Does Argentina’s Political System Have A Glass Ceiling Problem?

Since women make up 31 per cent of workers in the executive branch, there must be a strange reason for them not to reach a higher level. Known as the ‘glass ceiling’, this effective barrier keeps female workers from advancing just because of their gender.

This op-ed was written by Aldana Vales, Mercedes D’Alessandro and Andrés Snitcofsky (published in The Bubble)


There have been more ministers named Juan than women at high-level positions of the national executive branch in Argentina. Not that women here have a long history as ministers either: the first one was Susana Ruiz Cerutti in 1989, and she lasted for just 45 days. In more than 34 years of uninterrupted democracy, there have been only 16 female ministers, while 154 men have held that same position.

Female representation isn’t just low; it has also been limited to the specific areas in Argentina: education, social development, culture. Occasionally, a woman is appointed at the Foreign Affairs ministry or as the head of security, but such nominations are rare events. For the last ten years, science and economics have remained elusive. Even today, ministers Susana Malcorra, Patricia Bullrich and Carolina Stanley represent just 13 per cent of President Mauricio Macri’s cabinet.

Since women make up 31 per cent of workers in the executive branch, there must be a strange reason for them not to reach a higher level. And it’s hard to notice, but it’s there: it’s a transparent, almost invisible force, but strong enough to prevent women from getting to the top of the political or corporate hierarchy. Known as the ‘glass ceiling,’ this effective barrier keeps female workers from advancing simply because of their gender. Yes, Argentina elected a female president, but that doesn’t equate to equality for all.

Meritocracy is often seen as one of the pillars of modern societies. Possibly because of that, a commonly proposed explanation is that women don’t get to high-level positions because they lack the necessary education, experience or capabilities. This is simply not supported by the data. Women make up 60 percent of graduate and undergraduate students in Argentina. They might be as skilled as their male colleagues, but that doesn’t cut it.

Despite notable achievements that encourage female political participation, different social factors contribute to inequality and concentration of power, often unnoticeably. Culture, education, stereotypes, and plain sexism, not to mention systematic disadvantages for those who work, are some of those external elements. Motherhood often stands as defining obstacle that implies a systematic penalty for women. Parental leave, if any, isn’t always shared between the father and the mother, because taking care of a child is the default expectation for her. On the contrary, it doesn’t seem to be a major issue for a man’s working-life balance, which explains why only in 44 countries paternity leave exits at all.

Beyond the difficulties moving up the hierarchy, there is a related but different phenomenon. Women in politics are typically circumscribed to certain areas: health, education, environmental issues, social affairs. That is, the governmental equivalent of taking care of the house. This effective restriction is known as the glass wall, suggesting there are borders they rarely cross. Science, technology, finances, economics… All of them are a man’s territory. A case in point is Lino Barañao, minister of Science and Technology, who hasn’t chosen a single female secretary and his team only includes men. A similar all-male picture can also be seen frequently at the Central Bank board meetings.

Argentina ranks 22nd on the World Economic Forum’s political empowerment index. It also appears at 26th place when it comes to number of women in Congress, ahead of countries like Spain, the UK, and the United States. This good performance is explained by the so-called quota law, which was passed in 1991, setting a minimum of 30 percent female candidates for each party. Before that moment, women’s share of representation in the Congress was a meager 5 percent. It grew steadily since then, reaching 34 percent in 2015.  However, the country descends to the 50th place when it comes to women in ministerial positions worldwide.

In principle, a quota law would be redundant if there is a true desire at the highest levels of government to promote equality. In Canada, Justin Trudeau, formed a gender-balanced cabinet for the first time in his country’s history. When asked why, his answer was simple: “Because it’s 2015.”

After a year and four months in office, President Macri hasn’t shown any signs of interest in having a gender-equal team of advisors. It’s understandable. For him it must feel natural to discuss everyday issues with ministers and secretaries while playing soccer and grilling some steaks at the presidential residence. In that context, women are not integrated in routine decision-making. Imagine how Minister Susana Malcorra felt when she suggested once that she could be invited as goalkeeper. So far, they haven’t called her.

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