“CRISTINA’S pleasure” blared the cover of a 2012 edition of Noticias, a tabloid news magazine in Argentina. A caricature of the country’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, seemed to show her in mid-orgasm, her head thrown back, her mouth open. “Every day she seems more confident, sensual and even shameless,” the story went on. For further enlightenment, readers were invited to watch an animated video online of the president masturbating.
Good taste is not how tabloids sell copies in any country, but it is hard to imagine a British red top describing a female politician quite so crudely. The treatment of Ms Fernández in Noticias points to a Latin American paradox. Women have made great progress towards equality with men, especially in schools, workplaces and politics. But social attitudes have changed more slowly. Women’s ambitions are often belittled; hostility towards them is common. Raw statistics tell a story of female advancement; machista culture has yet to catch up.
In the past quarter-century, the proportion of women in the workforce has risen more in Latin America than in any other region. True, they typically hold jobs that require little skill and pay low salaries: domestic work is the largest source of female employment. But women now spend more years in school than men, which suggests that their prospects will improve. A handful have climbed to the top of the corporate ladder. Women lead Rede Energia, one of Brazil’s biggest electricity companies, and B2W, its biggest online retailer. Isela Costantini runs General Motors’ operations in Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.
Women are still scarce in Latin American boardrooms. Not in politics, however. A quarter of legislators in the region are women, compared with one in seven in 2003. Several countries, including Argentina, Brazil and Mexico, have adopted quotas for women on parties’ lists of candidates. In the past decade, voters have elected women to the presidencies of Brazil, Chile and Costa Rica as well as Argentina, where Ms Fernández succeeded her husband, Néstor Kirchner, who later died.
Yet Latin Americans are less likely than people in any other region to say that women are treated with dignity. Only a third say women are respected, around half the share who think so in the Middle East and Africa, according to a Gallup poll. In Peru and Colombia (where corporate bosses are more likely to be female than in any other Latin American country), just a fifth of people say women are appreciated.
The higher expectations of Latin American women may explain part of the difference with other regions. They are more educated than African and Middle Eastern women, and so are probably angrier about inequality. But it may also be that their success is provoking a backlash. Men have a “misconception that the pie is only so big”, says Louise Goeser, chief executive of Siemens Mesoamérica, a big engineering firm. They think that if they “give pieces away, there’ll be less for them.”
In 2009 48% of Latin Americans thought that women who earn higher salaries than men “would have problems”, according to Latinobarómetro, a polling group. That was up from 36% five years before. The share of people saying “men make better political leaders” and “a woman’s place is in the home” also rose slightly. The survey was conducted while Ms Fernández and Michelle Bachelet, Chile’s president, were serving their first terms. Electing women to high office is apparently no cure for sexism.