The Triumph of Brazil’s Women
By B. Michael Rubin
No one, not even the organizers of the Free Fare Movement, are certain why so many Brazilians took to the streets. Clearly, there are numerous issues of concern for all Brazilians, concerns worthy of protest, but few of the issues are new. So why now?
One possible explanation is the increased role of women in Brazil. Like many other cultures around the world, Brazil was once a macho, patriarchal country. In 1960, Brazilian women had an average of six children and only 17 percent of women worked outside the home. However, today women are flooding into the workforce, especially in the biggest cities. Brazil has a higher proportion of women in the labor force (59 percent) than developed countries such as France (52 percent) or Britain (57 percent), aided by its approximately 7000 domestic workers, almost all women. Today, 65 percent of Brazil’s women work outside the home.
Brazil has always had open competition for places at elite universities and in government. But only recently have women been able to take advantage of this, thanks to improved schooling and a fall in the fertility rate to just 1.8 children per woman. Girls now outperform boys in school and make up 60 percent of university graduates.
Alongside Brazil’s female president, women have 26 percent of the seats in her cabinet. The head of Petrobras, Maria das Graças Foster, is the only female head of a big oil company worldwide. Today women make up 27 percent of the senior managers of Brazil’s leading companies, compared with a global average of 21 percent. (Sweden has 23 percent, Britain 20 percent, and the United States only 17 percent). Forbes magazine calculates that 20 percent of Brazil’s billionaires are women, compared with a global average of 10 percent.
One such shining example of the achievement of women in Brazil is Maria Sílvia Bastos Marques, the head of the Municipal Olympic Company, the organization in charge of the Rio 2016 Olympics. She is the former head of a steel company and director of Brazil’s two biggest companies, Petrobras and Vale. She has also held numerous positions in local government and served as the first female director on the board of Brazil’s huge development bank, BNDES.
In addition to the lowering of the birthrates and the advantages of a university education, Brazil’s progressive social policies are coming to the aid of women. The Brazilian Constitution, which was completely rewritten after the end of the military government in the 1980s, promises equal pay for women and such guaranteed benefits as 90 days of paid maternity leave. Brazil has had a vocal feminist movement for decades and a women’s ministry since 2003. Some global companies have helped make their Brazilian workplaces more female-friendly: Walmart’s local operation, in which females fill 35 percent of management positions, has a women’s works council.
Unfortunately, some of the progress by women has followed along the lines of traditional Brazilian patrimony. For example, Brazil’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff, (whose approval ratings have dropped 27 percent in the past three weeks), owes her position to a great extent to being a protégée of her predecessor, Lula. Dilma acted as Maria Graças Foster’s patron, employing her when Dilma was Minister for Mines and Energy in 2003-05 and later, as President, putting her in charge of Petrobras. Ms. Foster was born in a favela and started work as a rag-picker at the age of eight but eventually earned engineering degrees and an MBA. Eight of the country’s nine female billionaires inherited their wealth from their fathers or husbands: two of the nine are the daughters of Brazil’s biggest toll-roads magnate.
Interestingly, while women working outside the home is a radical change for Brazil, anthropologists note that women working is not completely new. Beginning with the invention of the plow and mechanized farming hundreds of years ago, women have lacked economic equality with men, as their primary responsibilities lay in taking care of the home and children. However, in the ancient past, when men and women lived in tribes as hunter/gatherers, women spent as much time outside the home as men. Each day tribal women spent many hours gathering food in the forest and supplied 60-80 percent of the daily food intake for their families.
However women are regaining their power in Brazil, it is a clear and brilliant sign that the country is changing. With more women in the labor force, the days of traditional, uneducated Brazilian housewives are coming to an end. When women attend university, work, and achieve positions of power in a once male-dominated business and political environment, there are bound to be consequences.
The history of women protesting in the streets goes back at least a hundred years, when women organized to demand the right to vote. Women have led protests all over the world for numerous causes. Today, with women constituting more than half of all Brazil’s university students, is it a coincidence that universities are the heart of the current protest movement? Perhaps it is no surprise that as women are becoming empowered in Brazil, the youthful voices of dissent are filling the streets.
Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba.