo, Brazil. 


Reference List:

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