A Conversation with Her Excellency Michelle Bachelet, President of Chile
Time and Place
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On September 22, 2016, the Wilson Center’s Women in Public Service Project and Latin American Program hosted a conversation with Michelle Bachelet, the President of Chile and the current President of the Pacific Alliance. Andrew Selee, Executive Vice President of the Wilson Center, offered opening remarks and introduced President Bachelet. Following her speech, President Bachelet answered questions from Gwen K. Young, Director of the Women in Public Service Project, Cynthia Arnson, Director of the Latin American Program, and the audience.
President Bachelet began her speech by emphasizing the importance of women’s empowerment and participation in the workforce to development, comparing the lack of women’s involvement to playing with half of a soccer team. She lamented the lack of women in the Chilean Congress and in government globally. “Inequality, these hateful differences affect not just women, but the ability of countries and the international community to make progress toward sustainable development,” President Bachelet said.
President Bachelet emphasized the importance of women’s participation in sustainable development, saying it can bring economic and social benefits. Almost a million Chilean women could enter the workforce, she said, and if they did, it is estimated that the country’s GDP would rise six percent. She added that women’s participation can also change political priorities and policies.
“The evidence is clear and overwhelming,” she argued. “To end gender inequality is a matter of justice and an opportunity for development. Or as I used to say, ‘It is the right thing to do, but it’s also the smart thing to do.’”
She called on governments to invest more in education and childcare but also advocated for a cultural shift: “We will also be unable to break traditional stereotypes if women continue to maintain their homes on their own and do most of the housework without any sense of shared responsibility,” she said.
Throughout her speech, President Bachelet shared measures Chile is taking to empower women. To increase the number of women in office, they have created quota system for candidates, requiring that at least 40 percent are women. To encourage women to enter the workforce, they have increased maternal protection, started programs to promote the sharing of domestic responsibilities, and created policies to mainstream childcare. Women entrepreneurs are encouraged by government programs like Crece Mujer Emprendedora, which promotes financial inclusion and access to capital for women.
“We have established spaces for debate and joint collaboration between the public and private sector and academia, given that women´s empowerment is not just a numbers game or government initiatives, but that it involves all of society as well as defines how we want to grow and develop,” she said.
President Bachelet asserted that this is important not only for domestic policies but also for global policies: “In the regional and internationals arena, as in our bilateral relations, the gender perspective can no longer be overlooked. Gender equality and women’s empowerment are at the heart of our international actions.” Though she explained how the Pacific Alliance is working toward this goal, she said her country, Latin America, and the world “have a long way to go.”
Following the President Bachelet’s remarks, Gwen K. Young began the discussion by asking her what data or initiatives regarding women’s political empowerment are missing. President Bachelet emphasized the importance of women leaders by describing the impact of women serving in local government: “When the girls and the parents of those girls in those local communities saw female participation, they wanted their girls to study, and the girls wanted to study because they saw they can do something else.”
President Bachelet commented on the need to change cultural issues that women in government face, including a tendency for society to morally punish women who divide their time between politics and family. Cultural attitudes can also affect a woman’s decision to run for office. “Sometimes women feel they have to be perfect to be candidates,” President Bachelet said, “and if they’re not perfect, they don’t deserve [it].” She said societies must find ways to support women, encourage them to enter politics, and break down prejudice. While there is information on the economic side of women’s empowerment, President Bachelet said there is a lack of studies about political participation.
Ms. Young asked about women in business, mentioning that most are in small business and asking about strategies to move and promote those women. After discussing increased trade, President Bachelet stressed the importance of supporting women who are opening their own businesses and encouraging them to enter any profession they like and not only those stereotypically associated with women.
When asked by Cynthia Arnson about why the political atmosphere in Chile is “sour” and about the political alienation of young people, President Bachelet responded that, like the rest of the world, citizens are discontented with government. She recommended that government policies be more adaptive to a changing world. Chile is in a transition where people are more aware of rights and “focus more on the rights language and not much on the responsibility and duties language,” she said, but rights and responsibility are connected. The “children of democracy” are more demanding, and while that can be difficult for leaders, President Bachelet noted that she believes it is strategically positive. In an effort to improve politics, Chile has reformed campaigns—shortening the length of campaigns and strengthening rules on campaign finance—and developed a strong anti-corruption and transparency agenda.
President Bachelet then fielded questions from the audience. She remarked that though childcare is expensive, “The return rate is fantastic,” and she spoke about the need to work on the “historical debt” Chile owed to its indigenous Mapuche people.
Asked about the impeachment of Brazil’s former President Dilma Rousseff, President Bachelet said she is a friend of hers and that “legally, I can’t say anything. But I don’t like what happened. That’s all I can say. And I think it’s easier when it’s a woman than when it’s a man.”
President Bachelet responded to a question about gender parity in her cabinet by calling for political parties to focus on women’s representation when providing recommendations for positions. She remarked that while some women do not have “gender perspective”—saying that they were elected because they were qualified, not because they were women—President Bachelet said, “I was elected because I was good, but because I was elected, I have to ensure that other good women don’t disappear.”
She answered a question on the media’s treatment of female politicians with personal experiences. “I was the fat one, you know? At that time, there was another friend of mine who was bigger than me, but he was considered ‘the panther,’ powerful man. Nobody would say he was fat.” She said some women leaders try to “disguise” themselves as men, but “you have to respect your own way of leading. Some people don’t understand that. They feel it’s weakness. It’s not weakness.”
President Bachelet answered questions about quotas in government and business by stressing their importance. “It’s not about having women because of having women. It’s because it’s good for the company.” She noted that quotas might be unnecessary in the future because gender equality will be considered natural, but “affirmative action measures” are necessary until then. When asked about how to respond to quota critics, she said, “My first answer would be, ‘Why do they mention that about women? Why do they never say there are men that are there and nobody’s asking if they’re capable?’”
Following the audience Q&A, Ms. Young thanked President Bachelet for her remarks.
This event was co-sponsored by the Global Women's Leadership Initiative, Smith College, and the Latin American Program.