Energy scientist, feminist pioneer – and a notoriously tough boss: Who is Claudia Sheinbaum, Mexico’s first female president?

Energy scientist, feminist pioneer – and a notoriously tough boss: Who is Claudia Sheinbaum, Mexico’s first female president?

Claudia Sheinbaum has been elected Mexico’s first female president.

The 61-year-old former mayor of Mexico City was elected with between 58 per cent and 60 per cent of the vote in Sunday’s election, staving off competition from her rival, Xochitl Gálvez.

Sheinbaum will replace her mentor, outgoing president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, on 1 October.

Her election comes more than 70 years after women in Mexico were first given the vote, with her victory described by experts as a testament to how far the country known for its “macho culture” has come.

However, although this year’s election has been hailed as a triumph for women, it was also one of the most violent in modern history, marked by the murders of 38 candidates.

Who is Claudia Sheinbaum?

Sheinbaum, whose Jewish maternal grandparents migrated to Mexico from Bulgaria to flee the Nazis, worked as an energy scientist before entering into politics.

Following in the footsteps of her parents, who were also scientists, Sheinbaum studied physics before going on to receive a doctorate in energy engineering.

She spent years at a renowned research lab in California studying Mexican energy consumption patterns and became an expert on climate change, serving on the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Claudia Sheinbaum has been elected Mexico’s first female president (AP)
Claudia Sheinbaum has been elected Mexico’s first female president (AP)

She went on to become secretary of the environment for Mexico City under López Obrador, who was mayor of the capital at the time.

In 2018 she became the first female mayor of Mexico City, a post she held until 2023, when she stepped down to run for president.

As a former ballet dancer, Sheinbaum has described herself as “obsessive” and “disciplined”. She has also earned a reputation for being a demanding boss, according to The New York Times.

Five officials who have worked with Sheinbaum told the paper she was quick to anger at times and would yell at her subordinates in front of large groups. While Sheinbaum has declined to comment on the accusation, her supporters have claimed that some people merely reacted badly to a woman being in charge.

“People say it in a critical way: ‘She’s tough,’” said Soledad Aragón, a former member of Sheinbaum’s cabinet. “What do you want, someone soft in charge of the city?”

Despite her tough reputation, she has also been described as reserved and somewhat aloof. Two dozen people who have worked with or know Sheinbaum told The New York Times that she rarely boasts of her own achievements or talks about her personal life.

But some say her professorial demeanor could pose a challenge for her in a political climate defined by her former boss López Obrador, who built up his support base by relying on the force of his personality. “She needs him,” said Carlos Heredia, a Mexican political analyst.

“She doesn’t have the charisma, she doesn’t have the popularity, she doesn’t have the political stamina of her own, so she needs to borrow that from López Obrador,” Heredia told The New York Times.

But in the face of criticism, her election has been described as a sea change for women in Mexico.

“No matter what else happens in her political career or where her six years in power lead her, she will always be the woman who managed to break the glass ceiling in Mexican politics,” wrote the BBC’s Mexico and central America correspondent, Will Grant. “Given the country’s deeply ingrained patriarchy and entrenched machismo, that is no small feat.”

Meanwhile, Edelmira Montiel, 87, told reporters that she was grateful to be alive to see a woman elected to the top office. “Before, we couldn’t even vote, and when you could, it was to vote for the person your husband told you to vote for. Thank God that has changed and I get to live it,” she said.

But while Sheinbaum’s victory is being celebrated as a sign of modernisation in the country, it comes after an election that was marred by violence, with up to 38 candidates murdered, according to surveys.

Her primary challenge in office will now be tackling organised crime and cartel violence, after López Obrador’s term reportedly saw more murders than any other administration in Mexico’s modern history.

What are her policies?

Sheinbaum has said she hopes to reduce the murder rate from 23.3 homicides for every 100,000 residents to about 19.4 per 100,000 by 2027, bringing Mexico on a par with Brazil.

However, she has provided little detail on how she plans to do so, vowing only to continue López Obrador’s policy of addressing the drivers of violence instead of waging war on the criminal groups.

Her campaign mainly centered on her promise of continuity, pledging to build the “second floor” of the “Fourth Transformation” – that is, the political project of her ally, López Obrador.

Sheinbaum with outgoing president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AP)
Sheinbaum with outgoing president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AP)

The “Fourth Transformation” or “4T” is a social agenda of universal pensions, student grants and family stipends that have been hugely popular across Mexico, with the programme lifting an estimated 5 million people out of poverty across the country, according to the BBC, although there is still widespread deprivation in many regions.

Sheinbaum has pledged to continue all of López Obrador’s policies that form part of the agenda, including a universal pension for the elderly and a programme that pays young people to undertake apprenticeships.

“The essence of this transformation is to separate economic power from political power,” she told the BBC. “Economic power has its path, but government must be directed towards the poor in Mexico.”

“It means more rights, a welfare state, education, health, access to housing, and that a living wage is a right, not a privilege,” she added. “That is the difference between neoliberalism and our model, which we call Mexican humanism.”

Throughout the campaign, Sheinbaum was criticized for her similarity to López Obrador by her second-place rival Xochitl Gálvez, who said that she would not be her own woman and would live under her mentor’s authoritarian shadow.

But Sheinbaum dismissed this accusation. “I will govern with the same principles as Mr López Obrador, and that’s a good thing for Mexicans,” she told the BBC.