The joint government of Gabriel Boric and the path to equality in Chile
The road to gender equality in Chile is both long and narrow. The fact that the coming to power of Gabriel Boric is accompanied by the appointment of a parity government is obvious, but gender equality is not limited only to a numerical distribution of positions, says Andrea Gartenlaub (University of Las Americas)
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Gabriel Boric Font is the youngest Chilean politician to take office as president at just 36 years old. One of his first initiatives was to introduce a joint cabinet. He appointed 14 women ministers out of 24. His administration shattered another glass ceiling by appointing surgeon Izkia Siches as interior minister, a key government post that a woman will hold for the first time.
These are two important steps, but it is not the first time that a Chilean government has set up a cabinet with equal representation of men and women. Michelle Bachelet, the first woman to become president of Chile, did so in 2006 when she appointed ten women and ten men ministers each. Bachelet’s decision was a symbolic step in a country where women’s participation rates in decision-making positions are the lowest in Latin America. Currently, Chile ranks 62nd in the world in the UNDP Gender Equality Development Index.
Today, the country is going through ideas of renewal. Thus, the application of a gender parity perspective in the government of Gabriel Boric was seen as an obvious step, necessary to distinguish itself from previous administrations. But this decision is also expected, especially given the strength acquired by the local feminist movement. Activists have played a key role in social movements in recent years and their achievements are enormous. These include the approval of a controversial law to decriminalize abortion and the establishment of gender parity in the current Constitutional Convention, which is currently drafting the country’s new constitution. The endorsement given to Boric by Chilean feminists in the contested presidential run-off was key to his election.
The fact that parity is the exception rather than the norm is just one example of what is happening in Latin America in terms of putting in place institutional mechanisms to ensure meaningful participation of women in politics. Argentina was a pioneer and in 1991 imposed a law on quotas including a minimum of 30% of women candidates on its parliamentary lists. A similar rule increased women’s participation as candidates for deputy and senator from 13% to almost 40% in Chile in 2017. There is a further jump in 2021, with 43.3% women. top of the list in the senatorial elections. However, women receive less financial aid (34.6% for candidates for deputy and 37.8% for candidates for senator) even though they represent nearly half of the candidates.
The representation of elective positions has increased, but the proportion of women in ministerial cabinets is more disappointing. According to the latest report from the ECLAC Gender Equality Observatory, Latin America has experienced “a discreet increase” with an average of 28% of women at the head of ministries. However, in 2018 Costa Rica introduced a 55.17% female cabinet, including the first black vice president, Epsy Campbell. That same year, Colombia introduced its very first balanced cabinet (although it no longer exists). Similarly, Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico began his tenure with equal numbers of men and women in ministries, although a series of subsequent resignations shifted the balance. Chile enters 2022 with nearly 60% women in Gabriel Boric’s first government.
Equality beyond ministerial positions
This same ECLAC report offers another disturbing fact: most of the positions occupied by women are “concentrated in the social fields”, excluding them from political and economic roles. In other words, and despite the reestablishment of gender gaps in public opinion, cultural norms such as women being more suitable for care tasks are reappearing, including when they reach positions of power. Isn’t that frustrating?
Let’s think about it. Until today, the presence of women in the media remains stereotyped: a 2010 study showed how the press highlighted the qualities of Chilean women ministers by emphasizing their “fragility and sensitivity”. A decade later, gender stereotypes remain a global concern. Recent reports indicate that there are still significant differences in the number of stories reserved for women candidates. On the other hand, the treatment of the news associated with them is strongly centered on their private and family life.
In recent years, there has been another factor: the growing violence against women on social media, especially against women in power, who are running for office or who are visible figures of empowerment. The dissemination of false information, obvious misogyny and threats to their physical integrity are part of the daily life of those who work in politics.
Thirty years after this first legislation towards parity in Latin American politics, the road remains narrow around the world. In 2019, only 22 cabinets had parity globally, and this year, only 17 women will lead a government. It’s 9%, out of 196 countries. Michelle Bachelet, the current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has predicted how slow it will be: “Gender parity in national legislatures would not be achieved until 2063, and the number of women and men at the head of the government would not be equal before 2150”.
This persistent under-representation of women pushes us to think beyond positive discrimination. While this is excellent policy, we have to ask ourselves if gender-balanced cabinets are not just a one-off decision in societies where inequalities between women and men persist. So what to do to ensure that parity is projected beyond government positions?
Achieving gender equality should not be limited to numerical equality of positions. The involvement of women in political life must be linked to a profound cultural change and a new vision of society. We do not only need the political participation of women in leadership positions, but this must also be reflected at different levels, especially in sectors where women’s participation is extremely low, for example in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). The administration of Gabriel Boric and others around the world should adopt a gender approach in big politics and in small programs that represent local expressions and are closer to the people.
These measures are now urgently needed, especially in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has caused significant female unemployment. But also in view of the new emerging threats that threaten liberal democracy in a way we haven’t seen in nearly a century. In such an uncertain world order, women must make their voices heard and exercise their power.
• Translation by Maria Clara Montoya
• The opinions expressed here are those of the author rather than those of the Center or the LSE
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• Banner image: Fernando Ramirez (CC BY-SA 4.0)