Latin America: 70 Million Additional Women Have Jobs Following Gender Reforms

March 8, 2011

WASHINGTON DC, March 8, 2011 - As the world celebrates the advances of women over the last century, an additional 70 million Latin American women have a job today thanks to improvements in education, health and job opportunities in the last four decades, said World Bank experts.

The region's female labor force participation rate increased from around 35% in 1980 to over 53% in 2007, an increase of 18.5 percentage points or nearly 54%, said the Bank's regional gender coordinator Maria Beatriz Orlando, noting that such an increase is by far the largest than any other region in the world. Increased women's labor force participation and earnings are associated with reduced poverty and faster growth, partly because women tend to spend the money they earn in ways more beneficial to the entire household, for instance by prioritizing children's health and education.

But optimism about such progress -remarkable by all accounts- should take into account many pending issues on the region's gender agenda, Orlando said.

One such issue is that economic opportunity still remains restricted for many women in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC).

Women are better trained, and more capable than before to be successful in the job market, but joining the labor force still poses huge challenges for them.

"An unresolved issue for women is how to enter the labor market on an equal footing as their male counterparts, in terms of earnings and working conditions," said Orlando.

Persisting Earning Gap

Citing an upcoming regional labor study, the expert noted that a significant gender earning gap persists in most LAC countries, despite significant narrowing and even a reversal in the gender gap in education.

Job opportunities for women are still linked to family structure and the role of women within such structure the study has found. As a result of this, men experience different transitions and durations across occupational states than married women, but very similar ones to single women, Orlando said.

"Such gender-based occupational segregation is inordinately high in Latin America resulting in women concentrating in low-paying jobs and low-productivity sectors," she noted.

This affects poor women in particular: figures suggest that up to one-fourth of urban poor women in the region work in domestic services. In some countries, women also crowd into the informal sector. According to Bank research, 71 percent of women in Bolivia's urban areas are employed informally compared to only 54 percent of men.

To address these issues the World Bank has developed a Gender Action Plan that includes several initiatives supporting working women such as providing free day care services to mothers, supporting women entrepreneurs and setting up a certification program that recognizes corporations working to close the labor gender gap in LAC.

In Mexico alone, where the certification program has been running since for a few years, more than 250 companies have been recognized by the Bank as leaders in gender best practices. Results include improved work environment, better communication, increased productivity, increased number of women in managerial positions, and reduction in salary gaps. Similar programs are taking place in Chile, Argentina, Colombia and the Dominican Republic.

These encouraging results at country-level will lead to the launch very soon of a Regional Gender Action Plan with economic empowerment as its top priority, Orlando said. Studies and consultations are being concluded for the project that will run for the next three years with funding provided by the Bank and trust-funds, she added. The plan has also identified women in the labor markets, maternal mortality, teenage pregnancy, and gender based violence as areas that need special attention in the coming years.

Current gender-oriented programs in LAC include:
Innovations for Rural Women's Economic Empowerment
In Nicaragua, the World Bank is implementing an initiative to identify best practices for the economic development of rural women. The program is supporting a series of actions on a pilot basis to improve the returns of income generating activities via gender empowerment, labor and financial training, productive cash transfers and improved access to financial services. The project also includes a strong monitoring and evaluation component to compare the impacts, costs and benefits of such interventions; allowing for a thorough understanding of the effectiveness of each program and their potential to be scaledup and replicated.

Regional Caribbean Initiative on Boys at Risk
Recent analytical work shows that early drop-out and underperformance in school are behaviors that directly increase the risk of negative outcomes and engagement in other risky behaviors like crime and violence. Boys' underachievement in education in the Caribbean is a cross-cutting gender issue related to development challenges such as male marginalization, access to the labor market and poverty alleviation. In this context, the World Bank has launched a Regional Caribbean Initiative on Boys at Risk that includes a contest, a conference, adoption of an Action Plan and the development and distribution of materials.

Firms Certified for Social Responsibility in Gender Equity
The World Bank encourages social responsibility measures that improve labor conditions and eliminate practices that discourage women's participation in the labor force. The Firm Certification process provides corporations that aim to offer equal development opportunities for women and men with the steps and tools to do so. The model for gender equity certification in the private sector was developed in Mexico (GEM 2003) and certified 105 private and 70 public institutions between 2003 & 2008. Results include improved work environment, better communication, increased productivity, increased number of women in managerial positions, and reduction in salary gaps.

Involving Women in Rural Water and Sanitation Management Processes
In Peru, the World Bank is financing the Project Rural Water and Sanitation (PRONASAR) implemented by the Ministry of Housing and Infrastructure.The project initially did not include gender objectives, but workshops with community based organizations for water and sanitation maintenance allowed for a participatory evaluation on gender equity and women's involvement in water management processes. Community leaders discussed their organizations from a gender perspective; drafted action plans to increase female participation; and, shared good practices in gender equity, resulting in valuable inputs for project improvement.