Latin America's Worst Wage Gap for Women and Minorities? Powerhouse Brazil

By Andrew Downie; Sara Miller Llana | The Christian Science Monitor, October 13, 2009 | Go to article overview

Latin America's Worst Wage Gap for Women and Minorities? Powerhouse Brazil


Andrew Downie; Sara Miller Llana, The Christian Science Monitor


Mention Brazil today and adulation follows. Its fight against poverty, its growing middle class, and its emergence as an economic powerhouse are all being studied as models to be applied elsewhere. (Read our three-part "Brazil Rising" series for more.)

In one area, however, the country is far behind its peers: income equality. In a new study by the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), released Monday, Brazil sits at the bottom of a list of 18 regional countries when it comes to how much women and minorities are paid for the same job a white man does.

Men earn 30 percent more than women of the same age and education level in Brazil. In Bolivia and Guatemala, that gap is essentially zero. Compared to Mexico, the other economic engine of the region, Brazil also stands out: Men in Mexico earn just 7 percent more than their female peers. The same gaping divide appears in Brazil when comparing wages for whites and minorities - a blow to a nation where half the population considers itself black or mixed race and prizes itself on being "color blind."

"Brazil is regarded in gender and ethnic terms as a very equalizing country. Everywhere there is inclusion. This is what Brazilians like to think about themselves," says Hugo A'opo , an IADB economist and lead author of the study. "What the statistics show is that there are important gaps.... We think of it as an invisible wall."

Women: majority of workers in Latin America

With trade liberalization, economic growth, and urbanization, women throughout Latin America have joined the workforce in droves in recent decades, today comprising about 52 percent of all workers. But fair income distribution has not caught up. In the 18 nations studied, men earn on average 17 percent more than women, when accounting for age and educational attainment levels. In most countries, the gap is biggest among those with the least education. Women's participation in the informal sector, such as domestic work that typically is underpaid and without benefits, drives down their earning power.

But in Brazil, the gap is so high, Mr. A'opo says, because women are absent from the highest levels of corporate hierarchies. According to Leila Linhares Barsted, executive coordinator of Cepia, a Rio woman's rights group, gender gaps have closed over the decades and women now comprise 40 percent of the nation's workforce - an all- time high, she says. Brazil has good social policies in place, giving women 120 days of maternity leave. That's more than in the US.

But wage inequality looms large. "In spite of government campaigns for equality, there is a still a sector that discriminates, salary wise, against women," Ms. Barsted says.

While old-fashioned discrimination is to blame in part for unequal wage distribution, there are other forces at play, says A'opo. The study revealed the same gender income gaps for those who are self-employed - data that surprised the researchers and goes against long-held views that the employer is always to blame. …

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