“The first days my coworkers got scared, they saw me working on the machine and stopped their activities to watched. A woman in the backhoe? What are you going to do?”. The experience of Liza Chavez in Paraguay is not only common, but even understandable: women represent approximately 2% of the construction sector in Latin America and the Caribbean, where they normally perform unskilled jobs.
When we think about gender inequality at work, the figures that come to mind are labor participation (51.5% of women versus 71.7% of men), unemployment rate (9.5% female, 6.8% male) or wage gap (women income is 16% less), according to data from the International Labor Organization. But segregation by sex in sectors and occupations also plays a very important role, since jobs traditionally considered "feminine" are among the lowest paid.
The clearest example is within the construction sector. That is why the IDB has begun to include female labor participation as a component in transport infrastructure projects. For example, in the handling of heavy machinery—where there is a high demand for skilled workers and higher incomes—it is important to diversify gender roles, and integrate women in this type of work.
“I could earn maybe twice as much as I could before,” says Keren Cano from Nicaragua, as she practices on the simulator in which she is completing her training. “Jobs for women in construction are few: waving a sign or serving food. This is new.”
In Honduras, women are receiving from three to five months of training on preventive maintenance and handling of heavy machinery. Once they finish, these women are hired by the Vocational Training Institute (INFOP) and by a specialized company, becoming part of the staff working in the areas being improved thanks to IDB loans in the country, like the CA-5 North highway.
Joselin Alcerro, Karen Rodríguez, Jamileth Alguirrez and Marilian Ramírez are the first Honduran women already qualified to drive a backhoe, an important step in their lives, especially when none of them knew how to drive a car before the started the training.
“The first day my legs were shaking, but everything was a matter of learning and a lot of training. Now I do everything without fear,” explains Karen Rodriguez.
Photo Gallery: Haiti, Paraguay, Honduras and Nicaragua
In Paraguay, 42% of women lack an income and, when they have it, they earn 62% less than men. Their presence in jobs dominated by men, such as construction and road maintenance, despite the existing shortage of labor, is virtually none.
But Nilda Benítez, neighbor of the Caaguazú department, east of Asunción, saw this as an opportunity. “I heard there were vacancies and I went to register my brother. The lady there told me they were also looking for women, and without hesitation I signed up. I started working with the excavator and now I'm in charge of the warehouse department,” she says.
The road rebuilding project in which she participates not only included training and paid internships, but also other elements in order to make her arrival a positive experience. For example, adapting the camps with toilets and separate locker rooms, establishing a manual of coexistence that promotes equality, and providing gender awareness courses for both men and women.
In Nicaragua, where only 3% of women work in the construction sector, more than 100 females were trained in the handling of heavy machinery throughout 2018. Many of them already work in roads financed by the IDB, such as Pantasma-Wiwilí, which will improve access to markets, schools, hospitals and basic services for more than 25,000 inhabitants of 14 rural communities with a high incidence of poverty.
“I'm going to build the road where I'm going to drive by, the road that I thought was going to be built but never that I would be part of the construction team," says Keren Cano, one of the Nicaraguans who participate in this program.
Before arriving there, Keren and her classmates will have gone through 100 hours of training focused on the handling of chain tractors, wheel loaders and hydraulic excavators, including the use of simulators on real machinery. In the second phase they will have six months of paid field training.
Other countries in which these projects are being implemented are Costa Rica, where women hold supervisory positions in the Punta Norte and Cantonal I and II road projects; also Haiti, where the training included a HIV-prevention component; or Bolivia, where women have already put on their boots to get on the big yellow machines.
If you want to know more about female inclusion in the transport infrastructure sector in Latin America, download our publication here.