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Pending: capitalizing the gender dividend in Latin America and the Caribbean

CANCÚN, Mexico – While women are rapidly joining the workforce in Latin America and the Caribbean, this region is not fully harnessing women’s potential to raise productivity and boost economic growth, according to a new study by the Inter-American Development Bank.

The report, The Gender Dividend – Capitalizing on Women’s Work, fed the discussion at a seminar held here on Friday, ahead of the March 21-23 annual meeting of the IDB Board of Governors.

Mexico’s First Lady, Margarita Zavala, IDB President Luis Alberto Moreno, ECLAC Executive Secretary Alicia Barcena and CEOs of leading companies with successful programs to recruit and promote women employees spoke at the event.

According to the report prepared by economists Carmen Pages and Claudia Piras, while female participation in the region’s workforce rose from 35 percent in 1980 to 53 percent in 2007, women still face higher unemployment rates and earn significantly less than their male counterparts. Women are also concentrated in traditionally female jobs, and are overrepresented in the informal sector.

Moreover, female executives are virtually absent in senior management positions at leading Latin American companies. Businesses owned by women tend to be smaller in terms of sales and assets than those owned by male entrepreneurs, partly because women tend to spend much more time than their spouses running households and caring for children or elderly relatives.

According to the study, the region is not making the most of women’s talent despite the key role these workers play in their economies and the fact that women increasingly achieve higher levels of education than men, a trend that is particularly pronounced among people born in the last four decades.

“This is especially costly at a time when the region is trying to increase its productivity in order to enhance competitiveness in international markets and catch up to the developed world,” the study’s authors added.

From a societal standpoint, increasing female economic power would translate into higher levels of wellbeing, financial stability and consumption in the region’s households, as women tend to devote greater portions of their income on education, nutrition and healthcare, especially for their children.

In order to capitalize on the “gender dividend,” countries in Latin America and the Caribbean must deepen policies that foster greater participation of women in labor markets, but on more equal terms.

Other measures, such as childcare subsidies, can also help open a path for women to seek paid jobs. Investments in infrastructure that expand access to public transportation, water and electricity can also help women save time and effort, giving them more opportunities for remunerated employment.

Beyond public policies, Latin America and the Caribbean should encourage the private sector to open its doors to women workers and foster their progress. The companies with the best track records in promoting women have been working for many years on programs to recruit female candidates with strong potential, nurture them through mentorships and retain them by adopting flexible policies to achieve an adequate balance between work and family.

The authors of the study conclude that policies to achieve a more equal participation of women in the Latin American and Caribbean workforce require a comprehensive vision of women’s work life and the value of their contributions – both at home and at work. “Adopting such a view, and translating it into a set of concrete and effective policies and programs, would amount to a new social pact with women in the region, reflecting their growing importance for households, the broader economy, and present and future generations,” they wrote.

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