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Latin American and Caribbean Women: Better Educated, Lower Paid
  • Even with more education than men, women are still concentrated in lower-paid occupations such as teaching, health care or the service sector.
  • When comparing men and women of the same age and educational level, men earn 17 percent more than women in Latin America. This wage gap has been decreasing in recent years, but at a pace that remains slow.
  • Changing household roles and stereotypes is essential to attaining gender equality in the labor market.

Despite recent gains, the wage gap between men and women in Latin America still prevails, according to a new Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) study entitled “New Century, Old Disparities,” which compares surveys of representative households in 18 Latin American and Caribbean countries.

The study was released at the POWER Conference, a high-level meeting of experts including U.N. Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who gathered in Lima, Peru, to explore how to achieve gender equality in the labor markets.

The study, which also examines wage differences across ethnic minorities of the region, points out that, although the average gender wage gap decreased from 25 percent to 17 percent between 1992 and 2007, the disparity remains quite high and there is still plenty of work to be done.

According to the household surveys, women hold only 33 percent of the better-paid professional jobs in the region, which include those related to architecture, law or engineering. In these professions, the wage gap between men and women is significantly higher: 58 percent on average. These jobs require quantitative skills, and despite women’s progress in education—leading men by half a year of education on average—they tend to focus on careers like psychology, teaching or nursing, where those skills are not developed.

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“In terms of women’s participation in the work force, there has been progress in recent decades, but the wage gap between men and women still prevails. The process of closing this gap has been very slow because misguided stereotypes and perceptions of the roles of men and women have distorted interactions, not only in the workplace but also at home. These stereotypes, which arise even in early childhood, discourage women, thus limiting their access to careers with a better future in the labor market,” explains Hugo Ñopo, an IDB specialist in education and author of this study.

Women have a tendency to work part-time, on a self-employed basis and in informal activities. While one in every ten men works part-time, one in every four women works on this basis. This labor flexibility, which allows women to participate in labor markets while still being able to take care of multiple responsibilities at home, comes at a cost reflected in lower wages.

Likewise, women usually enter the labor market at a later stage and participate in it irregularly, on account of raising children, for example. This might deter their experience and professional development, thus increasing the wage gap with age.

What needs to be done?

In order to close the gender wage gap, the study recommends distributing household chores equally and encourages women to study science and mathematics and to take measures that give them a better chance to participate in labor markets. The latter can be exemplified with the expansion of services for early childhood development centers. Not only could this help women to increase their working day, passing from part-time to full-time employment, but it could also increase human capital for the next generation.

An equal maternity leave for both parents could help level the playing field with respect to decisions of hiring women and men. Furthermore, it could encourage men and women to dedicate more time to their newborns, generating more equal decisions.

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Ethnic minorities in comparison to white and mixed-race majorities

The book also presents a regional and country-specific outlook of the wage penalties faced by ethnic minorities in Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay, Guatemala, Brazil, Peru and Bolivia. For these groups, the gaps are even bigger than those related to gender. Guatemala and Paraguay show the highest ethnic income gaps: 68 percent and 60 percent, respectively. According to the study, the challenge for this population group must be even greater because of the high level of occupational and hierarchical segregation, as well as the lower educational achievement of these minorities, among other measures.

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