More Women in Latin America get Degrees, Jobs, but Still Struggle to balance Work and Family life

October 25, 2011

NEW YORK, October 25, 2011 –Adela Maldonado, 42, chops up potatoes and chicken thighs in strips as fine as her own apt fingers while preparing a massive stew for hundreds of kids, including her own, in a small-town school outside Barranquilla, Colombia. In the meantime, about 600 miles away, Lina María Castaño, 30, shoots an email from her Blackberry to the CEO of one of Colombia’s top companies and almost immediately after, her thumb hits the phonecall button so she can make arrangements to pick up her 5-year old daughter from school.

Physically separated by the rugged distance of Colombia’s vast territory and by professional background –one a cook, the other a top executive of Bogota’s Chamber of Commerce-, the two women have in common their allegiance to a new generation of working females that have benefited from years of progress towards closing the gender gap in Latin America. They also share their struggles to balance work and family life.

Women in the region have made huge strides in labor participation, access to education and health over the recent decades, even surpassing men on many counts and ranking well above many other regions of the world, a new report on gender in Latin America has found. At the same time –the report notes- they face new challenges to succeed as mothers and as working women at the same time.

Work and Family: Latin American &Caribbean Women in Search of a New Balance states that more than 70 million additional women have entered the labor force in the region since 1980, marking an unprecedented growth in female participation in the labor market. Three decades ago, only 36 percent of working age women were in the labor force. Since then female participation in LAC has risen faster than in any other region in the world. These results are closely linked to females scoring huge successes in education where they have been outperforming men on a number of indicators.

Girls are today more likely than boys to be enrolled in secondary and tertiary schooling and also more likely to complete both. But as the gender parity gap closes, new challenges arise, the report warns. A first generation of gender policies has addressed disparities and ensured equal access to services ranging from education to health. However, a new set of policies is needed now to help
women balance the demands of their careers and family lives, experts say.

“Ironically these advances in the gender agenda are bringing new challenges for the policy makers, in particular the unmet demand for flexibility by women who are trying to balance their lives at work and at home,” said World Bank economist and report author Laura Chioda.

“Whether it is the provision of childcare services or the formalization of part-time arrangements in the labor market, policies allowing more flexibility at work have been proven to improve the quality of women’s participation in the workforce,” noted Chioda.

What has worked for Lina María is a flexible work schedule that allows her to spend more time with her daughter. Adela, on the other hand, has been lucky to get a job at her kid’s school so she can fulfill her role as mother and provider at the same time. But these arrangements are haphazard and not by design, which leaves a great number of women juggling work and personal life demands or ending up making sacrifices such as lower salaries and jobs in the informal market.

Evidence provided in the study shows that women in Latin America increasingly face the complex challenge of balancing different roles, identities, and aspirations. Many see joining the labor market as a move towards a career rather than just a source of income –a move that doesn’t translate into giving up on their desire for marriage, motherhood, and family.

These complexities have to be brought to the center stage of policy design, the report argues.
“Legislation that acknowledges the pressures of motherhood and of the day-to-day demands on households’ time, can generate important results by enabling women to fulfill their identities as mothers and workers, raising the quality of their economic participation, thereby increasing their well-being, as well as that of the entire household,” noted Chioda.

The expanded professional engagement of women in society has also translated into higher participation in formal politics-including many high-office positions. The share of parliamentary seats held by women in Latin America is currently nearly 24 percent, the highest in the world and marginally exceeding that of high income OECD countries (23 percent).

While women representation in parliaments is on the increase region-wide, it remains unevenly distributed across countries: it is about 10 percent in Belize, Haiti, Panama, Brazil and Surinam, but it is more than 30 percent in Argentina, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Guyana.
“Latin American women have come a long way in a relatively short time, with increased access to health, education and employment,” said UN Under-Secretary-General and UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet. “Now we need to consolidate gains and reduce inequities, address the double burden of women’s unpaid work, and increase women’s political participation and leadership. Bachelet was President of Chile from 2006 to 2010.

The report warns against simplistic conclusions and views on gender issues in Latin America, calling for a deeper understanding of women’s decision making processes in order to improve the design and efficacy of policy.

“In light of the region’s remarkable achievements over the past four decades, it may be tempting to conclude that the gains in access mechanically translate into gains in labor market outcomes and that welfare can unequivocally be inferred from these trends,” the study concludes.

Policy makers want to make sure that next time around women like Adela and Lina María don’t rely too much on circumstances or luck to achieve their dreams of keeping a good job and their families happy.