TORREÓN, Mexico — In addition to completely reordering Mexico’s political landscape, the mid-term legislative elections on July 5 marked a step forward for gender equality in the country. The opposition Institutional Party of the Revolution (PRI), previously the third-largest party, scored a huge victory. The PRI took a near-majority in the lower house of Congress, which had been dominated by the National Action Party (PAN), won five of six gubernatorial races, and a number of state and local contests around the nation.
The two leading vote-getters — the ideologically amorphous PRI and the center-right PAN — are both expected to tab women as the leaders of their respective caucuses in the Chamber of Deputies. With the benefit of such a platform, both the PAN’s Josefina Vázquez and the PRI’s Beatriz Paredes will not only be able to put oft-ignored women’s issues closer to the forefront of the national agenda. They are now plausible presidential contenders for 2012.
More broadly, despite not winning the right to vote until 1953, Mexican women have made significant gains, and now vote in higher proportions than their male counterparts. In 2002, parties were required to field women for at least 30 percent of their congressional candidates, with the quota upped to 40 percent ahead of this election cycle. However, the law is widely flouted by parties willing to pay the requisite fines after the election, meaning that in many regions, barely a quarter of the candidates are women.
Beyond Congress, women have also played a gradually more significant role in the executive branch of the federal government. The trend culminated in the cabinet of President Felipe Calderón, who has placed women at the head of key secretariats like education (Vázquez), energy (Georgina Kessel), and foreign relations (Patricia Espinosa).
This is part of a broader trend toward gender equality that makes the old stereotype of macho Mexico seem increasingly dated. As Sara Sefchovich wrote in a recent profile of First Lady Margarita Zavala, “We have come a long way since the era in which a president shut his wife up in public when she wanted to express an opinion on some issue, telling her: ‘Don’t butt in, you know nothing about this.'”
Today, the acceptance of women as equal players has become so ingrained that even the conservative wife of a conservative president is considered a prominent feminist. As Sefchovich points out in the same article, “Margarita has fought for the rights of women, not only for the opening of political spaces but also for . . . ending the violence, for salary equality, against discrimination, [for] education, and [for] health.”
Nonetheless, gender-based discrepancies remain striking in other political realms. Most obviously, no woman has ever run as a major-party candidate for president. Beyond that, only six women have ever served as governor. In the six states that elected governors on July 5, only two of 18 major-party candidates were women, and neither came close to winning. Rounding out the unbalanced executive picture, female mayors run only 4 percent of Mexico’s municipalities.
Worse still, there has been little political cost in cases where male politicians demonstrate gross disrespect for women. While campaigning for mayor of Tijuana in 2004, for instance, Jorge Hank Rhon declared that women were his favorite animal. But the remark didn’t end his career. He ended up winning that race, and came within a whisker of the governorship of Baja California Norte in 2007.
More mundane examples of gender inequality persist in daily life as well. For starters, women are routinely paid less for the same work as men. Dr. María del Carmen Contreras, a physician in the northern city of Torreón, recently told World Politics Review about being offered a job for half the salary of the doctor she was to replace a few years ago, despite having a comparable resume. For “dignity’s sake,” she turned the job down.
Months later, in an odd twist of fate, Contreras learned that the doctor who was eventually hired to fill the job she’d been offered — a man — was paid the same, higher salary of the outgoing doctor. “I asked to speak with the man who made me the offer,” Contreras told WPR, “and he told me . . . that because I am a woman, I didn’t have the economic responsibility of a household.” The different salaries supposedly reflected the different financial needs of a man and a woman.
Contreras’ example is not isolated, nor is discrimination in the workplace limited to salary inequality. Because Mexico mandates a paid maternity leave of several months, many businesses have unwritten rules prohibiting the hiring of young, married women. Women are also regularly screened for “good presentation” in job interviews, a euphemism meaning that candidates’ attractiveness will likely be a factor in any hiring decision.
Despite the obvious injustices, as well as the obvious benefits of addressing them, women’s issues other than abortion rarely receive much attention at the national level. Contreras said that she remembers hearing about gender inequality in the workplace a great deal during the Vicente Fox administration, but very little under Calderón, and not at all during the present campaign.
A Chamber of Deputies with Paredes and Vázquez at its head should help reverse that state of affairs. But Mexico remains behind its South American neighbors with regard to political equality between the sexes. The regular election of female executives would be another big step in the right direction.