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Why does Latin America have so many women leaders?

Former president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, with the current president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet. (Credit: Dilma Rousseff/Flickr)

As tens of millions of Americans mourn the missed opportunity to elect the first woman into the White House this week, some have wondered how Latin America – a region where women endure notoriously high rates of discrimination, harassment and chauvinism – has elected more female presidents in the last decade than any other region of the world.

In the workplace, women in Latin America do still have many barriers to overcome. According to this year’s Global Gender Gap Report, almost 29 percent of women don’t have their own source of income, compared to 12.5 percent of men, and on average, women earn 83.9 percent of what men earn. Still, in terms of political empowerment, the report ranks Nicaragua, Bolivia, Cuba and Costa Rica in the world’s top 20, while the U.S. lags behind at 73rd.

According to Joan Caivano, expert on female leadership and deputy director of the Inter-American Dialogue, the Latin American region is making enviable progress.

“I just wish we could catch up to Latin America,” said Caivano in an interview with Humanosphere. “There has been nothing but progress [in Latin America]since the ’80s in terms of women’s representation in congress, as administers and as presidents.”

Latin America welcomed its first female president, Argentina’s Isabel Perón, in 1974, in the midst of an era of dictatorships and conflicts across Central and South America. Propelled by the momentum of the feminist movement, women began rising to positions of political leadership in record numbers.

Nicaragua nominated Violeta Chamorro in 1990, and Panama elected Mireya Moscoso in 1999; after the turn of the century, Chile elected Bachelet in 2006; Argentina elected Fernández de Kirchner in 2007; and in 2010, Brazil and Costa Rica elected their first female presidents, Dilma Rousseff and Laura Chinchilla.

One reason so many Latin American women have been able to obtain these positions, Caivano said, was the introduction of gender quotas. Like in Europe, much of the region utilizes a quota system to crack open the gate for women making political connections.

“Argentina was the first country to adopt gender quotas for political office,” Caivano said, “and that’s something we would never do [in the U.S.]. We don’t have it, and we won’t ever have it.”

To date, 16 of the 33 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have adopted gender quota laws. Many credit this system for the fact that 25 percent to 50 percent of national legislatures in Latin American countries are female – by contrast, the U.S. recently reached an all-time high of just 20 percent.

Many of Latin America’s women also benefit from strong party systems, which allow them to succeed without the massive financial backing often necessary for candidates in the United States. Even Latin America’s notorious machismo – a concept to describe exaggerated masculine pride – may be beneficial for women in politics.

Machismo divides women into two categories: sexual beings to be conquered and possessed, and mothers as authority figures that embody everything that is virtuous, gracious and worthy of praise in female nature,” Gioconda Belli wrote for The Guardian. “And in Latin culture the mother archetype is very powerful.”

Despite the respective lack of female leadership in the U.S., however, both the U.S. and Canada are world leaders in the share of women in middle management and top leadership roles. Aware that Latin America is behind in these areas, women’s rights groups have urged Latinas in government to take advantage of their roles, since female leadership in politics has not always translated into improvements in gender equality and the lives of women.


About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email or see her latest work at