Claudia Sheinbaum, then head of government of Mexico City, in a meeting in the Tláhuac town hall (October 23, 2021) | Octavio Hoyos / Shutterstock

Claudia Sheinbaum, then head of government of Mexico City, in a meeting in the Tláhuac town hall (October 23, 2021) | Octavio Hoyos / Shutterstock

Mexico has just elected its first woman president and the race was between two women: Claudia Sheinbaum and Xóchitl Gálvez. What readers in the United States may not realize is that this election was not just an unplanned all-women race for the top executive job, but the result of well-designed women-friendly policy. Since 2019, Mexico’s “parity in everything” policy mandates that 50 percent of public elective and non-elective posts in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government must be held by women. Mexico’s “parity in everything” constitutional reform has led the country to hold some of the highest proportions of women in politics, surpassing traditionally women-friendly democracies, such as Iceland or Sweden.

In academics, women’s descriptive representation emphasizes the composition of branches of government in terms of gender, race, and other identity categories. Gender quotas are an example of descriptive representation. Ranging from 30 percent to 40 percent of women candidates in party lists, and more commonly for legislative elections, gender quotas have been regularly enforced throughout the world as they are regarded as an important component of “real” participatory democracy, in which gender-based discrimination should be prevented or remedied.

Today, quotas have been adopted by over 130 countries in the world. Yet—depending on electoral systems, well-designed quotas, and other contextual factors—some quotas have worked better than others. For example, employing proportional representation (PR) electoral systems seems to benefit women when combined with quotas that regulate and penalize non-compliance. This is particularly the case of PR closed party list systems, where voters do not get to choose the candidates from the lists but are instead pre-assembled by political parties. Indeed, since most countries are still traditionally patriarchal, relying on political parties to gather a list of candidates rather than on voters’ choices seem to benefit women. This does not challenge the idea of democracy as PR systems tend to be more representative in terms of gender, race, and so on, and voters still make their choices when they vote for a list of candidates.

Beyond descriptive representation, researchers and policymakers have also studied how an increasing proportion of women in politics may lead to symbolic representation or the broader social and cultural impacts that women representation have in the female population. Finally, the composition of legislatures do matter in terms of legislative priorities and policy preferences. For example, in Latin America, women legislators introduced progressive bills that led to same-sex marriage and abortion laws in the region. 

Since the first decade of the millennium, a new wave of quotas emerged with force in Latin America, Europe and beyond. This time, proposals for parity systems, which require the alternation between male and female candidates in legislative elections (or a 50 percent quota requirement) spread worldwide. Based on the idea that parity underlies democracy—or that “equal representation between men and women in public office is a determining condition for democracy”—gender parity has been adopted in 11 of 20 Latin American countries. To be sure, the region has yet to reach gender parity in their legislatures. Yet Latin America has currently the largest proportions of women parliamentarians in the world, a rate of 35.2 percent, due to quota and parity mechanisms. It is possible that in a near future, women will be equally represented in top leadership positions, if parity systems are effectively implemented for all positions of government and at all levels of government.

Mexico is an example of this kind. Since the 2019 “parity in everything reform, the first of its kind worldwide, Mexico has achieved gender parity in the federal legislature and in almost all of its 31 states. However, implementing gender parity in Mexico has met some challenges, particularly for the executive and judicial branches of government. As a result, women remain underrepresented in Mexico’s cabinet, state government, and local level positions. Similarly, women have not reached parity in the judicial branch, as women remain underrepresented as magistrates or judges of Mexico’s courts of law. Both governmental and non-governmental organizations are making efforts to remedy the current situation and secure the legal requirement of “parity in everything.” The election of its first woman president in a two-women candidate contest has been the result of this policy.

Latin America has long been known for machismo and a male-oriented culture; the region has generally shown little concern for lessening gender-related inequities. This makes it all the more remarkable that many Latin American countries have adopted gender quotas and parity laws. Indeed, the relative success of Latin American women in winning electoral office in the new millennium—including the presidencies of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Honduras, and now also Mexico—reflects global changes in gender roles and a major cultural shift in the region. Mexico has been at the vanguard of these rapid changes both regionally and globally. It remains to be seen whether the rest of the Americas will follow.