A Brazilian law passed in the late 1990s requires 30% of legislative candidates to be women. But a quarter-century later, less than 20% of seats in the country's Congress are held by women — and Brazil's gender gap in representation ranks among the bottom of all Latin American countries.
So why has the gender quota failed? Brazil native Pedro dos Santos, a political-science professor at College of St. Benedict/St. John's University, is studying the issue through the Fulbright Distinguished Scholars Program. This summer, dos Santos was awarded a scholarship for the 2022-23 academic year.
The program uses federal dollars to help students, teachers, artists and professionals foster mutual understanding with other countries. CSB/SJU has had 15 faculty who have earned Fulbright Scholar awards since 1950 but dos Santos is the only Distinguished Scholar, the most prestigious status in the program.
As part of his scholarship, dos Santos spent time in Brazil this summer and plans to return next year to continue studying political-party dynamics and demographic representation. In a written response to the Star Tribune, dos Santos, 42, talked about his project. His answers have been edited for clarity and length.
Q: What does your Fulbright project entail?
A: It focuses on extreme nonviable candidacies. In Brazil's legislative elections, the number of candidates is very high and many candidates receive very few votes, including some who receive no votes. My goal is to better understand why some candidates receive so few votes and why parties allow such candidates to run. One answer is already somewhat established: Brazil has a gender quota for candidates, and most of these extreme nonviable candidates are women. This means parties place women in their candidate list with no intention to help them run a good campaign.
Q: Why is the gender quota law flawed?
A: In Brazil, when running in legislative elections, there are no specific districts. So, for example, Minnesota would have one election where all state House candidates would run for the 134 available seats. This means Brazil has more political parties — currently over 30 — and those parties support more than one candidate for each legislative election. The short answer to why the quota doesn't work is this: Political party leaders designed the gender quota law with all kinds of loopholes so they could avoid supporting women candidates. Most of my published work emphasizes the fact that the Brazilian political system was created for men by men, so now that women are in it, we must understand how legacies of the past influence the present.
Q: Can you apply your research to recent U.S. politics? Any takeaways?
A: The idea of looking at these extreme nonviable candidates came from looking at studies on sacrificial lambs, or candidates that run with very few chances of winning. In the U.S., a sacrificial lamb tends to be a candidate from one of the two major parties who run knowing they have limited chances of winning given the socio-political makeup of their district. At some point, women were overwhelmingly running as sacrificial lambs in these districts.
Q: What races or initiatives are you watching in the November elections?
A: I will first focus on the Oct. 2 election in Brazil, where I'll watch to see the number of women who get elected for legislative positions. In Minnesota, I am especially interested in school board elections; there are a lot of issues that are coming from national debates that may influence these races.