When Laura Chinchilla was elected Costa Rica’s first woman president in 2010, she made sure to thank some of her symbolic supporters. Schoolchildren cast ballots in their own mock presidential elections, which she won by a landslide.
“When I showed up at the schools, teachers pulled me aside to say that a lot of their girls returned to class after the election more outspoken,” former President Chinchilla says in an interview. “They were suddenly saying they wanted to be president – of their classroom, their school, the country, their sports teams,” she recalls.
Moments like that make her hopeful that in the future there will be more women in leadership positions, she says.
Chinchilla worked her way up from minister of public security, to congresswoman, to vice president, before taking the helm as presidenta from 2010 to 2014. Throughout her career, she’s faced obstacles because of gender stereotypes, she says. But she has benefited from one big advantage: the country’s 1998 gender quota law that obliged political parties to ensure that at least 40 percent of their candidates are women.
Today, roughly 33 percent of the National Assembly is made up of women, putting it above the United States, Germany, Canada, and most other countries in the world.
“When you can’t guarantee a quick cultural revolution [for equality], you have to force change by creating laws,” she says of gender quota systems that have been legislated across Latin America.
For decades, when people around the world imagined a model where gender equality flourishes, including in public office, all eyes turned to Nordic countries.
But places like Sweden, Finland, and Norway didn’t create a culture that prioritizes gender parity overnight. In many cases they laid the groundwork for the lowest gender pay gaps in the world by granting women the right to vote as early as 1906 – decades before most other parts of the globe.
When nations across Africa and Latin America began emerging from civil conflicts and brutal dictatorships in the 1980s and ‘90s, they recognized the need to involve broader swaths of society in governance, particularly women. But waiting nearly 100 years for a culture of equality to take hold was out of the question.
So, “they created a fast-track model,” says Drude Dahlerup, professor of political science at Stockholm University in Sweden and co-creator of the Quota Project, referring to the slew of Latin American and African nations that have established gender quotas in politics since 1991, when Argentina first made them into law.
“Nordic countries have been the forerunners, but they’re not the only model anymore,” says Dr. Dahlerup, who writes about the impact of gender quotas worldwide in her book, “Has Democracy Failed Women?” In Scandinavia, although individual parties commit to gender equality on their candidate list, quotas are not actually law. In “fast track” countries where quotas are on the books, on the other hand, governments have created “a kind of insurance” for female representation, Dahlerup adds. “When it’s law, it’s harder to backtrack.”
Spirit vs. letter of the law
Gender quota systems vary greatly around the world, and sometimes prompt controversy. Almost all quota laws in Latin America constitutionally reserve spots for women on political ballots, while some countries in Africa set aside physical seats in parliament for women.
In 2013, Zimbabwe approved a new constitution that reserved 60 of the 270 seats in its lower house of parliament for women. Today, Zimbabwe’s parliament is about one-third female. But that isn’t particularly unusual in Africa or Latin America. Overall, 12 of the top 20 countries in the world for women’s legislative representation are in Africa and Latin America. Rwanda tops the list with a legislature that’s 61 percent female, followed closely by Bolivia with 53 percent.
Quotas alone are rarely enough to alter the perceptions of women in society across the board, however.
In Latin America, where nearly every country has now adopted a gender quota law, one of the biggest challenges has been ensuring that political parties aren’t just going through the motions. At first, many parties were “meeting gender quotas in rhetoric, but not in spirit,” says Magda Hinojosa, a politics professor at Arizona State University and author of “Selecting Women, Electing Women: Political Representation and Candidate Selection in Latin America.”
For example, in 1999 municipal elections in Bolivia, parties repeatedly “misspelled” the names of male candidates, making them look like female candidates: “Ramón” might have been listed as “Ramona.” In 2009 Mexican elections, eight women were voted into office in a case now referred to as Las Juanitas: Almost immediately the women victors stepped down, handing their seats to their party’s male alternates.
“It was a way to meet the requirements of the law, but only simulate real change,” says Fernando Dworak, a political analyst and consultant in Mexico. In the aftermath, Mexico’s law was amended to require an alternate to be the same sex as the candidate on the ballot.
Not everyone supports quotas, with some viewing them as a different type of discrimination. Reserved-seat systems, in particular, have provoked complaints of unfairness. They are less common, however: 23 countries reserve seats for female legislators, while 54 implement quotas that only require women be included on candidate lists.
“I’ve heard many people complain that it’s not democratic to reserve seats [for women],” says Sakhile Sifelani-Ngoma, the executive director of the Women in Politics Support Unit, a nongovernmental organization that tracks and assists women in Zimbabwean politics. But “I think it’s not democratic to leave half the population out of your political decision-making process.”
Polling data in Latin America shows that if parties nominate women, both men and women will cast ballots for them, says Dr. Hinojosa.
“Latin America has, because of its widespread adoption of gender quotas, in some ways overcome a lot of obstacles for women” in one of the most stereotypically macho regions in the world, she says.
“But the primary obstacle is getting women onto the ballot.”
Women at the helm
Once elected, women make a difference. Almost immediately after Zimbabwe created its quota, Ms. Sifelani-Ngoma began to notice the legislature’s agenda shifting.
It wasn’t just that the newly-elected women MPs were taking up issues around domestic violence, child marriage, and increasing access to sanitary pads – although they did all of that. They were also bringing new urgency to matters that weren’t typically thought of as “women’s issues,” says Sifelani-Ngoma.
For instance, female MPs in Zimbabwe have been key drivers of renewable energy policy in recent years. Women are disproportionately affected by the country’s shoddy electricity grid, the MPs argued, since they are the ones generally responsible for power-intensive household tasks. That means women and girls are the ones who often have to walk miles each day to fetch firewood, for example, preventing them from doing a paid job or going to school.
“This push to talk about climate change and then also to see its impacts in a gendered way – that was led by women,” Sifelani-Ngoma says.
Today, 24 African, Latin American, and Caribbean countries have crossed the so-called “critical mass” threshold of 30 percent female representation. It’s the point at which experts say there are enough women to band together to create substantive policy changes.
“It changes the agenda,” Sifelani-Ngoma says. “It creates a critical alliance on issues where, in the past, women have had to be the sole campaigners in a house full of men.”
Challenges to real change persist, even as more and more countries adopt quotas, says Dahlerup from the Quota project. As women’s representation becomes an expected norm, pressure mounts for countries to include women for the sake of signaling progress, with or without follow-up measures to help put men and women on equal footing.
“Today, you have a global discourse that in order to be modern and democratic, you have to include women,” she says. “So, if you want to look modern… you use women.
“But,” she adds, “women also use the system.”