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This study focuses on the gendered nature of ambassadorial appointments. Analyzing the diplomatic services of ten Latin American countries between 2000 and 2018, we examine the factors that explain the designation of women to ambassadorships. More especially, we are interested in whether the election of women to the presidency in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Costa Rica had an impact on the gender gap at the top of those countries' foreign services. Drawing on an original dataset on diplomatic appointments, we show that the presence of women ambassadors has increased only marginally over the past two decades. Furthermore, multivariate regression analysis demonstrates that women presidents on the left have (partially and temporarily) corrected the gender gap in their foreign services through political appointments, provided they had the discretionary powers to do so. Our findings suggest that the impact of women-led presidencies is conditional on the chief executive's vested interest in gender parity and the scope of presidents' prerogatives to appoint ambassadors. In so doing, the study contributes to debates on the descriptive underrepresentation of women in executive positions and the gender gap in diplomacy.
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Forthcoming in Political Research Quarterly
Madame President, Madame Ambassador? Women Presidents and Gender
Parity in Latin America’s Diplomatic Servicesi
Matthias Erlandsen,ii María Fernanda Hernández-Garza,iii and Carsten-Andreas Schulziii
Abstract: This study focuses on the gendered nature of ambassadorial appointments. Analyzing
the diplomatic services of ten Latin American countries between 2000 and 2018, we examine the
factors that explain the designation of women to ambassadorships. More especially, we are
interested in whether the election of women to the presidency in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and
Costa Rica had an impact on the gender gap at the top of those countries’ foreign services.
Drawing on an original dataset on diplomatic appointments, we show that the presence of
women ambassadors has increased only marginally over the past two decades. Furthermore,
multivariate regression analysis demonstrates that women presidents on the left have (partially
and temporarily) corrected the gender gap in their foreign services through political
appointments, provided they had the discretionary powers to do so. Our findings suggest that the
impact of women-led presidencies is conditional on the chief executive’s vested interest in
gender parity and the scope of presidents’ prerogatives to appoint ambassadors. In so doing, the
study contributes to debates on the descriptive underrepresentation of women in executive
positions and the gender gap in diplomacy.
Keywords: diplomacy, gender parity, Latin America, executive appointments, ambassadorships
i The authors are listed alphabetically. All contributed equally to this work. An earlier version of this study was
presented at the “Gender and Diplomacy Workshop,” University of Gothenburg, October 8-9, 2020. We thank the
organizers and participants for their critical suggestions. We are also grateful to the editors and the three anonymous
reviewers at Political Research Quarterly for their constructive comments. Finally, thanks are in order to Víctor
Abujatum, Carla Alberti, David Altman, Christian Arnold, Octavio Amorim Neto, Sabrina Cordero, María del Carmen
Domínguez, Luz Mariana Espinoza Castillo, Claudia Fuentes, Robert L. Funk, Patricio Le Cerf, Laura Levick, Tom
Long, Andrés Malamud, Constanza Meneses, Carolina Merino, Carola Muñoz, Andrea Oelsner, Diego Telias,
Francisco Urdinez, and Alberto van Klaveren for their helpful suggestions. The research received financial support
from Chile’s National Commission for Scientific and Technological Research (CONICYT, now ANID) through
Fondecyt de Iniciación No. 11170185. Corresponding author:
ii Universidad del Desarrollo
iii Instituto de Ciencia Política, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile
Madame President, Madame Ambassador? Women Presidents and Gender Parity in Latin
Americas Diplomatic Services
1. Introduction
While women remain underrepresented in all political leadership positions, this is especially true
in diplomacy.1 Recent studies suggest that women occupy only 15% of all ambassadorships
worldwide (Aggestam and Towns 2019, 23; Towns et al. 2018, 193), and most women
ambassadors concentrate in less prestigious postings, which limits their career opportunities and
political influence (Calin and Buterbaugh 2019; Schiemichen 2019; Towns and Niklasson 2018).
Ambassadors represent their home country and its interests abroad. They are senior executive
appointees tasked with conducting international relations on a day-to-day basis. Yet ambassadors
are often unrepresentative of the country’s population they represent.
This study focuses on the gendered nature of ambassadorial appointments. Analyzing the
diplomatic services of ten Latin American countries between 2000 and 2018, we examine the
factors that explain the appointment of women to ambassadorships. More specifically, we are
interested in whether the election of women to the presidency in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and
Costa Rica impacted the gender gap at the top of those countries’ foreign services.
The past two decades saw an unprecedented wave of women that came to power in Latin America,
including Michelle Bachelet in Chile (2006-2010, 2014-2018), Cristina Fernández in Argentina
(2007-2015), Laura Chinchilla in Costa Rica (2010-2014), and Dilma Rousseff in Brazil (2011-
2016).2 In particular, Bachelet became internationally recognized as a champion for gender
equality (see Franceschet and Thomas 2015; Thomas 2016). She appointed Chiles first gender
1 We focus exclusively on women in diplomacy. See Bashevkin (2014) and Barnes and OBrien (2018) on women
foreign policy leaders; Aggestam and Svensson (2018) on women in conflict mediation; and D’Amico (1999),
Barraza Vargas (2019) and Haack (2016) on womens presence in international organizations.
2 These were not the first women to occupy the presidency in Latin America. However, as Jalalzai (2013, 97)
elaborates, previous women rose to power through family connections and succession rather than popular elections.
All four cases considered here pursued independent political careers and were democratically elected.
parity cabinet in 2006 and became the inaugural Executive Director of UN Women after her first
term in office.
Bachelet, Fernández, and Rousseff also formed part of the so-called pink tidethat brought leftist
governments to power across Latin America. Despite running on platforms that emphasized social
justice and equality, these progressive governments did not always advance women’s rights
(Blofield et al. 2017). As in Chile, the election of women to the presidency in Argentina and Brazil
raised expectations that the presidentas would act on behalf of women. However, both Fernández
and Rousseff faced criticism for not making gender equality a priority (Jalalzai 2015; Jalalzai and
dos Santos 2015; Lopreite 2015). By the same token, the impact of Laura Chinchillas center-right
government on women’s advancement in Costa Rica remains contested (Piscopo 2018, 168). We
ask whether these women used their presidential prerogatives to appoint more women to
Studies on the gender gap in political representation have proliferated in recent years. While earlier
scholarship focused on the presence of women in legislative bodies, an increasing number of
studies examines the gendered process of executive appointments (see Field 2020). These studies
expect that core executives chose appointees based on their preferences and in response to political
incentives. At the same time, they recognize that selectors are gendered actors who make decisions
within a context shaped by gender-based assumptions and expectations (Annesley et al. 2019).
Reyes-Housholder (2016), for example, observes that women presidents in Latin America
appointed more women to their cabinets because of their electoral mandates and gendered
networks. Although scholars disagree on whether women in power appoint more women, they
agree that institutional and political factors condition the effect (Annesley et al. 2019; Barnes and
O’Brien 2018; Childs and Krook 2009; Field 2020; Krook and O’Brien 2012).
We provide the first cross-national comparative study on the importance of the selector’s gender
for understanding the descriptive underrepresentation of women in diplomacy.3 Our contribution
is twofold. First, the study expands the scope of the present literature to an underexplored area of
executive appointments. Second, it also speaks to recent debates on the political and institutional
origins of the gender gap in diplomacy. In contrast to the public and scholarly scrutiny that the
appointment of cabinet ministers has received, we still know little about the process in countries’
diplomatic services, especially outside Europe and North America (Aggestam and Towns 2019,
23; Lequesne 2019, 781).
To that end, we analyze an original dataset that contains information on the (attributed) gender of
ambassadors and whether they were recruited from the professional foreign service or political
appointees.4 Unlike prime ministers, presidents tend to have considerable discretion in the
appointment of ambassadors. While constitutional prerogatives empower incumbents, as selectors,
they also face constraints because political allies may expect ambassadorships in exchange for
their support (Fedderke and Jett 2017; Hollibaugh Jr 2015). Furthermore, in many countries, the
career service conditions the “supply” of eligible personnel, often to the detriment of women.
Existing research suggests that women in diplomacy continue to face unequal opportunities,
leading to their underrepresentation at the top of the organizational hierarchy (Aggestam and
Towns 2019, 17). Although political considerations and the presence of a career service impose
limitations on the executive, selectors can use their prerogatives to bypass these constraints.
Discretion creates space for selectors to act as key allies or “critical actors” for advancing women’s
presence in leadership positions (Aggestam and True 2020; Annesley et al. 2019, 19).5 We expect
3 While we maintain the distinction between sex (as biological category) and gender (as socially and culturally
constructed), we are primarily interested in the career opportunities of women as a social group.
4 The online appendices and replication files are available at
5 Childs and Krook (2009, 138) developed the “critical actors” concept in the context of legislative representation,
defined as “legislators who initiate policy proposals on their own and/or embolden others to take steps to promote
policies for women, regardless of the numbers of female representatives.” In keeping with their formulation, critical
actors are not determined by their gender, but their willingness in advancing women’s rights, in our case, the
descriptive representation of women in diplomacy.
that selectors invested in gender parity will (partially) correct the “supply-sidefailure in the career
service through political appointments, provided they have the discretion to do so.
Consistent with existing scholarship, we find that women are underrepresented in our sample of
Latin American foreign services, accounting for only 15% of all ambassadors in 2018well below
the parity target of 50%. We further observe that women-led governments have not consistently
yielded an increase in the proportion of women ambassadors. The positive effect only occurred in
three cases of leftist governments headed by women (Argentina, Brazil, and Chile). In contrast,
the proportion of women appointed to ambassadorial positions decreased during Laura
Chinchilla’s term in office (Costa Rica). Our findings confirm previous evidence that leftist
governments tend to advance women’s participation in political leadership (Barnes and O’Brien
2018; Bashevkin 2014; Claveria 2014; Davis 1997; Escobar-Lemmon and Taylor-Robinson 2005).
The effect is further dependent on the scope of presidential discretion over political appointments
(high in Argentina and Chile; low in Brazil). We conclude that the impact of women-led
presidencies is conditional on political and institutional factors, namely the executive’s vested
interest in gender parity and the scope of discretionary power to appoint ambassadors.
The remainder proceeds as follows: Section 2 examines the history of women’s inclusion in Latin
America’s foreign services, focusing on the reasons of women’s underrepresentation and the role
that discretionary appointments played in opening opportunities for women outside the career
bureaucracy. Section 3 reviews the literature on the gendered dynamics of executive appointments.
Section 4 develops our main argument, which centers on the role of critical actors in overcoming
the limited supply of women in the career service. Section 5 introduces the data and presents
descriptive and multivariate regression results. We discuss these findings in section 6 and drew
out their implications in the conclusion.
2. Women in Latin America’s Foreign Services
Diplomacy has long been the domain of elites, and men in particular. Modern diplomacy is built
around the reciprocal exchange of resident embassies. Since their origins during the Italian
Renaissance, ambassadors have embodied sovereign princes at foreign courts and were
predominately recruited from the aristocracy until the creation of professional foreign services in
the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The bureaucratization of diplomacy, however,
entailed the formal exclusion of women from the profession. “Women were not believed to be able
to play the role of foreign envoys efficiently, partly because their gender would limit their access
to the public (male) officials and informal (male) networks necessary for gathering information,”
Niklasson (2020, 14) writes. It was not until the gradual opening of foreign services in the twentieth
century that women could become career diplomats (McCarthy and Southern 2017, 22-23; Nash
2019; Sluga and James 2016, 6). Today, not only are women consistently underrepresented at the
apex of diplomacy, but research shows that women ambassadors are disproportionality appointed
to less prestigious positions and to places that are regarded as “soft,” characterized by lower
economic and political power, less violence, and better human rights practices (Calin and
Buterbaugh 2019; Jacob et al. 2017; Schiemichen 2019; Towns and Niklasson 2018). Diplomacy
remains a deeply gendered institution.
Women increasingly entered Latin Americas foreign ministries during the interwar period,
initially occupying consular positions and representing their countries in international conferences
and organizations. As in Europe and the United States, discretionary appointments performed an
important function in opening the path for women given that formal institutional barriers prevented
women from entering the career service until the second half of the twentieth century.6 Brazil, for
example, (re-)opened the entry exam to women in 1954 and appointed the first women career
6 The first women to hold an ambassadorship, Aleksandra Kollontai, was a political appointee who represented the
Soviet Union in Norway (1923-1925). In the US Foreign Service, five of the first six female ambassadors were non-
career appointments (Nash 2019, 188). The first women ambassadors from Latin America were also “outsiders,” as
in the case of Mexico (Amalia Cabellero de Castillo Ledón, 1956, to Switzerland), Argentina (Ángela Romero Vera,
1958, to Panama), and Costa Rica (Ángela Acuña Braun de Chacón, 1958, to the Organization of American States).
diplomat to an ambassadorship in 1959 (Odette de Carvalho, to Israel) (Roeder Friaça 2018, 197).7
Although these legal hurdles were gradually abolished, women remained systematically
disadvantaged; for example, due to restrictions that first prohibited married couples from
remaining in the civil service and later required one spouse to take a leave of absence, often forcing
women to abandon their careers (de Souza Farias 2017; De Souza Farias and Do Carmo 2018).
However, even after the end of legal discrimination, institutional glass ceilings persist. Studies on
Brazil and Mexico suggest that the number of women in these foreign services has increased over
the years. Nevertheless, like their peers in Europe and North America, women in Latin America
tend to be overrepresented in administrative and support roles and underrepresented in leadership
positions within these bureaucracies (De Souza Farias and Do Carmo 2018, 114; Flores 2006,
774). Furthermore, these studies highlight the continuing existence of structural inequalities and
fewer career opportunities that result, among other things, from institutional structures historically
tailored to suit the role of men as single breadwinners. They also emphasize the continuation of
gender stereotypes that cast women as less able and ill-suited for stints abroad.8
The situation in other Latin American countries remains poorly understood. However, reports on
the Argentine and Chilean cases indicate a similar “supply-side” failure that leads to fewer women
at the top of the career service. In early 2020, 300 Argentine career diplomats signed a petition
urging the government to end discriminatory practices and increase the number of women at the
top of the career service (Martínez 2020, March 9). Chilean diplomats have voiced similar
concerns. A rigid, seniority-based promotion system only allows career diplomats to ascend if their
immediate superiors are promoted or retire, leading to “career stagnation” that disproportionately
affects women who concentrate in the lower ranks (Muñoz and Bywaters 2020, November 14).
7 Brazil allowed women to sit the entry exam between 1918 and 1938.
8 Under the WorkersParty (PT), Brazil implemented affirmative action policies to address the lack of diversity in the
Itamaraty, especially regarding race. This initiative formed part of a broader effort to make Brazils public
administration more representative of society at large. However, it also responded to international criticism that
contrasted Brazils ambitions to become a Global South leader with its largely male and palediplomatic service
(Pereyra-Vera et al. 2020, 7). These programs were downsized or discontinued following the impeachment of Dilma
Rousseff that ended fourteen years of PT rule (2002-2016).
The second Bachelet government passed a reform in 2018 that sought, among other things, to make
diplomatic appointments more flexible. However, the succeeding government of Sebastián Piñera
has yet to implement this aspect of the “modernization law.” In December 2020, Chilean diplomats
petitioned the government to ensure gender parity in candidate selection and address women’s
underrepresentation in senior positions.9
Finally, in early 2020, Mexico became the first Latin American country to adopt an explicit
feminist foreign policy. While similar proposals in Canada and Sweden focus on development
cooperation, Mexicos feminist foreign policy centers primarily on the gender mainstreaming of
its foreign service (Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores de México 2020).10
Latin American states readily adhered to international agreements aimed at advancing women’s
rights and gender parity. Following the adoption of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All
Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Latin American states were vanguards in
implementing gender quotas for elected officers, starting with Argentina in 1991 (Jones 2009).
However, there are few policies in place to increase the representation of women in appointed
positions. This is especially true of ambassadorships. Although some countries have national plans
on gender equality in the public sector, executive prerogatives and separate legal statutes for the
career service exclude ambassadorial appointments from these measures. Incipient initiatives to
increase the presence of women mainly focus on the recruitment stage. If continued, they will
require many years to show results, for it takes decades to rise to the top of the bureaucratic
What is more, because they are rarely institutionalized, these efforts ultimately depend on political
will. In this sense, ambassadorships are not unlike executive appointments, such as cabinet
ministers. However, whereas cabinet members are recruited from among the political elite, the
career service provides a pool of candidates that the chief executive can bypass if the selector
wishes to do so.
9 Letter to Undersecretary of Foreign Relations, Carolina Valdivia Torres, December 7, 2020.
10 On the debate on feminist foreign policy in the Global North, see Aggestam and True (2020).
3. The Gendered Dynamics of Executive Appointments
While women have made significant inroads into political office in recent years, they are still
underrepresented in executive positions. According to data from Nyrup and Bramwell (2020), the
presence of women in cabinets worldwide rose from 3% in 1980 to 25% in 2018. At the same time,
the inclusion of women in the executive has lagged behind their presence in the legislature, where
the implementation of gender quotas in many countries has changed the rules of the political game
(Bauer and Tremblay 2011). In explaining the persistence of the gender gap in executive
appointments, studies commonly distinguish between demand and supply factors (see Field 2020;
Krook 2010).11
Supply factors influence the availability of suitable candidates. Duflo (2012), for example, argues
that economic development goes together with the empowerment of women in society. Societal
factors have a bearing on the number of women suitable for leadership positions. Numerous studies
expect that womens educational attainment and participation in the labor force should be
positively correlated with their presence in cabinet positions (Barnes and O’Brien 2018; Escobar-
Lemmon and Taylor-Robinson 2005; Krook and OBrien 2012). Likewise, the greater availability
of women in congress should raise the possibility that more women are appointed to leadership
positions (Claveria 2014; Davis 1997; Escobar-Lemmon and Taylor-Robinson 2005; Jalalzai
2013; Stockemer and Sundström 2018). As the number of women in parliament rises, so should
their visibility in politics and the possibility of strategic coalitions among women to influence the
nomination process (Crowder-Meyer 2013, 1163). Empirical studies, however, find mixed results,
suggesting that regime type and country-specific recruitment norms condition the effect (Arriola
and Johnson 2014; Siaroff 2000; Whitford et al. 2007).
Demand-side factors shape the incentives for the appointment of women. International norms, such
as CEDAW and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995), generate pressure on
11 On the gendered selection of women judges in Latin America, see Arana Araya et al. (2020) and Basabe-Serrano
states for compliance (Bush and Zetterberg 2020; Jacob et al. 2017; Towns 2010). Women’s rights
groups can invoke these commitments to hold governments accountable, raising the political costs
of sidelining women. Norms can take many forms, ranging from legal requirements, such as gender
quotas, to informal rules that create social expectations for the greater inclusion of women.
Annesley et al. (2019) posit that the appointment of women to the cabinet by one selector defines
a “concrete floor” that binds successors, even if such threshold is not legally enforceable (see also
Claveria 2014; Jacob et al. 2014; Thomas 2016).
Ideological orientation also features prominently as a demand factor in the literature. Leftist parties
have led in the integration of women into politics. The literature consequently expects leftist
governments to appoint more women (Barnes and OBrien 2018; Bashevkin 2014; Claveria 2014;
Escobar-Lemmon and Taylor-Robinson 2005; OBrien et al. 2015; Siaroff 2000). However, here,
too, empirical results are inconclusive. Focusing on Western and industrialized countries,
Stockemer and Sundström (2018) show that the effect of leftist governments on cabinet
appointments has declined as conservative parties gradually changed their position towards gender
parity. Although Celis and Childs (2012) warn against conflating leftist ideologies with pro-
women agendas, more recently they contend that the inter-party gender gapremains relevant
(Celis and Childs 2020, 58).
Regarding Latin America, Blofield, et al. (2017, 347) argue that the election of socialist and social
democratic governments during the “pink tide” opened a window of opportunity for the
advancement of women in the region. They find that the left was indeed more amendable than
the right to demands for gender equality(Blofield, et al. 2017, 350). However, rather than the
result of ideological commitment, the implementation of pro-women policies was often
instrumentally motivated and responded to civil society mobilization. Only those governments
with close ties to civil society groups advanced women’s rights and gender parity. By contrast,
populist leftist governments, such as that of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, lacked these channels and
consequently failed to act on behalf of women.
Finally, authors disagree on whether the selector’s gender matters for the appointment of women.
A common expectation in the literature is that women in leadership positions will support the
promotion of other women. As Field (2020, 1) summarizes, “[w]omen may be more inclined to
campaign on womens representation and value gender diversity than men; they may have
networks that include more eligible women; or they may be less likely to employ gender
stereotypes.” Although several studies have confirmed a positive relationship (Cheng and Tavits
2011; Crowder-Meyer 2013; Davis 1997; Reyes-Housholder 2016), the author finds little evidence
to this effect. Field’s (2020) study is consistent with previous research that considers the effect of
women in power either to be absent or mediated by political and institutional factors (Annesley et
al. 2019; Childs and Krook 2009; Field 2020; O’Brien et al. 2015). Despite these disagreements,
studies coincide that women in leadership positions can act as key allies or critical actors to reduce
the gender gap. Their interest in gender parity is not determined by their sex but depends on
selectors’ incentives and discretion to act on behalf of women (Aggestam and True 2020; Annesley
et al. 2019; Celis and Childs 2012; Childs and Krook 2009; Escobar-Lemmon and Taylor-
Robinson 2005; Field 2020). Feminist institutionalists argue that gendered institutions, both formal
and informal, condition women’s recruitment into public office (Kenny 2014; Krook 2010;
Waylen 2014). We draw on these arguments to formulate our theoretical expectations.
4. Theoretical expectations
We are interested in the effect of women-led presidencies on the appointment of women
ambassadors. First, in line with existing studies, we expect an increase of women in ambassadorial
appointments over time in Latin America. Women have long been barred from occupying formal
roles in diplomacy, and they continue to face unequal access to career opportunities. However,
women have increasingly achieved leadership positions in both the private and public sectors.
These changes should also be evident in countriesforeign servicesirrespective of who occupies
the presidency. This leads to our first hypothesis:
H1: The percentage of women ambassadors in Latin American diplomatic services has
increased over time.
Second, we assume that some governments are more invested in gender parity than others. Authors
disagree whether women in power will bring other women along. Women presidents are not
necessarily “critical actors” by virtue of being women. Prominent leaders, such as Indira Gandhi,
Golda Meir, and Margaret Thatcher, painstakingly avoided being associated with women’s rights
claims. Similarly, in Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla distanced herself from the country’s feminist
movement (Piscopo 2018, 172). However, the existing scholarship also emphasizes that selectors
are gendered actors who appoint senior officials based on their own preferences and in response
to incentives. Women may act on behalf of other women either because of their own normative
commitment or because they expect to benefit politically from pro-women policies. Finally, they
may also appoint more women due to their gendered networks and “homophily,” i.e., the tendency
of people to associate with others who are similar to them (Crowder-Meyer 2013; Reyes-
Housholder 2016). We therefore expect a positive effect.
H2: Women-led governments are more likely to appoint women ambassadors.
Existing scholarship further argues that leftist governments should be more attuned to womens
rights. However, these studies also show that the relationship has weakened recently. As Htun and
Weldon (2010) emphasize, women’s rights contain multiple issues that do not neatly line up with
the left-right ideological divide. In Latin America, governments on both sides of the political
spectrum implemented gender quotas, and both leftist Cristina Fernández and center-right Laura
Chinchilla hindered the decriminalization of abortion during their presidencies.
Yet Fernández also increased the number of women in the cabinet, and key legislation on assisted
fertilization and against gender violence was passed during her presidency. Rousseff largely
followed the preceding leftist government of Lula da Silva in supporting redistributive policies
that benefited Brazilian women. Internationally, she also followed her predecessor in pursuing a
foreign policy in line with the United Nations Security Councils Women, Peace and Security
agenda without explicitly adopting a pro-women stance (Salomón 2020). However, as Jalalzai and
dos Santos (2015, 118) note, Rousseff had a “direct impact” on increasing women’s descriptive
presentation in the executive branch. Among Latin America’s presidentas, Bachelet stood out for
her open support for women’s rights. Her insistence on gender parity in the appointment of high-
ranking officials opened Bachelet to the criticism that she favored “sex over merit” (Franceschet
and Thomas 2015, 645; Thomas 2016, 95). We therefore hypothesize the following relationships
between ideology and gender:
H3a: Leftist governments are more likely to appoint women ambassadors.
We further expect the effect of women in power to be more evident among leftist presidents.
H3b: Women-led governments on the left are more likely to appoint women ambassadors.
Lastly, we expect that governments committed to gender parity use discretionary appointments to
augment the number of women in the diplomatic service. Existing studies show that the effect of
women-led governments on the appointment of senior officials depends on the institutional
context. Yet, the bulk of the recent literature on women in diplomacy focuses on a limited number
of foreign services in Europe and the United States. Studies have examined the prestige of
diplomatic postings, but they have not considered differences in appointment procedures.
Distinguishing between the type of appointment is important because not all ambassadors have
risen through the bureaucratic ranks of the career service. Political appointments, for example, are
well studied in the case of the United States, where they amount for (at least) 25% of all
ambassadorial appointments (Fedderke and Jett 2017, 385; Haglund 2015, 659; Hollibaugh Jr.
2015, 48). Politically sensitive missions may benefit from an ambassador’s closer ties with the
chief executive. Yet ambassadorships may also become political prizes. The percentage of
discretionary appointees rose dramatically under US President Donald Trump, sparking a renewed
debate about nepotism and the erosion of professional diplomacy. Although less common in
Europe, in the United States, the recruitment of personnel from outside the career service reflects
a long-standing practice where ambassadorial stints are regularly given to campaign supporters
(Fedderke and Jett 2017). Although past presidents used their discretionary powers to select the
first women ambassadors, today, political appointees in the US foreign service are predominantly
male, which highlights the role that the selector’s discretion plays in this regard (Calin and
Buterbaugh 2019; Schiemichen 2019, 21).
Latin America’s constitutions grant wide discretionary powers to the chief executive. While these
political systems are often described as “hyper-presidentialist,the power allocated to presidents
to control the legislative process or appoint cabinet ministers varies across the region (Shugart and
Mainwaring 1997). In Brazil, all ambassadorial appointments require congressional confirmation,
and discretional appointments are narrowly circumscribed and uncommon. Moreover, a powerful
state bureaucracy with a strong esprit de corps opposes the recruitment of diplomats from outside
the career service. In Argentina, legal provisions establish a numerical limit of 25 political
ambassadors. However, these are honored more in the breach than in practice. In Chile and Costa
Rica, presidents have broad discretion, as these constitutions stipulate no limitations on the
appointment of political ambassadors, nor is parliamentary confirmation required (see Table 1-A
in the Appendix).
In a recent study, Amorim Neto and Malamud (2019, 814-815) consider political appointees in
many Latin American diplomatic services as an indicator of low institutional autonomy. In this
view, the practice of political appointments contrasts with merit-based recruitment and promotion.
The “corporate” interests of professional and political diplomats frequently put them at odds.
Chilean diplomats, for example, have long (and publicly) criticized patronage and the use of
ambassadorial appointments as political “consolation prizes” (Fuentes 2009, 64).
The preceding discussion shows that discretionary appointments have played an important role in
opening the door for women in diplomacy. Furthermore, existing studies suggest that Latin
America’s foreign service exhibit what Putnam termed “the law of increasing disproportion,”
which holds that the number of women decreases with each step closer to political authority (cited
in Aggestam and Towns 2018, 12; Bashevkin 2014, 411). In other words, career services suffer
from a “supply-side failure: not only have women been historically underrepresented, but they
are increasingly rare towards the top of the institutional hierarchy. We argue that discretionary
appointments allow for the (partial) correction of this biasprovided that the chief executive is
amenable to doing so.
We purport that both women-led and leftist governments are more invested in gender parity than
their corresponding counterparts. We therefore expect two conditional effects.
H4a: Women-led governments recruit women ambassadors disproportionally through
discretionary appointments.
H4b: Leftist governments recruit women ambassadors disproportionally through
discretionary appointments.
5. Data and Analysis
We constructed an original dataset on ambassadorial appointments in ten Latin American counties
to test these propositions.12 We obtained data for the period between 2000 and 2018 through
freedom of information requests, supplemented with publicly available information, such as
institutional reports and websites. Unfortunately, several ministries did not respond to our requests
(Ecuador, Dominican Republic, and Panama) or provided incomplete information that we were
unable to complete (Honduras). Hence, data availability issues prevent us from analyzing the full
set of Latin American countries. It also means that our data is censored as it does not include cases
of leftist populist presidents who governed in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela at the time.13 We
are therefore unable to test differences among Latin America’s left. However, we believe that the
sample is large enough to compare the four countries that had women-led governments with wider
regional trends.
We limit our analysis to the heads of missions with ambassadorial rank. Countries with small
foreign services often dispatch ambassadors to multiple (adjacent) countries, and not all countries
appoint representatives to international organizations at the rank of ambassador—technically,
these are not ambassadors” but “permanent representatives.Therefore, to allow for meaningful
12 Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay.
13 Bolivia, Haiti, and Venezuela do not provide for public information requests. Unfortunately, at the time of
writing, we have been unable to obtain the information through alternative means.
comparison, we exclude concurrent appointments and diplomatic representatives to international
We impute the gender of ambassadors based on their Spanish or Portuguese first name(s), which
we corroborated through additional biographical research. Our dataset contains a total of 8,424
embassy-year observations, with 1,919 individual ambassadors (272 of which are women, or 14%
of the total).
Descriptive Analysis
The data show that women continue to be underrepresented in our Latin American sample. At the
beginning of the time series, women accounted for approximately 12% of all ambassadorial
appointments across the region; this percentage rose to 17% in 2010 and declined to about 15% in
2018. However, these yearly averages conceal considerable cross-country differences (see Fig 1).
Guatemala, which has the smallest diplomatic service in our sample, is an extreme case where the
number of women ambassadors dropped from 3 out of 8 (38%) to 0 in 2015.14 Perhaps more
striking is the persistent increase in Argentina starting in 2005 and the sudden drop after 2015,
corresponding with the end of Cristina Fernándezs government and Mauricio Macri's accession.
At its peak, 14 of out 44 Argentine ambassadors were women (38%). On the other extreme, Brazil
has one of the world’s largest foreign services, which is also reflected in the more gradual change.
In 2013, 18 out of 118 Brazilian ambassadors were women (16%). In 2018, that number was
reduced to 4 out of 78 (5%).15 Although the Itamaraty is famed for its professionalism and
meritocracy, the proportional decline over time suggests that women have not consistently risen
to the top.
14 Figure 1-A in the Appendix reports absolute numbers.
15 Brazil drastically increased its network of resident embassies during PT rule, especially in the Global South.
Figure 1: Proportion of women ambassadors by country
Fig. 1 further shows that the percentage of women has not increased consistently across the region.
Although the linear projections provide a poor fit for the data in most cases, they suggest that the
proportion of women ambassadors has followed a downward trend over the two-decade period in
Chile, Mexico, and Paraguay. By contrast, Colombia represents an example where women have
clearly made inroads, although here, too, women remain underrepresented, accounting for about
one-third of all ambassadorial appointments in 2018. The percentage of women ambassadors never
fell below the 20% mark in Costa Rica, which ranks globally among the countries with the smallest
gender gap (World Economic Forum 2019).
Fig. 2 focuses on the four cases of Latin American countries with women-led governments. It
shows the proportion of women ambassadors (black solid line), the proportion of political
appointment (grey dashed lines) and identifies the period(s) in which each country was governed
by a woman (grey shaded areas).
2000 2005 2010 2015 2020 2000 2005 2010 2015 2020
2000 2005 2010 2015 2020 2000 2005 2010 2015 2020
Argentina Brazil Chile Colombia
Costa Rica Guatemala Mexico Paraguay
Peru Uruguay
Fitted values (country)
Women ambassadors (%)
The four countries vary significantly regarding the prevalence of political appointees: the practice
hardly exists in Brazil, is prevalent in Costa Rica, and has declined over time in Chile.16 In
Argentina, Cristina Fernández has made extensive use of her prerogativesconsiderably more so
than her predecessor or successor. As noted in Fig. 1, women-led governments are associated with
a substantive increase in the proportion of women ambassadors. The effect is also visible in the
case of Michelle Bachelets two terms in office, although it is less pronounced. In Costa Rica, the
proportion of ambassadors marginally declined during the presidency of Laura Chinchilla. Finally,
the Brazilian case shows a slow increase during the rule of the PT that culminated with Rousseffs
Figure 2: Four Latin American countries with women-led government
16 The long-term decline may reflect a generational shift, as the first (center-left) governments after the return of
democracy in 1990 distrusted diplomats that entered the service during Pinochets rule. More commonly,
professional and political diplomats remain strictly separated as the latter cannot join the former (at the top).
2000 2005 2010 2015 2020
2000 2005 2010 2015 2020
2000 2005 2010 2015 2020
2000 2005 2010 2015 2020
Costa Rica
Discretionary appointments (%) Period of women-led government
Women ambassadors (%)
Overall, our descriptive findings support three preliminary conclusions. (1) The proportion of
women rose only marginally between 2000 and 2018. (2) We observe an increase in the proportion
of women ambassadors during women-led governments in three of the four cases, corresponding
to leftist governments. (3) In Argentina and Chile, it appears that presidentas used their
prerogatives to (partially and temporarily) correct the gender gap. However, the case is less clear
for Brazil, where presidents have little discretion in this regard. In all three cases, rightist successor
governments headed by men appointed fewer women. Costa Rica presents a different picture
altogether. Despite wide-ranging constitutional powers, Chinchilla did not use political
appointments to increase the proportion of women ambassadors. However, from visual inspection
alone, it is difficult to clearly attribute the positive effect to women in power.
Regression Analysis
We use multivariate regression models to analytically disentangle the impact of women in power
from other potential explanatory factors. Our dependent variable is a binary indicator of whether
a diplomatic mission was headed by a woman ambassador in a given year or not. We include the
dummy variable head of government (HOG) with the value of 1 if a woman governed a country
and 0 if not in any given year. We add a second dummy variable to account for government
ideology. Here, we build on Murillo et al.’s (2011) dataset on the chief executives ideological
orientation while in office, which we expanded to 2018. The source scores each presidency on a
five-point scale that ranges from left (1) to right (5). Because our sample includes no data from
governments at the extreme left of the political spectrum, and because we make no assumptions
about the gradual difference between left and right, we collapse the five categories into two. Left
has a value of 1 if a left and center-left government was in power and 0 otherwise (centrist, center-
right, and right). We furthermore include a binary variable with the value of 1 if an ambassador
was a discretionary appointment. Table 1 provides summary statistics of our variables.
Table 1: Summary statistics
Std. Dev.
1 = Women ambassador
Head of gov. (HOG)
1 = Women
1 = Leftist government
1 = Discretionary
Foreign minister
1 = Women foreign minister
Women in cabinet (percent)
Admin. age(a)
Years in power without
ideological change
Women with a university
degree (percent)
Labor force(d)
Female labor force
participation (percent)
GDP per capita
(1000USD, constant 2010)
Host status(f)
1 = Host country ranks
among the 25 states with the
largest material capabilities
Note: data compiled by authors unless otherwise indicated; (a) adapted from Murillo, et al. (2011); (b) Nyrup and
Bramwell (2020); (c) UNESCO Institute for Statistics (2020); (d) International Labor Organization (2020); (e)
World Bank (n.d.); (f) Correlates of Wars National Material Capabilities 5.0 (Singer et al. 1972).
Table 2 reports the result of our regression models. Models 1 to 4 include only our three
explanatory variables. In a next step, we include the hypothesized interactions effects in model 5.
Model 6 then introduces government-specific controls, namely whether the foreign ministry was
headed by a woman (foreign minister), the percentage of women in cabinet at a given year, and
the time a government coalition remained in power (administration age). The first two controls
capture the prominence of women in cabinet below the chief executive. Administration age
accounts for the observation in the literature that the number of political appointees in government
tends to increase over time (Dahlström and Niklasson 2013). To control for broader societal trends,
Model 7 adds women’s educational attainment, labor force participation and GDP per capita as
proxies for the political empowerment of women in a country.17 Lastly, our fully specified model
(8) also controls for the prestige of a positing (host status). All models include additional covariates
to control for year and country-fixed effects. The data is set up in embassy-year format. Because
of our binary dependent variable, we employ logistic panel regression models.18
17 We also include the percentage of women legislators in a separate model in the Appendix (Table 3-A).
18 We report additional results using only the first year of an appointment (Table 4-A) and different measures of a
host country’s status (Table 5-A) in the Appendix. Overall, the models show that our results are reasonably robust to
alternative specifications.
Table 2: Logistic regression results (DV=Woman Ambassador)
Admin. age
Labor force
Host status
Coefficients reported as odds ratios; t statistics in parentheses.
Statistical significance: * p<0.05, ** p<0.01, *** p<0.001
The models need to be interpreted with caution due to the small number of female presidents in
our sample and the fact that our time-series only includes one woman president who was not on
the left of the political spectrum (Costa Rica). The base model (4) shows that the logistic regression
coefficients for two of our three explanatory variables are significant and in the postulated
direction. The likelihood that a woman heads an embassy increased by 86% if a woman was in
power and by 29% if the left governed the country in a given year, all else being equal. The
proportion of political appointments is not significant in Model 4.
Finally, Models 5 to 8 include our three interaction terms. They show that the effect of women in
power is conditional on political ideology and the use of political appointments. They further
indicate that leftist governments tend to appoint more women using selectorsdiscretional powers.
These results remain unchanged even when controlling for potential cofounders. The coefficients
for administration age, the percentage of women with a university degree, and a country’s
economic development are significant and point in the expected direction. Contrary to the literature
on the gendered nature of diplomatic appointments, the host country’s status is not statistically
significant at the 5% level.
Brambor et al. (2006, 64) warn against the interpretation of constitutive terms in interaction
models. For example, after including the interaction terms (Models 5 to 8), the coefficient for head
of government misleadingly suggests a negative relationship (because the coefficient now reflects
the effect of women in power when the variables left and appointment take both the value 0).
Because interaction effects are difficult to interpret directly from coefficients, they recommend
reporting substantive marginal effects.
Figure 3: Predictive margins with 95% CIs (Model 8)
Fig 3 shows the predicted probabilities of Model 8 to aid in the interpretation of the interaction
terms. The graph illustrates how gender, ideology, and institutions interact. Overall, leftist
governments, irrespective of the selectors’ gender, appoint more women ambassadors from outside
the career service. However, the effect is significantly larger in the case of women-led
governments: the probability that a woman is appointed almost doubles, rising from about 16%
(men and left) to 30% (women and left) in the case of discretionary ambassadors. Under men-led
governments (non-left), the probability that a woman is appointed from outside the career service
drops to 9%. There is no statistically significant difference when it comes to career appointments,
irrespective of the selector’s gender or ideological orientation.
Career Discretionary Career Discretionary
Head of Government Woman
Head of Government
Non-Left Left
Probability of Female Ambassador
6. Discussion
Overall, we find a marginal increase in the appointment of women ambassadors among the ten
Latin American countries for the period between 2000 and 2018. This supports hypothesis H1,
which expects the relative number of women to rise over the years. However, this pattern only
holds true for the regional average as we observe significant cross-country heterogeneity:
Colombia and Uruguay represent cases where the gender gap has narrowed, whereas it seemingly
widened in Chile, Mexico, and Paraguay. There are also considerable yearly fluctuations in many
countries, suggesting that the inclusion of women is not explained by their growing presence in
the career service. If women have been increasingly entering Latin Americas foreign services and
being promoted on equal terms, we would expect a more consistent pattern. This is not the case.
Consider the Chilean example: although the proportion of career diplomats has steadily increased
over the years, the proportion of woman ambassadors did not. This suggests that women do not
rise through the diplomatic ranks as easily as men. Lastly, although the proportion of women
ambassadors in the region has increased, the positive change falls far below the 50% gender parity
H2 and H3a point to different explanations concerning the appointment of women ambassadors.
Whereas H2 posits that women in power are more likely to appoint women to ambassadorships,
H3a suggest that the political orientation of the chief executive is more important than their gender.
We find mixed evidence in support of both hypotheses as the effects of either gender or ideological
orientation are conditional on other factors. As Models 5 to 8 show, the positive effect of women
in power disappears when considering the relationship between presidentsgender and their
ideological orientation: in our sample, only women-led leftist governments appointed more women
(H3b). By contrast, the relative number of women appointed during Laura Chinchilla’s center-right
government in Costa Rica declined. Although the literature on women-led governments during the
“pink tide” argues that not all presidentas exhibited a normative commitment to women’s rights,
all three brought more women into cabinet. We provide evidence that they also appointed more
women to ambassadorships.
The results also support our hypotheses regarding the use of discretionary powers. They show that
both women-led (H4a) and leftist (H4b) governments nominate more women through discretionary
appointments. Leftist governments, irrespective of the incumbents’ gender, selected more women
through discretionary appointments. The effect was starkest in Argentina, where presidents have
considerable leeway in appointing political ambassadors despite de jure restrictions that impose a
numerical limitation on discretionary appointees. The effect was also evident in the Chilean case,
where Bachelet increased the proportion of women ambassadors during her two terms in office.
However, women remained a small minority even then. Existing studies on Bachelet’s record
regarding gender parity emphasize her vested interest in increasing the number of women in senior
executive positions. Evidently, the same can be said about Chile’s diplomatic service. According
to Alberto Van Klaveren, Chile’s Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs (2006-2009), Bachelet
explicitly asked for the selection of more women as there were only few eligible candidates among
the career diplomats who had the required seniority.19 In Brazil, PT rule also corresponds with an
increase in the proportion of women in Brazils foreign service—a process which peaked during
the government of Dilma Rousseff. However, the limited room for maneuver” of Brazils
presidents vis-à-vis the strong Itamaraty bureaucracy likely explains the attenuated effect. The fact
that the number of women ambassadors declined after the impeachment of Rousseff provides
further evidence of the “supply-side failurein Brazil’s foreign service. Although Costa Ricas
presidents have significant autonomy to appoint political ambassadors, Laura Chinchilla did not
use her discretional powers to narrow the gender gap during her government.
Finally, the effects persist even when controlling for the presence of women below the chief
executive, the years a government coalition spent in power, and general societal trends.
Surprisingly, we did not find that the host countrys status significantly affects the probability of
women appointed to ambassadorships. One reason might be that existing studies on the gender gap
in diplomacy have focused on developed countries in Europe and North America. The logic might
well be different in the developing world, where the appointment of women ambassadors may be
used as a signal of progressiveness and the status of women in these societies (see Towns 2010).
19 Personal communication, June 17, 2020.
7. Conclusion
Our analysis of Latin American diplomatic services between 2000 and 2018 demonstrates that
women-led governments indeed led to an increase in the appointment of women ambassadors.
However, our results also show that political and institutional factors condition the effect. In other
words, the impact of women-led government depends less on presidentsgender than on their
vested interest in and discretional powers to address the gender gap. Our findings are broadly in
line with the existing literature on the gendered nature of executive appointments. They also
confirm the general trend observed in the literature on women in diplomacy: the gender gap has
somewhat narrowed over the years but remains substantive. In fact, we only observe a 3% increase
in the presence of women over almost two decadeshardly a success story.
Our study suggests that future research on women in diplomacy should pay more attention to cross-
country differences in the appointment of women to ambassadorial positions. Governments
discretionary powers vary considerably. In the United States, ambassadorial appointments have
long served as a form of patronage for political supporters. Women remain underrepresented
among political appointees, whereas the number of women career diplomats has increased over
the years. The picture is less clear for Latin America. However, our research indicates that women
have not shattered the institutional glass-ceilingof the career service.
Furthermore, it shows that discretionary appointments, while indicating less foreign policy
autonomy of the professional bureaucracy, have been an important tool in mitigating the gender
gap—even if only partially and, perhaps, temporarily. Discretional appointments have historically
played an important role in opening the diplomatic service to women. As we demonstrate, they
also provided woman presidents with a means for increasing the proportion of women at the helm
of the diplomatic service. However, these appointments have not contributed to a consistent and
sustained narrowing of the gender gap, which requires institutional mechanisms to overcome
“supply-sidefailure in the career service. As Carreiras (2006, 200) concludes in the case of armed
forces, changing gendered institutions requires long-term policies as the mere inclusion of women
does not ensure their descriptive representation at the top of the organizational hierarchy.
All this suggests that we need to know more about the role of women in Latin Americas
diplomatic services. Our analysis focuses on the top rank exclusively. Future research is needed to
better understand the obstacles women face within those bureaucracies, both formal and informal.
Hence, ethnographic work could greatly enhance our understanding of the general patterns that we
analyzed here. Further research should also broaden the scope to include women at different career
stages for understanding the origins of the “supply-side” failure that underpins the relative absence
of women at the top of diplomacy. Finally, and relatedly, our analysis focuses on ambassadorial
appointments to sovereign states exclusively; future research should consider differences in
appointments between states and international organizations, and between diplomatic and consular
Research on the gender gap among senior officials has advanced our understanding of the
structural inequalities that impede women’s equal participation in decision-making. Although the
bulk of the literature focuses on cabinet appointments, countriesdiplomatic services remain
somewhat uncharted territories, especially outside Europe and the United States. Our research
demonstrates that many of the dynamics observed in these cases also apply to Latin America.
Turning attention to the place of women in diplomacy not only allows us to better understand the
role of gender in international affairs, but also provides important input for addressing the gender
gap in this field.
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