Catherine Reyes-Housholder – Presidentas Rise: Consequences for Women in Cabinets?

This is a guest post by Catherine Reyes-Housholder, Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University. It is based on her paper, “Presidentas Rise: Consequences for Women in Cabinets?”, published in Latin American Politics and Society, 58 (3): 3-25, 2016.

More and more scholars and citizens want to know not only how women access presidential power, but what women do with this power once they are in office. Do female presidents use their power to promote change favoring women? I tackle this question by examining gender in the executive branch in Latin America—a region that has elected female presidents more times (nines so far) than any other region of the world.

There are some theoretical reasons to believe that female presidents will use their presidential power to promote change favoring women. In a recent article in Latin American Politics and Society, I argued that female presidents are more likely than male presidents to nominate women to their cabinets.

There are two reasons for this. The first speaks to bottom-up pressures from voters and the second to top-down, elite factors. First, female presidents are more likely than their male counterparts to interpret their mandate as a call for a greater female presence in the executive branch. Voting for a female president could easily be interpreted as a desire not just for a female president, but also for more female ministers. Female presidents thus may appoint more women to their cabinets because they believe their constituencies want them to.

Turning to top-down factors, the second reason has to do with the kinds of personal qualities presidents seek when they choose their ministers. In Latin America, presidents have virtually no formal restrictions on who they can nominate (i.e. no legislative body approves the presidents’ ministerial picks). So much of cabinet decision-making is based on informal considerations.

Presidents tend to seek ministerial candidates with two specific qualities: like-mindedness and loyalty. They look for like-minded ministers because they need someone who generally agrees with their policy ideas, or is at least like-minded enough to productively disagree and produce a better solution. Presidents also need loyal ministers who will faithfully execute their legislative agenda and are unlikely to threaten their hold on power.

Why would female presidents be more likely than male presidents to perceive women as more like-minded and loyal? The homophily principle and scholarship on gendered political networks helps explain this. Gender homophily is the recurring phenomenon where, ceteris paribus, women tend to associate more with women and men tend to associate more with men. Studies on gendered political networks suggest that male-dominance tends to feed on itself, making it difficult for women to penetrate male networks. On the flip side, because elite female politicians are more likely than their male counterparts to network with women, female presidents are more likely to perceive elite female politicians as like-minded and loyal.

So there are two reasons why we should expect female presidents and female ministers to present certain affinities. First, female presidents are more likely to face bottom-up pressures to do so. Second, female presidents are more likely to view female ministerial candidates as like-minded and loyal. They therefore face elite-based incentives to name more female ministers. These bottom-up mandate and top-down elite variables may both function as mechanisms linking presidents’ sex to a use of power to enhance women’s presence in cabinets.

But there’s a catch. While male presidents often historically have named all-male cabinets, female presidents are highly unlikely to completely exclude men. This is in part because female presidents face an informal constraint in assembling their cabinets. One of the most important constraints on their ability to name female ministers is the supply of female ministerial candidates. One major determinant of the supply is “political capital resources,” which can refer to relationships with party elites and with industries or social groups related to a particular ministry (i.e. women’s groups for Women’s Ministries).

Because women are less likely than men to possess “political capital resources,” the female pool ministerial candidates is generally much more shallow than the male pool. So I also argue that female presidents are more likely to “make a difference” in terms of women’s presence in cabinets when the pool of female ministerial candidates is deepest. Right after their inauguration, the pool for both male and female candidates is deeper than later on in the presidential term. As presidents later fire and hire ministers, the pool of qualified candidates will continue to shrink. I predicted that female presidents’ decision-making in naming women to cabinet is most likely to statistically differ from male presidents’ decision-making at the beginning rather than at the end of their terms.

The depth of the female ministerial pool also depends on certain characteristics of ministries. Some ministries are more associated with traditionally “feminine” roles and qualities—for example education and health. Others, namely defense and finance, are more “masculine.” There will tend to be more female ministerial candidates for “feminine” ministries because female politicians are more likely to possess political capital resources in traditionally feminine domains than traditionally masculine domains. For example, female politicians are more likely to possess political capital resources in areas of education rather than defense; they are more likely to have networked with social organizations related to schools than the military.

In short, I argue that female presidents overall are more likely than their male counterparts to name women to the cabinets. However, due to supply constraints, female presidents’ impact will likely be strongest for their inaugural cabinets and for “feminine” ministries.

I tested this theory on an original database of all inaugural and end-of-term cabinets by all democratically elected presidents from 1999-2015 in 18 Latin American countries. The dataset included 1,908 ministers. I found some evidence that presidentas in Latin America tended to name more women to their cabinets, and the most consistent evidence showed that they were more likely to name women to their inaugural cabinets and to “feminine” ministries. The dataset is located on the Harvard dataverse and on my web site www.reyes-housholder.com where you can access all the documents you would need to replicate my findings.

To conclude, there are theoretical reasons to believe and empirical evidence showing that female presidents will use at least their delegative power to improve women’s numerical representation in the executive branch.

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