South America led by women, so why not in U.S.?

Heather Arnet, local advocate for women and girls, seeks ideas in female-led Brazil

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Earlier this month, when South American leaders gathered for a summit in Brazil, the photo of 11 heads of state and second-in-commands featured four women, including the presidents of the continent's two powerhouse countries.

If women are leading south of the Panama Canal, why hasn't that happened here? Heather Arnet has long wondered about that, and next month the executive director of the Station Square-based Women and Girls Foundation will travel to Brazil to produce a documentary that aims to find out.

"Part of why Brazil is interesting is because it's not all perfect there," said Ms. Arnet. Women there face violence and deficits in terms of education and job opportunities.

But the Portugese-speaking South American giant has made strides in family planning, voting rights and diversity in corporate leadership that -- combined with the 2010 election of President Dilma Rousseff -- are the envy of some women here.

Ms. Arnet's film, on which she'll work during a six-month sabbatical from her job of eight years, is tentatively titled "Madame Presidenta: Why Not U.S.?" It's in part an effort to address the lingering question posed by Hillary Rodham Clinton's near-miss effort to capture the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, which inspired and then disappointed women like Ms. Arnet's grandmother.

"All her life, there was this dream that we'd have a woman president," Ms. Arnet said of her grandmother, Vivian Goldstein, 96, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "There was this real sense in our family [in 2008] that this was really going to happen" while the matriarch was still around to witness it.

There's still hope.

The Women and Girls Foundation aims to promote policies that help everyone to reach their full potential. The foundation isn't political, but for Ms. Arnet, it's impossible to ignore the symbolic importance of the presidency.

Ms. Clinton ran in part as a potential glass ceiling breaker. Not so Ms. Rousseff, whose gender was not an issue when she bested another woman and a man in a three-way contest for the presidency of the country that is the world's fifth largest and fifth most populous, with the seventh-largest economy.

"All of the conversations were not around the fact that she was a woman," said Isabela Waeger, a Brazilian marketing pro who moved to Erie in 2010. "During the election, she was nominated by the former president [Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva], and he has a huge popularity in Brazil," which helped to carry Ms. Rousseff to victory.

It wasn't the first time a Latin American woman reached power in part because she was the obvious successor to a popular man. In 2007, for instance, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner succeeded her husband to the presidency of Argentina. What matters, say some women's advocates in South America, isn't how women get to high office, but what they do when they get there.

Veronica Marques manages communication for the ELAS Social Investment Fund, which does in Brazil what the Women and Girls Foundation does here. She said that Ms. Rousseff's presidency tells Brazilian girls "I can do it, too. I can be an executive director. I can be a doctor. I can be anything I want to be.

"When I see Dilma there, I see that the society that girls are growing up in is going to be different."

Ms. Marques said that Brazil is a violence-plagued land where opportunity for women is far more restricted in the hinterlands than in the cosmopolitan cities of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

"Women die more. Women have less access to education, to good jobs. Women have less access to universities," she said. "Having a presidenta there will not solve the problems. It helps."

Though much of the rest of the Brazilian government remains male-dominated, Ms. Rousseff's Cabinet is nearly half female, and women are running for more legislative and state offices than ever before. Could the same happen in the United States or in Pennsylvania, neither of which have ever been led by women, and both of which have legislatures that are more than 80 percent male?

Ms. Arnet suggests that Brazil doesn't offer magic bullets but could teach us some lessons.

For instance, while our political leadership sometimes seems concerned with suppressing balloting, Ms. Arnet said, Brazil has the opposite: virtually mandatory voting.

"You have to pay a fine if you don't" vote, said Ms. Waeger, and you risk losing access to social services.

The result? "If you're pretty close to 100 percent [voter participation], then there certainly is more of a chance that the elected officials will represent more of the people," said Ms. Arnet.

For women to run for office, or to pursue success in business, they need to be able to plan their families, Ms. Arnet said. Some Brazilian policies promote that, she said, highlighting the easy availability of contraception and mom-friendly maternity leave policies.

In the United States, said Ms. Arnet, "If you stay home with your kid for more than six weeks, you've dropped out." By contrast, in Brazil six months of paid maternity leave is standard, though private companies are technically allowed to offer four months.

Because of that leave policy, women are more able to balance family and career, and there's "much less stigma when they come back" to work, said Ms. Arnet. As Brazil's birth rate has plunged from 10 to two children per couple, its economy has become one of the world's most dynamic. To Ms. Arnet, that doesn't seem coincidental.

After nearly a month in Brazil, guided in part by Ms. Marques and accompanied by Washington, D.C.-based cinematographer Nathan Golon, Ms. Arnet will decamp to Spain to edit and prepare the movie.

WQED has agreed to air it, likely in 2014. It's not only locally produced, said WQED president and CEO Deborah Acklin, but it "also fits perfectly into a national program initiative called 'Women and Girls Lead' that debuted last year with documentaries and specials" on public television.

A documentary can only do so much. But what if people here learn that women in another large, unwieldy democracy are making thoughtful decisions on family? That they're taking meaningful time off to be with their infants and then returning to work with their careers unscathed? That they're rising in business and politics -- all the way to the top, in the case of Ms. Rousseff?

"Then," said Ms. Arnet, "it inspires people to see this as possible."

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Rich Lord:, 412-263-1542 or on Twitter @richelord.


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