Madame President, Madame Ambassador? Women Presidents and Gender Parity in Latin America’s Diplomatic Services

Published date01 June 2022
Date01 June 2022
Subject MatterArticles
2022, Vol. 75(2) 425 –440
Political Research Quarterly
© 2021 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912921997922
While women remain underrepresented in all political
leadership positions, this is especially true in diplomacy.1
Recent studies suggest that women occupy only 15 per-
cent of all ambassadorships worldwide (Aggestam and
Towns 2019, 23; Towns et al., 2018, 193), and most
women ambassadors concentrate in less prestigious post-
ings, which limits their career opportunities and political
influence (Calin and Buterbaugh 2019; Schiemichen
2019; Towns and Niklasson 2018). Ambassadors repre-
sent their home country and its interests abroad. They are
senior executive appointees tasked with conducting inter-
national relations on a day-to-day basis. Yet ambassadors
are often unrepresentative of the country’s population
they represent.
This study focuses on the gendered nature of ambas-
sadorial appointments. Analyzing the diplomatic services
of ten Latin American countries between 2000 and 2018,
we examine the factors that explain the appointment of
women to ambassadorships. More specifically, we are
interested in whether the election of women to the presi-
dency in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Costa Rica
impacted the gender gap at the top of those countries’ for-
eign services.
The past two decades saw an unprecedented wave of
women that came to power in Latin America, including
Michelle Bachelet in Chile (2006–2010, 2014–2018),
Cristina Fernández in Argentina (2007–2015), Laura
Chinchilla in Costa Rica (2010–2014), and Dilma
Rousseff in Brazil (2011–2016).2 In particular, Bachelet
became internationally recognized as a champion for
gender equality (see Franceschet and Thomas 2015;
Thomas 2016). She appointed Chile’s first gender parity
997922PRQXXX10.1177/1065912921997922Political Research QuarterlyErlandsen et al.
1Universidad del Desarrollo, Chile
2Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Chile
Corresponding Author:
Carsten-Andreas Schulz, Instituto de Ciencia Política, Pontificia
Universidad Católica de Chile, Av. Vicuña Mackenna 4860, Macul,
Madame President, Madame
Ambassador? Women Presidents
and Gender Parity in Latin America’s
Diplomatic Services
Matthias Erlandsen1, María Fernanda Hernández-Garza2,
and Carsten-Andreas Schulz2
This study focuses on the gendered nature of ambassadorial appointments. Analyzing the diplomatic services of ten
Latin American countries between 2000 and 2018, we examine the factors that explain the designation of women to
ambassadorships. More especially, we are interested in whether the election of women to the presidency in Argentina,
Brazil, Chile, and Costa Rica had an impact on the gender gap at the top of those countries’ foreign services. Drawing
on an original dataset on diplomatic appointments, we show that the presence of women ambassadors has increased
only marginally over the past two decades. Furthermore, multivariate regression analysis demonstrates that women
presidents on the left have (partially and temporarily) corrected the gender gap in their foreign services through
political appointments, provided they had the discretionary powers to do so. Our findings suggest that the impact
of women-led presidencies is conditional on the chief executive’s vested interest in gender parity and the scope of
presidents’ prerogatives to appoint ambassadors. In so doing, the study contributes to debates on the descriptive
underrepresentation of women in executive positions and the gender gap in diplomacy.
diplomacy, gender parity, Latin America, executive appointments, ambassadorships
426 Political Research Quarterly 75(2)
2 Political Research Quarterly 00(0)
cabinet in 2006 and became the inaugural Executive
Director of UN Women after her first term in office.
Bachelet, Fernández, and Rousseff also formed part of
the so-called “pink tide” that brought leftist governments
to power across Latin America. Despite running on plat-
forms that emphasized social justice and equality, these
progressive governments did not always advance wom-
en’s rights (Blofield et al., 2017). As in Chile, the election
of women to the presidency in Argentina and Brazil
raised expectations that the presidentas would act on
behalf of women. However, both Fernández and Rousseff
faced criticism for not making gender equality a priority
(Jalalzai 2015; Jalalzai and dos Santos 2015; Lopreite
2015). By the same token, the impact of Laura Chinchilla’s
center-right government on women’s advancement in
Costa Rica remains contested (Piscopo 2018, 168). We
ask whether these women used their presidential preroga-
tives to appoint more women to ambassadorships.
Studies on the gender gap in political representation
have proliferated in recent years. While earlier scholar-
ship focused on the presence of women in legislative bod-
ies, an increasing number of studies examines the
gendered process of executive appointments (see Field
2020). These studies expect that core executives chose
appointees based on their preferences and in response to
political incentives. At the same time, they recognize that
selectors are gendered actors who make decisions within
a context shaped by gender-based assumptions and
expectations (Annesley et al., 2019). Reyes-Housholder
(2016), for example, observes that women presidents in
Latin America appointed more women to their cabinets
because of their electoral mandates and gendered net-
works. Although scholars disagree on whether women in
power appoint more women, they agree that institutional
and political factors condition the effect (Annesley et al.,
2019; Barnes and O’Brien 2018; Childs and Krook 2009;
Field 2020; Krook and O’Brien 2012).
We provide the first cross-national comparative study
on the importance of the selector’s gender for understand-
ing the descriptive underrepresentation of women in
diplomacy.3 Our contribution is twofold. First, the study
expands the scope of the present literature to an underex-
plored area of executive appointments. Second, it also
speaks to recent debates on the political and institutional
origins of the gender gap in diplomacy. In contrast to the
public and scholarly scrutiny that the appointment of cab-
inet ministers has received, we still know little about the
process in countries’ diplomatic services, especially out-
side Europe and North America (Aggestam and Towns
2019, 23; Lequesne 2019, 781).
To that end, we analyze an original dataset that con-
tains information on the (attributed) gender of ambassa-
dors and whether they were recruited from the professional
foreign service or political appointees.4 Unlike prime
ministers, presidents tend to have considerable discretion
in the appointment of ambassadors. While constitutional
prerogatives empower incumbents, as selectors, they also
face constraints because political allies may expect
ambassadorships in exchange for their support (Fedderke
and Jett 2017; Hollibaugh 2015). Furthermore, in many
countries, the career service conditions the “supply” of
eligible personnel, often to the detriment of women.
Existing research suggests that women in diplomacy con-
tinue to face unequal opportunities, leading to their
underrepresentation at the top of the organizational hier-
archy (Aggestam and Towns 2019, 17). Although politi-
cal considerations and the presence of a career service
impose limitations on the executive, selectors can use
their prerogatives to bypass these constraints. Discretion
creates space for selectors to act as key allies or “critical
actors” for advancing women’s presence in leadership
positions (Aggestam and True 2020; Annesley et al.,
2019, 19).5 We expect that selectors invested in gender
parity will (partially) correct the “supply-side” failure in
the career service through political appointments, pro-
vided they have the discretion to do so.
Consistent with existing scholarship, we find that
women are underrepresented in our sample of Latin
American foreign services, accounting for only 15 per-
cent of all ambassadors in 2018—well below the parity
target of 50 percent. We further observe that women-led
governments have not consistently yielded an increase in
the proportion of women ambassadors. The positive
effect only occurred in three cases of leftist governments
headed by women (Argentina, Brazil, and Chile). In con-
trast, the proportion of women appointed to ambassado-
rial positions decreased during Laura Chinchilla’s term in
office (Costa Rica). Our findings confirm previous evi-
dence that leftist governments tend to advance women’s
participation in political leadership (Barnes and O’Brien
2018; Bashevkin 2014; Claveria 2014; Davis 1997;
Escobar-Lemmon and Taylor-Robinson 2005). The effect
is further dependent on the scope of presidential discre-
tion over political appointments (high in Argentina and
Chile; low in Brazil). We conclude that the impact of
women-led presidencies is conditional on political and
institutional factors, namely the executive’s vested inter-
est in gender parity and the scope of discretionary power
to appoint ambassadors.
The remainder proceeds as follows: The second sec-
tion examines the history of women’s inclusion in Latin
America’s foreign services, focusing on the reasons of
women’s underrepresentation and the role that discretion-
ary appointments played in opening opportunities for
women outside the career bureaucracy. The third section
reviews the literature on the gendered dynamics of execu-
tive appointments. The fourth section develops our main
argument, which centers on the role of critical actors in

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