On January 1st, 2013, 7,646 women took office as members of the local legislatures in more than five thousand municipalities in Brazil. 665 women were also elected as mayors in these municipalities, marking the largest number of women to enter local office in Brazil’s history.
Is this latest achievement part of the trend started two years ago, when on January 1st, 2011, Dilma Rousseff took office as President of the country? After all, in 2010, not only did Brazil elect its first female president, Marina Silva also gained the largest vote share of any third-runner for the presidency since re-democratization in 1989. Or, are these numbers the direct effect of the gender quota law enacted in 2009? This law requires that a minimum of 30%, of women be on party lists for proportional elections (local, state, and federal legislators). This 2009 law, applied for the first time in the 2012 elections, made a similar 1997 gender quota law more effective by forcing parties to actually enlist women to their tickets.
Examining only the absolute number of elected women in Brazil can be misleading, however. Indeed, careful examination suggests that the proportion of elected women has only risen slightly despite the more effective enforcement of the quota law.
The graphs above tell us part of the story. We can see that the proportion of elected women still remains significantly less than elected men. The first graph indicates that even though the number of female candidates for local chambers has risen sharply (due to the enforcement of the quota law), the proportion of elected local female legislators is still very small. Similarly, the proportion of elected state and federal deputies is remarkably stable even through there has been a rise in the number of candidates in the 2010 elections, as shown in the second graph. Given that the gender quota does not affect majoritarian elections, it is a bit surprising that the proportion of elected female mayors has been rising more rapidly than the proportion of elected female local legislators.
One possible explanation for the under-performance of women in elections for local chambers is the lack of resources and support provided by the parties, which recruit women simply in order to formally reach the threshold demanded by the law. This is a difficult hypothesis to test but the graphs above shed some light on it. For instance, the number of female candidates who identified as “housewives” increased in the 2012 elections. This may reflect the greater influence the Electoral Justice had on parties to obey the gender quota law, leading parties to enroll female candidates who were related to existing male candidates.
The gender quota law provides a necessary first step towards equal gender representation. Nevertheless, making sure women have spots on party lists does not guarantee that they will have the resources or access to other factors necessary to get elected. Like other types of affirmative action, quotas tackle issues of inequality by guaranteeing access of underprivileged groups to the arenas in which they are systematically under-represented (these arenas could be the realm of elections, universities or jobs, among others). Yet, whether this type of affirmative action proves ultimately effective hinges upon empirical and normative assessments.