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Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto began the second half of his term by installing a new cabinet in order, he said, to “cope with new circumstances and challenges of the country.” But the cabinet gender breakdown remains the same after the August 27 cabinet shuffle and continues a trend of keeping women out of the highest levels of the executive branch. Only three out of 21 ministerial positions are held by women: Rosario Robles moved from the Secretariat of Social Development to the Secretariat of Agrarian, Territorial, and Urban Development; Mercedes Juan López stays on as secretary of health; and Claudia Ruiz Massieu left the Secretariat of Tourism to take the helm of Mexico’s Secretariat of Foreign Affairs, marking the third time in Mexico’s history that a woman serves in that key position.
The issue of women’s underrepresentation in high-level positions in Mexico is not a new one, nor is it representative of Mexican voters, of which 52 percent are women. In the past 35 years—spanning seven presidential administrations—there have been only 23 female secretaries, of whom were six appointed to the expanded cabinet, usually in less prestigious positions. The first major appointment was in 1998, when then-President Ernesto Zedillo named Rosario Green as Mexico’s first female foreign affairs secretary. His successor, Vicente Fox, had three women in his cabinet, and in both administrations, only two women retained their position for the entirety of the presidents’ six-year terms. Under Felipe Calderón's administration, this situation improved somewhat with four female cabinet appointees, of which two occupied top-tier positions: Georgina Kessel was the secretary of energy while Patricia Espinosa headed up foreign affairs.
This contrasts with the Western Hemisphere as a whole. According to the 2015 Women in Ministerial Positions ranking by UN Women, the Americas stands as the region with the highest percentage of women ministers at 22.4 percent, with Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa in second and third places, respectively. But Mexico has just the 46th-highest rate of women ministers, ranking near the bottom regionally when compared to other Latin American countries and coming in after Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Chile, Cuba, Colombia, Bolivia, Panama, United States, Ecuador, Venezuela, Argentina, Peru, El Salvador, Guatemala, and the Dominican Republic.
One possible explanation for the lack of secretarias is that women are somewhat new to the political scene and are still developing networks to be included in the inner circle of the country’s decision-makers. There is potential for women to rise to the top if more women are allowed to participate as key advisers and assistant secretaries, increasing the likelihood of subsequently moving up. Although controversial, gender quotas have been one way to improve female representation in Mexican politics. So far, there are only quotas for nominations for Congress, where political parties are required to ensure 50-50 parity on candidate rosters, but they don’t apply to other branches such as the executive. In fact, Mexico ranks well when it comes to representation of women in Congress, landing in the top 20 positions globally of the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s ranking. But if the goal of the current administration is to respond to the new challenges and circumstances of 21st-century Mexico, both male and female perspectives are equally necessary to face the complex reality and respond to the needs of the Mexican population.