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Beyond the Gender Gap: Latin American and Caribbean Women in Search of a New Balance

October 25, 2011

World Bank Study, Launched with the Participation of UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet, Sheds Light on Responses to a New Gender Reality


NEW YORK, Oct. 25, 2011 – In many respects, the gender gap in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) has been closed. Today, women in the region outnumber men in schools and universities. Since 1980, nearly 70 million women have joined the labor market ensuring that more women now work outside the home than not and that the percentage of single working women is as high as that of single men.


The region is making important strides towards broader social equity with significant progress in poverty reduction. We are also witnessing a reduction in gender disparities,” said Pamela Cox, World Bank Vice President for Latin America and the Caribbean. “We are glad to see that the focus on improving women’s status is paying off.”


According to the new study, Work and Family: Latin American and Caribbean Women in Search of a New Balance, maternal mortality rates have been declining continuously in the region since the 1980s. In fact, those countries previously most affected have seen the most progress, with mortality rates dropping by 40 percent in the Caribbean and 70 percent in the Andean region. Latin American fertility rates are now as low as those of industrialized nations.


With the exception of indigenous populations, girls now outperform boys in education, according to the study launched today at UN Women headquarters in New York. Female enrollment rates from primary to tertiary education have increased to the point of closing or even reversing the gender gap. In the labor market, such gap has narrowed faster than in any other region in the developing world. In most LAC countries, the rate of women working has at least doubled since the 1960s, and has tripled in Brazil.


This expanded professional engagement of women in Latin American society has also translated into higher participation in formal politics, with the share of parliamentary seats held by women in the region at nearly 24 percent, the highest among all regions of the world.


The dramatic increase in working women has brought a level of financial and social equality between men and women unimaginable decades ago. Yet increased access to work and financial independence don’t automatically translate into improved wellbeing. The new study, cautions against such simplistic conclusions, and urges a nuanced understanding of differences that remain and that require a new approach to gender issues.


“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 during the launch. “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. To this, UN Women is committed.” Bachelet was President of Chile from 2006 to 2010.


The quest to achieve work-life balance reflects the tension commonly known as “mothers’ guilt.” In Latin America and the Caribbean, men and women tend to still believe that young children are likely to suffer if their mothers work. However, more and more women and men in the region also believe that women’s identity extends beyond their role as a housewife. This apparent contradiction represents the tensions between the roles and identities women now seek to reconcile.


As discussed in the report, in some cases, household dynamics can yield efficient allocations of resources, with both spouses gaining from cooperation. In others, household interactions may be far less efficient leading to destructive outcomes, including extreme instances of domestic violence. Understanding the conditions that affect bargaining positions is therefore crucial in today’s reality.


Household interactions are seldom exploited in the design of policy. Notable exception are conditional cash transfer programs, pioneered in Latin America, which favor women as the recipients of small stipends given in exchange for keeping children in school and getting regular medical checkups. These programs are designed on the presumption that money in the hands of women is spent differently and benefits children more.


Gender policy in the region is at a crucial juncture,” said World Bank Chief Economist for Latin America and the Caribbean, Augusto de la Torre. “The evidence and analysis presented in this study indicate that women in the region are increasingly facing the complex challenge of balancing different roles, identities, and aspirations. These complexities have to be brought to the center stage of policy design, with a greater emphasis on equity than equality.


The study documents, for instance, women’s demands for greater flexibility. Today, unfortunately, formal labor market institutions are still woefully insensitive to these needs leaving women in the region resorting to informal employment -- trading basic labor protections and career advancement for the job flexibility that facilitates balancing family responsibilities.


This puts a premium on policies that help women find a balance among competing demands-- through labor contracts that allow flexible leave and part-time arrangements, or regulation that better protect informal unions. Legislation that acknowledges the pressures of motherhood in today’s world can generate important returns by enabling women to fulfill their identities as mothers and workers, raising the quality of their economic participation, increasing their well-being, and that of the entire household.

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