Citizen Today: women in leadership

Opening up Brazil

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Brazilian minister Luiza Bairros talks about how she has overcome gender and racial barriers.

Although it is led by a female president, deep divisions remain in Brazil, as the country’s minister for policies in racial equality promotion Luiza Bairros can testify.

“The obstacles placed before me throughout my career had more to do with race than only with gender,” she observes. “I say that with confidence because this is backed up by data revealed by statistics in Brazil. Racial discrimination is much more present in Brazilian society than gender discrimination.”

“When observed from the salary perspective, Brazilian hierarchy puts white men at the very top, followed by white women, black men and then black women at the bottom,” she continues. “This shows an overlap of the presence of racism, rather than a gender issue per se.”

“Gender issues do exist, but for a black woman the racial dimension will always represent more than gender. The racial condition makes gender discrimination much more complex for black women and, therefore, much harder to be overcome.”

Prior to her current role, Bairros was involved in racism-fighting projects from the United Nations Development Program and served as the Secretary for the Promotion of Racial Equality in the State of Bahia for two years before her promotion to the ministry.

Given what she believes is racism’s deep penetration of Brazilian society, it is clear that there is no shortage of issues to address. “Today, despite all our advances, society is not unanimous on the matter. We live a very peculiar situation — Brazil deals with, faces, and debates racism, but we haven’t reached consensus on how to make its effects disappear.

Bairros lists her top three priorities:

  • Implementing the National Affirmative Action Program — ensuring that a host of individual policies are incorporated into the Federal Government by the end of President Dilma’s term in office
  • Strengthening the internal management and systems of her department
  • Focus on the traditional societal groups: the Quilombola communities, the communities of African origin and gypsies.

These three priorities are linked together by another element, which is the National System for Promotion of Racial Equality. This system aims to foster collaboration among the three spheres of government, establishing federal, state and municipal competences for delivering the national policy for promotion of racial equality.

Incorporating diversity into policy-making will not be easy. “People, public managers and authorities must abandon racism,” she says. “If they fail to do so, they will not be able to manage processes of social inclusion.”

Bairros remembers the female domestic workers in her family. “They were always role models, women who would always be asked first — even by the men — what should or should not be done. I also have met strong militant women in the black movement. It was in the movement that I understood that being black does not make you less of a woman.”