How does the region stack up in women in political power?

Latin American and the Caribbean have made incredible strides in electing women heads of state and in implementing gender quota laws for national legislative elections. But how well represented are women in current national congresses and parliaments? Not as well as you may think.


This week’s stat-shot focuses on women in political power. While Latin America is arguably one of the most progressive regions in terms of female heads of state (President Michelle Bachelet of Chile, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina, President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, and Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller of Jamaica), is the same true of the legislatures of the region?   Using data from the Inter Parliamentary Union and, we looked at percentage of women in 24 country legislatures in Latin America.

One clear conclusion is that while there may be some limited correlation between political ideology and women’s representation in national legislatures, there is none between wealth and women’s representation. There is a solid cluster of the ALBA countries at the top, but Venezuela, the leader of the alliance, ranks near the bottom. This will likely change now that the Venezuelan government unexpectedly required that 40 percent of candidates in December 6th legislative election be women. (While a laudable move, it was also likely intended to send the fractious opposition scrambling for women candidates to meet the deadline, with little advance notice.) The more center-right countries fall across the spectrum with Uruguay and Chile both governed by progressive parties at the low end and Mexico near the top—with its gender quotas clearly fueling its robust representation of women in the national congress. Also surprising, three of the four countries with a female head of state (except Argentina) fall fairly low on the rankings. Argentina, the first country regionally to implement gender quota laws, is one of only four countries to actually achieve its quota requirements (along with El Salvador, Guyana and Bolivia).

Globally, the data also show that Latin America has become one of the more progressive regions for women’s participation in politics, beyond the executive leaders. This is due in no small part to quota laws. Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras, Panama, and Mexico all have gender quota laws that require that at least 40 percent of the candidates in legislative elections be women, with others requiring 30 percent. While most countries do not achieve their quota rates, some countries have excelled beyond the requirements of the law, producing some interesting results.   Bolivia, which requires that 50 percent of candidates for its single chamber legislature are women, scores the highest on the graph, and is second only to Rwanda (not shown) globally, with Cuba in third place—though arguably it’s easier to ensure gender parity in a single-party, closed system. Bolivia and Rwanda are the only two countries worldwide to have surpassed the 50 percent percent threshold. Sweden (also not shown), often seen globally as a standard for gender equality in all aspects of life, comes in fifth as the top-ranked Western country.

However, Latin America also has some of the lowest performers. Despite having a female president and a quota law requiring 30 percent representation in the lower house, Brazil comes in at an abysmal 11 percent; even Saudi Arabia, hardly known as the protector of women’s rights, comes in at 20 percent as a result of royal decree establishing a quota of that amount—though what role the women are actually allowed to play is an open question. One of other low ranked countries in the hemisphere, Jamaica—with only 13 percent of the legislative seats filled by women—is a surprise given that it has a female Prime Minister elected by the legislature.


women in legislatures
(click on chart to enlarge)
Note: This graph represents the total number of women represented in both houses of the legislature where a country has an upper and lower house. Numbers in parentheses represent legal gender quota requirements—though some laws are requirements on party lists, and some laws do not specify or require gender equality in rank or placements on list—not the resulting number of seats in the legislature. 

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