Gender in Public Administration, Brazil

  • Iara AlvesEmail author
Living reference work entry



Gender in public administration refers to institutional arrangements to implement public policies to ensure just opportunities for men and women, to promote women’s rights, and to guarantee equal representation in the public sector.


The concept of gender was first used as a tool to express social relation between men and women and organization of knowledge in the 1980s in Social Sciences, especially in feminist studies (Scott 1986). In the center of the discussion are the oppression and subordination that women have been historically submitted in their relation to men. Another important concept to understand when discussing gender inequality is intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberle Creenshaw, law professor, to bring light to the varied types of oppression women experience according to their race, sexual orientation, class, and other dimensions of identity. According to Creenshaw (1991), the interaction among existing vulnerabilities may result in more or less disempowerment of women. An educated white middle class woman, for instance, may have better chances to hire a lawyer and get rid of domestic violence than a black poor woman with low level of scholarship or no income. Highlighting the concept of intersectionality when discussing gender in public administration is clearly relevant in very socially and economically unequal societies.

Gender and race inequality in Brazil is certainly a matter of concern. Data show that black women in Brazil are in different economic, social, and political worlds when comparing to white women. The numbers show inequality among Brazilian women. For instance, the statistics of feminicide of black and white women show that, between 2003 and 2013, the number of black women murdered grew 54%, while for white women it has decreased 10% in the same period (Waiselfisz 2015). Black women have the worst positions regarding unemployment (13.3% black women were unemployed in 2015, while the average for all women was 11.6% and for men, 7.8%), level of education (10.9% of black women were illiterate in 2015, whereas white women were in the same rate as men, 4,9%). Finally, it is worth mentioning that 18% of black women worked as housemaids in 2015, while for white women, the rate was 10% (Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada 2017).

Brazil is not a safe place for women. Along with Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Dominican Republic, it one of five the most violent countries of the region of Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean’s (ECLAC) report of 2018. The absolute number of feminicide, which is gender related killing of women and girls, of Brazil is the highest in the region. As for relative numbers, it is the fifth in the world with 4,8 homicide for 100 thousand women (Waiselfisz 2015). Only El Salvador, Colombia, Guatemala, and Russia have higher women homicide index than Brazil (Economic Commission for Latin America 2018).

Representation of Women in Public Administration

The high index of gender inequality and violence against women in Brazil may be a result of a strong patriarchal culture and historical inequality in Public Administration in Brazil. Brazil is the 167th country in the world in the ranking of women participation in the Executive Branch (UN Women 2017). In the last local elections in Brazil, in 2016, only 649 municipalities elected a woman as mayor out of 5570. Thus, women mayors represent about 11% of all Brazilian local mayors. In the 2018 election for governors, only one woman was elected out of 27 states, not even 1%. In 2018, women represented less than 20% of all national secretaries, nearly 20% of directors and less than 40% of coordinators in federal bodies (Escola Nacional de Administração Pública 2018). In the same period of 2018, of the 29 ministers appointed by the President, only one was a woman. On the other hand, women were 49% of federal public servants in 2018 (Escola Nacional de Administração Pública 2018). It is important to mention that to become a public servant in Brazil, one must pass a written, and sometimes oral, exam. Thus, women get to enter public service by their own merit. However, they are rarely considered for high posts in public administration, for these are freely appointed. Despite the fact that women have the same level of education as men in public service, they are rarely chosen to be in high decision-making positions, for high public administration offices are majorly male.

As for the representation of women in the congress, despite the fact that more women were elected in 2018, only 15% of the lower chamber of the Congress are women. As compared to 2014, when the rate of women was 9,9%, there was a significant raise due to the fact that, in 2018, the Brazilian Supreme Court determined that public financial resources for political campaign be distributed for both genders in a minimum proportion of 30% and maximum of 70% for each gender. Since 2009, political parties were obliged by law to establish a minimal quota of 30% and maximum of 70% of each gender in the open list of candidates for the lower chamber, but the parties have not made it possible, competitive, and financially viable for women candidates. Only when the Supreme Court determined that the same proportion of money and time on TV campaign be guaranteed for both genders, the ratio of women in the congress increased, despite being far from being equal and not close to 30% yet.

The first law to establish quotas for women candidates was issued in 1996 and it obliged political parties to register at least 20% women candidates for the Low Chamber of the Congress. As mentioned before, the quotas were later, in 2009, increased to 30%, but they still did not result in a jump of women elected since they did not guarantee that women received the same treatment, resources, and privileges as men candidates by political parties. Only in 2018, after a minimum of public money was guaranteed for women’s campaign, a slight increase of women in the congress was perceived.

Women’s Right History in Brazil

The historical scarce representation of women in public administration in Brazil has made women’s rights and public policy for women advance slowly. 1932 marks the Brazilian feminist movement’s first victory, as women won the right to vote, under the condition that they had their own income (married women had to be authorized by their husband to vote). Thirty years later, in 1962, the Statute of the Married Women guaranteed women the right to work regardless of their husband’s authorization. Also, it gave women the right to heritage and to request the custody of the children in case of separation. However, divorce was only approved by law in 1979.

Only in the 1980s did the Brazilian Government start drafting public policies for women. The Program for Women’s Health Assistance was launched in 1983, after strong demand by the women’s movement. In 1985, the first specialized domestic violence unit of the police department was launched to prevent the increase of intimate partner killing of women in the country. In the same year, the National Council for Women’s Right was created in the Ministry of Justice with the intention of promoting women’s economic, social, political, and cultural rights.

The few 26 female members of the Congress in 1988, along with Brazilian feminist movement, had great relevance in the elaboration of the Constitution of Brazil. Known as the Citizen Constitution, the 1988 Constitution brought the greatest victories for women’s right as it establishes that men and women are equal in rights and obligations by Law. However, even after its promulgation, the advance in the implementation of policies that guarantee women’s integral citizenship has been very slow.

The Constitution of 1988 was a landmark for public policies that guarantee and promote women’s right. For instance, it establishes that family planning is a free decision of a couple and the State must provide educational and scientific means for it. Therefore, Brazilian public service guarantees health public policies to assist women in pregnancy prevention, to receive complete prenatal treatment, birth assistance, disease control, sexually transmitted diseases prevention, penis, breast, and uterus cancer, among others. Protection during maternity was also foreseen in social rights. The Constitution guarantees that all working women have the right to fully paid 120 day maternity leave, with job stability. Fathers have the right of fully paid paternity leave of 5 days. In public administration, maternity leave has been recently, in 2008, extended to 180 days and the paternity leave to 20 days, in 2016, to all civil servants, without any discount of salary or risk of losing the job. It is worth mentioning that both, maternity and paternity leaves, are applied to adoption as well. The private companies that adhere to the extended maternity and paternity leave program win the title of “Citizen Company,” and, in return, the full salaries paid to parents during the extension of their maternity or paternity leave may be deducted from federal taxes.

On the other hand, the Constitution declared protection of life since its conception. Thus, voluntary abortion in Brazil is still considered illegal, except in cases of rape, danger to a woman’s life, or anencephaly (brain malformation of the fetus). Under any other circumstances, voluntary abortion leads women to 3 years in prison in Brazil. Despite a long fight in the Congress, headed by congresswomen with the support of women’s movements, to decriminalize abortion in Brazil, religion has a very powerful influence on public opinion, which makes the debate controversial in Brazilian society and, consequently, makes it hard to approve pro-abortion laws. Only ¼ of Brazilian are in favor of women’s free decision to terminate pregnancy and more than half defend that women should be incarcerated in case of intentional abortion (Institutos Patricia Galvão e Locomotiva 2017).

Institutional Arrangements for Women’s Right Implementation

Public administration in Brazil has promoted important institutional advances to promote gender equity, but with many challenges to overcome yet. In 2003, the Brazilian government launched the Special Secretariat for Policy for Women, linked to the Presidency, with ministerial status. Thus, the Minister of Women became the head of National Council for Women’s Right, created in 1995.

As a result, a great process of social participation to elaborate public policies for women was started in 2004. The first National Conference for Public Policy for Women was organized by the Special Secretariat for Policy for Women and counted with more than two thousand delegates from all Brazilian states and municipalities, which had previously organized their own local conferences, adding more than a hundred thousand women to the debate. As a result of the conference, the National Plan for Public Policies for Women, a solid tool for consolidating a wide range of public policies aimed at women’s autonomy and empowerment, presented goals and action plans for: job and citizenship, education, health, sexual and reproductive rights, violence against women, and monitoring and management of the Plan (Presidência da República 2017).

The National Conferences for Public Policy for Women were followed in 2007, 2011, and 2016 with the average of two thousand women participating in each event. Each National Conference was preceded by hundreds of local conferences, involving about two hundred thousand women during the four conferences (Presidência da República 2017).

The National Plans for Public Policy for Women constituted Brazilian Public Administration’s main tool for gender mainstreaming. Gender equity was first introduced in Brazilian Public Administration as one of the goals of environmental, social, economic, health, education, and agrarian public policies, among others.

Therefore, the Special Secretariat for Public Policy for Women has been in charge of coordinating, monitoring, and evaluating all governmental actions aimed at women in the Federal Public Administration, which includes ministries, regulatory agencies, state companies, public foundations, and state banks. Also, it should orient the action of the federal government towards states and municipalities so as to promote federal policies. The Secretariat lost its status as a ministry in 2017, when it was transferred from the Presidency to the Human Rights Ministry. Since 2017, it has been a National Secretariat for Public Policy for Women, with less autonomy and power of inter-ministerial coordination.

Public Policies to Prevent Violence against Women

The main actions of the Federal Public Administration, through the Secretary of Public Policy for Women, in the last two decades were aimed at combating and preventing violence against women in Brazil. Law 11.340 (2006), internationally known as “Maria da Penha” Law (The Law was named after Maria da Penha, a Brazilian women’s rights activist whose violent husband attempted to kill her more than once and left her paraplegic. It was a long fight to put her husband in prison. She even had to take the case by herself to the Organization of the United States. She struggled to change the Brazilian law so as to increase punishment for the offenders, offer special domestic violence courts and 24-h shelters for abused women. The Maria da Penha Law is considered to be a landmark legislation on domestic abuse by the United Nations. Maria da Penha was 71 years old in 2018 and still working tirelessly to campaign on women’s rights.), and Law 13.104 (2015), known as Feminicide Law, have changed radically the way Brazilian Public Administration and the Judiciary System deal with killing of women by former or intimate partner. Maria da Penha Law is considered to be ground breaking for Brazilian Public Administration for it has made the concept of the many types of violence against women clearer to Brazilian society and to civil servants; it has created 11 public services and protective measures for victims of domestic violence; and it has increased the penalty for aggressors. As a result, public mechanisms and tools to prevent violence against women were widely implemented around the country. Special Courts for Domestic and Familiar Violence against Women were created in order to judge and punish domestic violence with more rigor. A 24 h direct toll-free number (180) was created to report violence against women or get information about women’s rights and public services aimed at women.

As a National Law, Maria da Penha has had different impact locally according to the institutional level of public protective systems of states and municipalities in Brazil. Cities that implemented specialized police stations for women (Delegacia da Mulher), Women’s Shelter (Casa Abrigo) for those who need to be isolated from their violent partner and Special Courts for Domestic and Familiar Violence against Women had significantly better results in the mindset of the female population, since statistics show that women report the aggressors more often due to the fact that they believed that public action would be taken, according to an evalution made by the Applied Economics Research Institute of the Brazilian Government (Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada 2015).

Therefore, the impact of the Law depends on the implementation of public policies by public administration. From 2006 to 2015, national e local public administrations in Brazil invested public resources to implement institutional mechanisms that resulted in the decrease of 10% of killing of women inside their own homes, preventing thousands of deaths caused by domestic violence (Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada 2015).


As it has been shown above, the presence of women in high public administration in Brazil, that is, in decision-making positions, is still scarce, be it in national or local level. Thus, the implementation of policies with gender perspective takes place in very slow paths. Despite having high level of education, female civil servants are rarely appointed to high positions, occupying an average of only 20% of high positions in the executive branch. As such positions are politically appointed, without any official selection criteria based on knowledge or curriculum, the low representation of women in public administration may be a result of the low representation of women in the Congress, 15% in the Lower Chamber. The biggest victories for women’s rights were accomplished in Brazil due to strong movements of women and a few women in the Congress during the elaboration of the Constitution of 1988. Later, the biggest progress was on policies to prevent violence, which were also due to the persistence of Maria da Penha herself, the presence of a woman president, support of national and international women’s organizations, congresswomen, institutional arrangements to coordinate policies for women and strong media pressure. As seen above, Brazilian women were also protagonists in the elaboration of the National Plans for Policy for Women during the four national conferences organized by the Special Secretariat for Policy for Women from 2004 to 2016. However, for the effective implementation of public policies on the many areas described in the Plan, it is important that white and black women be in leading positions to elaborate and implement policies with gender and race perspective for job, citizenship, education, health, sexual and reproductive rights, and others.



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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Ministry of Economy and Federal University of BahiaBrasiliaBrazil