The Inter-American Development Bank Presents ... Pushing for Progress. Women, Work, and Gender Roles in Latin America

By Nopo, Hugo | Harvard International Review, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

The Inter-American Development Bank Presents ... Pushing for Progress. Women, Work, and Gender Roles in Latin America


Nopo, Hugo, Harvard International Review


The world, and particularly Latin America, has experienced important changes regarding the role of women and men during the last three to four decades. Women's visibility at home, at school, in the labor markets, and in society in general, has evolved significantly. Concurrently, men's role has evolved as well. This article will discuss these trends, highlighting the pending issues towards a better participation of females in the labor markets and outlining some possible courses of action.

Female school achievement has increased more than that of males. For those born by 1940, males achieved on average an extra year of schooling over females (six vs. five years respectively), while for those born by 1980, females attended an extra quarter of a school year more than males (9.5 vs. 9.2 years). The gender gap in schooling for the cohort born in 1968 reversed from being male-dominated to being female-dominated. The only countries for which the academic gender gap has not reversed are Bolivia and Guatemala, two countries with large indigenous populations, which may suggest important linkages between gender and ethnic disparities among these countries.

It is also interesting to note that this improvement in female schooling occurred at the higher end of the schooling distribution. While by 1992, 16.35 percent of working females and 10.66 percent of working males had some (complete or incomplete) tertiary education in the region overall, by 2007 those percentages were 26.05 percent and 17.26 percent respectively. The global phenomenon of higher schooling achievement among females began earlier in Latin America than in the rest of the world.

Female labor force participation has increased, while that of males remains almost constant. Whereas by the beginning of the 1990s one-half of Latin American women participated in the labor markets, either working or looking for a job, nowadays it has reached almost two out of three women in most of the region. The most recent studies at the Inter-American Development Bank reveal that most of the increase in female labor force participation can be explained by the increase of participation amongst young married women, suggesting a cohort effect. During the same period, male labor force participation remained almost constant in the region. In other regions, male labor force participation even dropped (as in OECD countries, for instance) However, males still dominate labor markets to the point that three out of five workers in the Latin American region are males. Occupational segregation by gender is still largely prevalent in the region as well.

The share of female-headed households has also shown substantial increases. By the beginning of the 1990s, females headed 1.2 percent of complete households (those where there are both husband and wife present) and 79.8 percent of single-headed households. Such percentages have increased to 9.2 percent and 82.3 percent respectively by the late 2000s, with the most significant increase in complete households. Besides the challenges that represent the measurement of male and female headship, the data trends show that a picture of increasing female headship, even in those households where there is a father present, is gaining space in the region. Also, the data shows that female-headed households are at both extremes of the income distribution. Some household-head females correspond to the profile of a single young woman in professional or managerial positions with young children (age one or two at most) at the upper extreme of the income distribution. Some other household head females correspond to the profile of a low-educated single mother, with many children (three or more), and an informal job in the service and commerce sectors, around or below poverty lines.

Fertility has dropped and the region has been characterized by notorious cross-country heterogeneity, not only in terms of fertility rates, but also in the speed at which these rates have been dropping. …

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