Wilson Center Scholar Malu Gatto on Female Representation in Brazilian Legislature
Malu Gatto is currently a Fellow at the History and Public Policy Program at the Wilson Center. She is also a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Political Science of the University of Zurich. Her current research project at the Wilson Center, “Establishing Women in the Anti-Establishment Era,” addresses the question of whether and how women’s political participation and ambition change in times of crises of representation.
With women occupying only 10.5 percent of seats in the Chamber of Deputies [Brazil’s lower house], Brazil currently has the worst rate of female legislative representation in Latin America, according to Inter-Parliamentary Union data compiled by the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (IBGE).
In an interview given to Brazilian magazine Exame, Malu Gatto—who is Brazilian, and has spent the last years investigating the dynamics that lead to low female representation in positions of power—argues that the reasons for this phenomenon extend beyond sexism: institutional design and, most importantly, a dynamic of power protection are at the core of this problem. According to her, the quota policy (which reserves 30 percent of candidatures for women in each party list) is not enough to guarantee gender equity in politics.
On the other hand, the researcher is optimistic about the Superior Electoral Court (TSE) ruling that 30 percent of the party fund’s resources be spent on supporting women. She claims that, “Parties won’t want to lose what amounts to 510 million reais (US$135.65 million) from the fund, so they will have to nominate and support female candidates who are indeed feasible. The dynamics [of candidate recruitment and campaign support] will probably change considerably this year.”
The following is from her phone interview with EXAME’s Talita Abrantes, and is translated and reproduced with permission. For the original Portuguese article, click here.
EXAME: How does the institutional design of parties and politics in Brazil hinder female participation?
Malu Gatto: The open list proportional system, used in Brazil, is traditionally known for limiting the impact of gender quotas on female representation in Congress. This is because, with this method, it is not possible to have mechanisms that compel the parties to put [women] in electable positions [on the list]. With a closed list system, for example, it is possible to establish where women will be placed on the list and to guarantee that they are in electable positions. However, even in these situations, political parties resist.
Several Latin American countries use a closed list system and have quota laws. At first, there were no rules regarding women’s placement on the list, so women would end up nominated for the lowest spots [on the list]. Once a placement rule was adopted, many women ended up being nominated for districts where their party had a lower chance of winning. All of this tells us that Brazilian institutions are not, in fact, ideal. Yet, even in situations that are supposedly ideal, political parties always find ways of weakening the effect of quotas.
Why is there resistance within parties?
This resistance is not just a question of sexism. There is also an extremely strong dynamic of power protection. The entrance of women into politics represents greater competition for the men who are already there. There are several studies of the Italian and Swedish [political] systems that show that, when quota legislation is adopted and more women enter politics, the less qualified men—the politically weaker ones—end up losing space to women. In other words, mediocre men (as the title of one article put it) leave politics because of the greater competition imposed by quotas legislation.
Some political renovation groups have reported a certain difficulty in finding women willing to participate in politics. Why is that so?
This argument is used by several parties, but many research papers demonstrate that, when recruited, women are indeed willing to be candidates. The problem is that they are not recruited. According to Hanna Pitkin, there are four spheres of political representation. Formalistic representation, which concerns political institutions and how representatives are elected; descriptive representation, which refers to the characteristics that connect certain individuals to the electorate, such as ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and religion; substantive representation, in which candidates represent a group’s interests; and symbolic representation, which is the perception of a space as being more or less receptive of people with certain characteristics.
In this sense, there is a large debate about the idea that the more women are visible in politics, the more they will perceive this space as open to them. However, with Donald Trump’s election, the number of women joining organizations that support female candidates in the United States has reached an unprecedented level. These women’s electoral ambitions were much more driven by the perception of the political sphere as a place that excluded them than as a place where they belonged. Perhaps if Hillary Clinton had been elected, this effect would not have existed. The assassination of city councilor Marielle Franco engendered a similar effect [in Brazil]. In a way, it is often the extreme situations that inspire women to formally get involved with politics, rather than a female president.
In a recent study, you argued that Brazilians perceive the political space as being primarily masculine. How does this impact women?
I worked on this study with Anna Petherick, from Oxford University. We asked voters to identify the leadership characteristics they viewed as more common and desirable among politicians, and whether they perceived these characteristics as masculine or feminine.
The majority of traits identified were characterized as masculine. This means that voters indeed view the political environment as being more masculine. However, the negative characteristics were perceived as highly masculine, while several positive traits were identified as being more feminine.
This demonstrates that women could have an electoral advantage. The political elites are currently viewed very negatively. Given that politics is mainly composed of men, there isn’t a direct association between female representatives and the negative image of politics.
What kind of political and social changes happen when women have seats in power?
Studies show that women impact not only the decision-making process for public policies, but also the way resources are allocated and informal political dynamics. In Argentina, for example, before women joined politics, many legislative decisions were made in the early hours of the morning, which hindered transparency. The presence of women changed this internal practice. It is worth remembering that in Brazil, there was not a women’s restroom in the Senate building until 2015, which physically showed that women did not belong in that space.
Why hasn’t the quota legislation represented significant progress for female representation in Brazilian politics?
In partnership with researcher Kristin Wylie, from James Madison University, I worked on a paper about female recruitment by party organizations at the state level. In 2010, 1,267 of these organizations (including permanent directorates and provisional commissions) participated in Brazilian elections. Only 23.8 percent complied with the quota, while 31.2 percent did not nominate a single woman. Due to a greater monitoring effort by the Superior Electoral Court (TSE), by 2014, the number of party organizations complying with the quota had increased. Even so, these [compliant] institutions represented just 50 percent of the total [number of state parties].
In part, this is due to a lack of oversight and enforcement of the quota, such as the rejection of lists submitted by parties that are not 30 percent female. Another reason is that the law requires only coalitions to comply with the quota. Therefore, there is no issue if a party does not comply. Moreover, there is a large number of phantom candidates [who are on the ballot, but are not effectively competing]. The quota requirement is fulfilled, but the spirit of the legislation, which is to promote female political representation, is not.
How do you evaluate the TSE’s recent decision that parties transfer 30 percent of the electoral fund to women’s campaigns?
This is an important decision as it legally establishes that fulfilling quotas without actual supporting female candidates is not enough. The parties will not want to lose the equivalent of R$ 510 million from the electoral fund, so they will have to nominate and support candidates who are truly viable. Otherwise, they will lose the money and the candidacies. The dynamic will most likely change considerably this year.
What are the next steps to promote women’s political participation?
Actually supporting female candidates and not just complying with numbers. Support means not only transferring resources and allocating television ad time [to women], but also giving these candidates other forms of visibility, such as easy-to-memorize candidate numbers, support for content production, and placing women with party leadership at events. It means opening up the public space to them.
Another important aspect is the adoption of a seats reservation for women. This legislative proposal, under consideration as PEC 134/15, aims to reserve 10, 12, and 16 percent of elected legislative seats for women in the next three elections. A similar proposal was voted on in 2015, but it was defeated by fifteen votes. Reserving seats would also motivate parties to promote viable female candidacies.
Even so, the increase in the proportion of women elected, as guaranteed by the proposal, would still be very small, especially when compared to the gains provided by quota legislation in other Latin American countries.
This article was translated by Andrew Allen and Mariana Prado.
 Brazil uses an open-list proportional representation system to elect its federal and state deputies. Each coalition nominates a list of candidates for each position it is contesting (the list is registered with the Superior Electoral Court). Citizens can vote for individual candidates, but all of the votes received by a party’s candidates are pooled to determine the total party vote, which is used to determine the number of seats that party receives.
 In Brazil, political parties currently receive money from a campaign-finance fund to cover campaign expenses. The fund was created by the National Congress in 2017, in the wake of the Lava Jato scandals and debate over the ubiquity of under-the-table political donations (called caixa dois). Parties also receive money from a “party fund” to cover administrative expenses associated with the campaigns.
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