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Women face obstacles to promotion in Brazilian public services

Brazil occupies a modest position among Latin American countries when it comes to gender equality at senior levels

Clarice WenzelDespite already corresponding to more than half of the work force in Brazilian bureaucracy (59%), women occupy less than 20% of management positions. The number, published in December in the study “Women Leaders in the Public Sector of Latin America and the Caribbean” from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), puts the country in a lower position than the majority of its neighbors in the region. Countries like Argentina (40.7%), Colombia (47.1%) and Costa Rica (53.5%) are heading, at least on first glance, towards gender parity in the public sector.

The data reveal how much the “glass ceiling” phenomenon still imposes barriers on career advancement for female leaders in South America—barriers that are even more difficult to overcome for Black women. The glass ceiling metaphor was coined in 1978 by US consultant Marylin Loden (1946–2022) to refer to the private sector, denouncing the oft-invisible obstacles that impede the advancement of women to higher-level positions. But the ceiling also covers the heads of professionals in public administration.

The report highlights that women make up 52% of the civil service in the studied countries. However, there are only 23.6% in positions classified as level 1 (equivalent to minister) and 44.2% in level 4 (director) positions. In Brazil, although women, according to the Atlas of the Brazilian State, produced by the Institute of Applied Economic Research (IPEA), make up almost 59% of civil servants, there are only 18.6% in leadership positions, among the four levels, according to the IDB report. Separating them into the studied levels, in 2022 they were 19.3% in level 4, 22.1% in level 3 (undersecretary) and 9.1% in level 2 (secretary).

In the highest level, the IDB considered departments of 12 sectors, such as the Treasury, Social Development, Labor, Education, and External Relations. For this reason, the three female ministers that were part of the previous government were not counted, and Brazil appears in the report as not having a single woman occupying this position in 2022. Currently, there are 11 female ministers, from a total of 37 (29.7%).

“Brazil’s terrible position is unsurprising. It is also among the worst evaluated countries in Latin America in terms of the political rights of women and political parity between men and women. Until 2006, it did not even have specific laws about violence against women, while 17 countries from the region had already legislated about the topic,” says economist Daniela Verzola Vaz, of the Paulista School of Politics, Economics, and Business of the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP).

“There is little recognition that gender inequality is a problem in the Brazilian public sector and, as a consequence, there are few public policies about it,” she observes. Vaz adds that, in the positions within the commission of the Senior Management and Advisory (DAS) group of the federal Executive Branch, the proportion of women in level 6, the highest in the hierarchy, was 22% at the end of last year. “This percentage has advanced little in the last decade: it was 20.9% in November 2009,” she says.

The result also reflects the lack of professionalization in higher public administration, explains political scientist Gabriela Lotta, coordinator of the Bureaucracy Study Center of the School of Business Administration of the Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV) and a researcher from the Metrópole Study Center (CEM), of USP. The gender policies adopted in countries such as Chile, Mexico, and Peru make up a strategy of professionalization that involved the creation of selective processes and clear criteria for filling commissioned positions that are freely appointed and correspond to highly remunerated roles. This has not yet happened in Brazil. “It is not a policy of the state. That is why the issue of gender is left out,” affirms Lotta, adding that coalition presidentialism currently in force in the country complicates professionalization, in so much that it favors the political occupation of commissioned positions.

Alexandre Affonso / Revista Pesquisa FAPESP

Gender segregation is not just vertical. The sectors in which women are most present and are able to move upwards are the traditionally feminine-associated ones, especially those linked with care, such as education and health. Whereas the spaces that have a culturally masculine association, such as economics and defense, continue to be mostly occupied by men. The renumeration also tends to be higher in these areas. It is the so-called “horizontal segregation.”

The IDB points out that even in countries with greater gender equality, horizontal segregation persists. In Latin America, women occupy 49.5% of the management positions in the sectors of social development, education, health, and labor. While it is only 38% in sectors such as planning, international relations, security, and public works. In Brazil, according to the Atlas of the Brazilian State, women account for 34.6% of government lawyers, 27% of financial auditors, and 15.3% of Federal Police officers, the best paid positions. In lower-salaried careers, such as public basic education, they represent 73%, and 70% in healthcare. These data are part of the explanation for the approximately 25% difference in the remuneration of men and women in the Brazilian civil service, a void that has gone practically unchanged since the beginning of this century.

Horizontal segregation is also the subject of an architectural metaphor. Not just the ceiling is glass, but the walls too. Some authors use the crystal maze expression. “Although less used, this concept is equally important to explain the problems that women face, that are not limited to promotion. In traditionally male occupations, women are faced with all types of barriers, such as double shifts, prejudices, and different types of violence,” lists political scientist Letícia Godinho, one of the coordinators of the State, Gender, and Diversity Research Group of the João Pinheiro Foundation (FJP).

Less quantifiable than the glass ceiling, the crystal maze appears in other forms, as in the documentary Exteriores: Mulheres brasileiras na diplomacia (Exteriors: Brazilian women in diplomacy), released in 2018 by the Women Diplomats Group. The film shows female foreign affairs professionals trying to develop in the male environment of Itamaraty. The problems range from bosses refusing to appoint staff to positions they have the right to, to directing them to less prestigious roles.

Increasing the presence of women in leadership roles in bureaucracy is also linked to the capacity that the State has to offer adequate services to the population. The link between the composition of society, in terms of gender, race, religion, and other categories, and that of public workers has been studied under the category of “representative bureaucracy.”

According to Godinho, the concept was developed in political science influenced by the book The Concept of Representation (1967), by US political scientist Hanna Pitkin, and initially referred to parliamentary representation. Pitkin questioned whether representation would be related only to the ideas and interests of the electorate or also to the composition of society. In the 1990s, another US political scientist, Anne Phillips, expanded the argument with the book The Politics of Presence (1995), showing that certain social groups have experiences that other groups are unable to represent.

Alexandre Affonso / Revista Pesquisa FAPESP

It did not take long for the principle to be adopted by studies of public administration to analyze what changes when police officers, teachers, and health agents are of the same gender, race, class, religion, or territory as the recipients of the public policies. “The work of the bureaucrat is not just technical. It is a social subject, full of values and stories. This determines how they perform their role,” adds Godinho. “One question that the studies about representative bureaucracy seek to answer is: how do you guarantee that the people working on behalf of the public produce public policies relevant to that public?”

The researcher stresses that an intersectional approach is necessary, i.e., one not limited to a single category. “Despite being a mother, if I were mayor, I would never have thought of proposing the creation of night nurseries,” she comments, as an example. “But that was what Marielle Franco [1979–2018] proposed in 2017 in Rio de Janeiro. For mothers like me, nursery is important during the day, but many poor mothers, the majority Black, need somewhere to leave their children at night.”

The same goes for the upper echelon. The principle of representative bureaucracy explains why “the presence of women in management roles makes previously invisible experiences visible, and with them, interests, priorities, and different perspectives from their male counterparts,” according to the IDB report. Equal participation is not just an end in itself, but also an instrument that “promotes additional objectives of coverage, efficiency, and effectiveness of services,” continues the document.

An illustrative event occurred on the first days of this year, when the Brazilian Minister of Planning, Simone Tebet, began setting up her secretaryship. Tebet was faced with a difficulty: appointing Black women to management positions. Immediately, the cabinet of the Minister of Racial Equality, Anielle Franco, sent a list with names of potential candidates. The result of the interaction between the ministers was announced on January 24, with the appointment of economist Luciana Servo as the first Black woman to preside over the IPEA.

However, the mere presence of individuals from a social group in public careers is not a guarantee that the living conditions and problems of that group will be recognized, warns Lotta, differentiating “passive representation,” which just reflects in the representatives of the demographic origin of those represented, from “active representation,” which produces results capable of reflecting the concerns of the population.

In the USA, there has been inconclusive results from research investigating the relation between active and passive representation, explains Lotta. A very varied correlation was identified between the functions performed and the ability to respond to segments of society, depending on the policy sector and the group represented. In the case of security forces, for example, some research shows little sign that Black police officers act in a less discriminatory manner than white officers. In the case of teachers, the signs are stronger. “In Brazil, these studies are very rare and it is still very difficult to draw conclusions,” says the professor from FGV. Letícia Godinho points out that, in the case of the Legislature, research suggests that a larger number of female politicians tends to produce more policies aimed at women.

As the process for entering public service is through a competitive examination, and many careers in State administration have clear progression plans, the idea exists that this sector would be immune from issues of gender and race, and for this reason it would tend to be egalitarian. Although it is not a completely mistaken idea, it is less true the more prestigious and competitive the competitions are, says Lotta.

Alexandre Affonso / Revista Pesquisa FAPESP

One reason is the social reality in which these competitions take place. To be approved, it is necessary to study intensely and often forgo other professional activities for some years. “The trajectory of women makes it almost inconceivable to stop and study when you are around 25 years old,” says the political scientist. The rules for internal progression also do not usually take differences such as time dedicated to maternity into account. Therefore, the inequalities of society are reflected in the composition of officialdom.

Other barriers are even more distinct. In 2013, the Federal Supreme Court invalidated police entry competitions in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul that reserved officer training positions only for men. “There are also criteria, in practice, that end up excluding women from the competition, because they feel disadvantaged and prefer not to participate,” comments Lotta.

Godinho cites the case of the “European Charter for Equality of Women and Men in Local Life,” published in 2006 by the Council of European Municipalities and Regions, as an example of an initiative aiming to remove barriers like these. There are also guides like the Manual de boas práticas para promoção de igualdade de gênero (Manual of good practices for the promotion of gender equality), published by the Ministry of Public Labor Prosecution in 2018, aimed at, among other things, reducing the occurrence of discriminatory questions in job interviews. Among those outlawed are: “Are you married? Do you have kids? Do you intend to?”

The mechanisms for promoting gender equality in Brazil are scarce, in comparison with its neighbors. According to the IDB, countries like Bolivia, Mexico, and Ecuador have written gender parity into their constitutional texts. Colombia, Haiti, and Panama have gender quotas in public administration. Other countries have parity measures in public employment legislation. In Brazil, since 1997 there have only been quotas for legislative candidacies. The Public Service Quota Law, from 2014, reserves 20% of vacancies in competitions for Black candidates, but does not include gender.

“There is no panacea to achieve equality. It is an error to think that it is enough for the competitions not to favor men for women to occupy the spaces,” warns Lotta. “The problem is multidimensional. It is necessary to resort to several articulated mechanisms.” For her, this is the function of affirmative actions, such as quotas for admission and filling vacancies, besides female leadership training programs, manuals for good practices, and clear rules for progression, among others.

Among the measures to adopt, the researchers are unanimous in mentioning the urgency of equating maternity leave and paternity leave. In the Brazilian public service, a mother has the right to 180 days, whereas the father can only take 20 days. This difference condemns many women to career stagnation. The law considered to be the most advanced is that of Sweden, where parents have the right to 480 days, divided according to the choice of both, but with at least 90 days for each of them and a bonus if the split is equal. “Therefore, the couple can divide the time working and time dedicated to caring for the children equally,” argues Vaz.

Another initiative that has presented good results is mentoring, in which more experienced professionals guide colleagues at the start of their careers. Mentoring occurs frequently in the context of female leadership training programs, which actively seek the professionals with most potential, offer courses, and help in the tackling of barriers. Lotta refers to the deadlock at the Ministry of Planning this year to stress the importance of these programs. “If the problem is the inability to find these women, then let’s train them.”

Scientific articles
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