The increasing incorporation of women into the labor market is one of the most important socio-economic changes of the last half century. In Latin America, the jump has been gigantic: if in the 60s only two out of ten women worked or actively looked for work, today they are almost seven out of 10.
Despite this, female labor participation in the region remains almost 30 points below that of men. A situation that occurs, to a greater or lesser extent, throughout the world: according to the latest Global Gender Gap Index, it will take 202 years for the global economic gap between men and women to close.
Not only that, but among women themselves the panorama varies a lot from country to country in our region: from Uruguay and Peru, where about 80% of them are in the labor market, to Guatemala, Honduras or Mexico, with figures between 50% and 60%, according to data from the Center for Distributive, Labor and Social Studies (CEDLAS).
But what explains these great differences, even between neighboring countries and with similar economic characteristics? Are the profiles of the workers different in them? Is it possible to learn lessons and apply them in other countries?
Looking for answers, a recent study by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) has focused on the cases of Mexico and Peru, two countries with similar characteristics —mostly urban women, with similar levels of education, in a relationship and with low fertility rates— but with very different levels of female labor participation.
However, the study shows that more is not always better. “You start to study these issues with prejudice: low participation is bad, high participation is good, but what we find when looking at these two extreme cases, with a gap of 21 points in favor of Peru, is another ingredient: quality of the labor participation of women,” says Mariana Marchionni, one of the authors of the report.
The gap between the two countries lies in the behavior of the most vulnerable women, with low levels of education and family income. In Peru, these women are massively inserted in very precarious but flexible jobs, such as the agricultural sector in rural sectors, or informal self-employment in the case of women living in urban areas. “This is a response of individual, but above all, family behavior, which arises from traditional gender roles in which the woman assumes the tasks of care,” explains Marchionni.
"This story is just one example of gender bias in the workplace, a reality that women across the world face at many levels, daily. When it comes to women occupying leadership positions, Latin America and the Caribbean maybe is no exception. https://t.co/R8AYIaZdqM pic.twitter.com/mOqgKn0rAL— Inter-American Development Bank (@the_IDB) February 9, 2019
Revitalizing female employment is a complex problem and, consequently, solutions can not be unique or simple, but they must be found. “The labor participation of women is essential for the growth and productivity of a country,” explains Monserrat Bustelo, a specialist in the Gender and Diversity Division at the IDB. “And while cultural roles play an important part, from the private sector and public policies can have a great impact. It is necessary that they lead, accompany and consolidate the change,” she says.
An example of how to incentivize this transformation are the Gender Parity Initiatives (IPG), a model of high-level public-private collaboration that are being implemented in Argentina, Chile, Panama, Colombia, Peru, the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica.
Supported by the World Economic Forum and the IDB, the IPGs are led by government representatives and the private sector of each country to develop three-year action plans with concrete measures. The plans seek to increase female labor participation, reduce the wage gap and promote the participation of women in leadership positions.
Another line of work is to try to break the so-called glass ceiling, and allow women to develop their careers and receive promotions through programs such as the IDB’s Women's Leaders of the Extractive Sector in Peru Graciela Arrieta Guevara, legal advisor at the National Society of Mining, Petroleum and Energy of Peru, affirms that "today companies have understood that women are necessary for the diversification of groups, and I want to be part of this generation that wants to visibilize women who are in the mining sector, and open the way for new generations."
In addition to these initiatives, the experience and international evidence point to three main lines of action that have a positive effect in fostering female labor participation, in a way that is truly empowering: freeing women's time constraints by expanding child care centers, school schedules and elder care services; expand maternity and paternity leave, in a balanced and non-transferable way to avoid deepening traditional gender roles; and continue to expand the education of women to broaden their job prospects.
It is estimated that, if women had a labor participation identical to that of men, the annual global GDP would increase by 28 trillion dollars by 2025. That is, according to the McKinsey study, the world economy would grow by 26%. On the other hand, the technological and digital changes we are experiencing could make the barriers that women face at work even worst in the future. That is why, as the cases of Mexico and Peru teach us, it is necessary to draw a more equitable map of the labor market.
To learn more about this publication, download Female labor participation: What explains the gaps between countries? (executive summary available only in Spanish) for free here.