The epicenter of Brazilian power can be found on the fourth floor of the Palacio do Planalto in Brasília, the nation's capital. Liveried waiters elegantly carry trays of coffee through the hallways of the presidential palace, high-ranking officials wait in anterooms and air-conditioning units hum in the offices.
Planning Minister Miriam Belchior rushes past on her way to visit Chief of Staff Gleisi Hoffmann, with whom she will discuss a multi-billion-real investment program to combat poverty. On the way she is greeted by Ideli Salvatti, the woman who manages the government's relations with Congress. Two floors down, Press Secretary Helena Chagas is talking on the phone. In the front office, several women are reviewing the day's newspapers.
Wherever you look in this white marble palace, there are female ministers, female advisers, female experts and female undersecretaries. Only the waiters and the security guards in the entrance hall are men. Thanks to President Dilma Rousseff, everything else at government headquarters is firmly in female hands.
Rousseff is the first female head of state of Latin America's largest country, and she's appointed women to many of her government's most important posts. Ten of them sit in the cabinet. All but one of her inner circle of advisers are women. This isn't because of quotas. "Given a choice between a man and a woman with the same qualifications, she prefers to hire the woman," says Gilberto Carvalho, who runs the presidential office.
Women in Charge
Skilled women aren't hard to find. Brazilian women stay in education longer and attend university in greater numbers than their male counterparts. Although the country has its fair share of machismo, the society itself has distinctly matriarchal characteristics. Men may call the shots out on the street, but women rule everywhere else.
A third of all families are run by women. Often enough, men play only a reproductive role. Child benefit, known as the "bolsa família," is typically paid out to women because they are more responsible with money. Even so, working women earn a third less than men in the same position. Quotas exist only in politics: By law, 30 percent of all candidates in mayoral, gubernatorial and parliamentary elections must be women. Up to now, no more than lip service has been paid to this stipulation.
"The political parties claim they can't find enough qualified women," says Marta Suplicy, the vice president of the Senate. "But that's an excuse. They just don't try hard enough."
Suplicy is a member of the governing Workers' Party (PT) and a long-time champion of sexual equality. In the 1980s she made a name for herself on television fighting for homosexuals' rights.
Later, she served as mayor of Sao Paulo, the country's largest city and its economic hub. "Before I gave my inaugural speech, a politician who was also a friend of mine came to me and said, 'You say a few nice words of welcome, but then leave budgetary matters to me.' I first had to make clear to him which one of us had been elected mayor," Suplicy says.
The bitterest opponents of moves to promote women are sitting in the Brazilian Congress. Religious groups and patriarchal male alliances block all attempts at liberalization, for instance on issues such as abortion. "Luckily we're strong in government, and we have the president to thank for that" says Suplicy.
Gilberto Carvalho, the universally popular head of the presidential office, is the sole influential male. Carvalho served Rousseff's predecessor, Lula da Silva, for eight years, and nobody knows their way around the labyrinthine corridors of power better than Carvalho. "Gilbertinho," as Rousseff's women affectionately call him, using the Portuguese diminutive, is something like an older brother to them. They consult him whenever they get tangled up in the minutiae of the state apparatus, and they go to see him when the president has chewed them out. "I'm responsible here for the female part," Carvalho says.
Carvalho recalls that men frequently used macho expressions in the presidential palace in Lula's time. Nevertheless, that didn't stop Lula grooming a woman as his chosen successor. His instincts were spot-on. Rousseff now rules the traditionally male bastion of Brasília with an iron fist.
She has already replaced seven ministers, six of them because of various corruption scandals. The patriarchs in the affected parties in her governing coalition beat their chests and threatened her, but the president refused to be intimidated. Rousseff's political clean-up has clearly been effective. None of her predecessors was as popular a year into their presidency as she is now. It didn't take her long to step out of the shadow of Lula, who had become a national hero. The two still have a warm relationship, and once a month Rousseff visits Lula in Sao Paulo, where he is undergoing treatment for throat cancer.
But Brazil's iron lady has a very different style of leadership than her jovial predecessor. "Lula acted on impulse and instinct," Carvalho says. By contrast Rousseff is more distanced from her staff. And she hates wheeling and dealing with party bigwigs, governors and parliamentarians.
Lula would fly to a different corner of his giant county every week, and rarely spent more than two days in the capital. His successor is more likely to be seen at her desk than in the government Airbus. The two are also very different in their approach to foreign policy. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was welcomed with open arms by Lula. But he deliberately avoided Brazil during his Latin American trip last week. That's partly because Rousseff criticized the regime in Tehran even before she came to office because of its medieval treatment of women.
Rousseff lives in Alvorada Palace, the official residence of the Brazilian president, together with her mother and aunt. Her closest confidant is Carlos Araújo, a former guerilla comrade-in-arms who is also her ex-husband and the father of her daughter.
O Globo newspaper dubs the head of state's most powerful staffers "the PT Amazons," in a reference to the Portuguese initials of Rousseff's Workers' Party. The group comprises the chief of staff, the planning minister and the minister for institutional relations, who is responsible for contact with the parliament.
The most well-known face of the trio is Rousseff's ethnic German chief of staff, Gleisi Hoffmann, whose unusual first name is the result of a transcription error on her birth certificate. Her parents had wanted to call her "Grace" in memory of Hollywood star Grace Kelly. The men in Congress initially poked fun at the blonde woman with honey-colored eyes, calling her "Dilma's Barbie." But Hoffmann is a ruthless manager, and quickly whipped the congressmen into shape.
Her main task is to push through major government undertakings that are stuck in red tape or threaten to get held up by parliamentary hurdles. Hoffmann is currently overseeing the funding of the stadiums that will host the 2014 soccer World Cup as well as the expansion of ports and energy projects.
As a young girl she wanted to become a nun. Later she studied Marx and Engels and joined the Communists. At the end of the 1980s she became a member of Lula's Workers' Party. Later she was hired as the finance director of the major Itaipu hydroelectric dam. Staff at the presidential palace recall the time she presented the company's finances to the then-president, Itamar Franco. "Oh, you understand some math!" the old man said in surprise, though he subsequently apologized for his slip of the tongue.
"Women have to work twice as hard as men to get the same recognition," Hoffmann says. Her office in the presidential palace looks far out over the savanna. A spectacular cloudy sky hangs over the green landscape. Photos of her two children stand on the window ledge.
Wearing the Pants
She rarely gets home before 10 p.m., when they are already in bed. A domestic servant looks after them. "That's typical in this country: Women look after women," Hoffman explains. There are about 7.5 million female domestic servants in Brazil's households. "They work harder and have fewer rights than most laborers," Hoffmann adds.
Gleisi Hoffmann's cleaning lady has the weekend off. So the chief of staff shares the housework with her husband, Communication Minister Paulo Bernardo. Gleisi is his superior in cabinet meetings, Bernardo admits, but he insists there's no rivalry between them. "My opponents say nothing has changed for me," he says. "They say that Gleisi was already the one wearing the pants at home."