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Brazilian women call the shots in politics, business

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 2 Feb 2012 09:52 GMT
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By Anastasia Moloney

In Brazil, the president’s chief of staff and the ministers for environment, culture, social development and planning have one thing in common. They are all women appointed by the country’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff.

Since coming to power just over a year ago, Rousseff has filled her inner circle and the corridors of power in Brasilia with women. Nine of her 24-member cabinet are women, compared to three under her predecessor, Lula de Silva.

The most high-profile and influential position in the cabinet is the chief of staff, a job now held by Gleisi Hoffmann, a former lawyer who wanted be a nun.

As chief of staff, Hoffmann is the president’s main advisor and is charged, among other things, with overseeing the funding of stadiums for the FIFA World Cup, the global football tournament Brazil will host in 2014.  

The growing presence of women in the government is one key way that Rousseff - who enjoys around a 70 percent approval rating - has stamped her own identity on the presidency.

Brazil, though, still has a way to go to narrow the gender gap in politics. Despite a law requiring 30 percent of candidates running in parliamentary elections and for mayoral and governor posts to be women, it is not often applied in practice.

Brazil has fewer women in local and central government compared with some of its Latin American neighbours. Women still hold only nine percent of parliamentary positions and only 36 percent of lawmaker, senior official and managerial jobs, according to the 2011 World Economic Forum’s global gender gap report.


But there are some encouraging signs that, with Rousseff at the helm, the face of government in Brazil is changing, not only in the administrative seat and capital Brasilia, but elsewhere in the world’s sixth largest economy.

A record number of women are running for municipal office in October’s local elections. There are 48 female candidates vying to lead the capitals of Brazil’s 26 states - an increase of nearly 60 percent from the last local elections, when only 28 women put themselves up for mayor.

Political parties at the local level are keen to tap into the popularity of Rousseff, who has gained a reputation for being an efficient, no-nonsense leader, and someone who is not afraid to sack numerous ministers accused of corruption.

Rousseff has also marked a difference in Brazil’s foreign policy, an approach partly driven by her strong views on upholding women’s rights.

During Lula’s term, Brazil and Iran controversially enjoyed close ties. In 2009, the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was welcomed in Brazil.

But during Ahmadinejad’s tour of five Latin American countries last month, Brazil was noticeably missing from the list. That’s partly because Rousseff - even before she came to office - had been critical of Iran’s poor human rights record and treatment of women.


There are signs that the status of Brazilian women is slowly changing in the world of business too.

Last month, Maria das Graças Foster took over the reins of Petrobas, the state-owned oil giant, marking the first time for a woman to be running one of the world's top five oil companies.

Under Rousseff, Brazilian women are also finding it a bit easier to hold down a job while being mothers, with the opening of over 1,500 new daycare centres across the country in the last year.

A government programme targeting women in rural areas aims to increase the number of women who have national identity cards and birth certificates, which means they and their children can receive benefits and have better access to health care and education.

Brazilian women are now staying in education longer and there are more female university graduates than male, with women making up 60 percent.

Brazil’s social welfare programme, known as Bolsa Familia, targets poor women by giving them monthly grants, providing they keep their children in school and attend regular medical appointments. Overall, it has given women greater influence and independence in their homes.

Yet in Brazil, as in most countries across Latin America, domestic violence remains common. And women make up the majority of Brazil’s poor, with higher levels of unemployment and lower earnings than men.

While there are still many challenges in narrowing the gender gap both at work and in politics, under Rousseff, it’s clear that women are increasingly calling the shots in Brazil.

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