Gender equality

100 million women in Latin America’s labour force

Despite significant progress over the past decades, gender equality remains a challenge in Latin America, where women study more than men, but earn less.

Comment | 08 March 2014
By Elizabeth Tinoco, ILO Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean

For the first time in history more than half the women of working age in Latin America are in the labour force. The number has reached more than 100 million and will continue to increase as a result of an unstoppable process.

But despite the progress made over the past decades, gender equality remains a challenge for the countries of the region.

There is still a long way to go before women’s potential is fully used. Women study more than men but earn less. They are the majority among the poor, the unemployed and those in the informal economy. And, they face long hours because they devote time both to work and family care.

Labour participation of women in Latin American has increased from 49.2 per cent in 2000 to 52.9 per cent in 2010, but it is still well below that of men, which is 79.6 per cent. By contrast, the rate of female unemployment, at 9.1 per cent, remains higher than that of men, at 6.3 per cent.

These indicators are included in a report by five UN agencies that looks at the region’s countries to determine the extent of the challenge of providing more and better jobs for women.

The report says that women workers are overwhelmingly urban, and seven out of ten are adults of reproductive age.

A noteworthy aspect has to do with the level of education attained by women. Of the economically active women, 53.7 per cent reached ten or more years of formal education, compared with 40.4 per cent for men. In addition, 22.8 per cent of women in the workforce have college education, against 16.2 per cent for men.

Yet, while the wage gap has decreased, women still earn less than their male colleagues. In 2000, women earned 60 per cent of what men made, and in 2010, the figure was 68 per cent.

Seven of ten working women are in the services sector, where working conditions can be precarious. Of those in the services sector, 64.6 per cent do not have a contract. The same is true of 34.8 per cent of those working in commerce.

Approximately 17 million women are employed in domestic work. It is the largest source of employment for women in Latin America, and although significant steps have been taken to improve the situation, it is a sector where informality prevails (70 per cent).
There are also differences among women based on income. The labour force participation of women with highest incomes is almost twice that of the poorest women. In addition, the average unemployment rate among the poorest women is five times higher than among those with highest incomes. The report warns about the "feminization" of poverty.

The report should be a call to action, a warning not to be complacent about what has been achieved so far.

We must use a combination of policies to reduce inequality. We need employment policies that promote the inclusion of more women at the workplace in conditions of equality, that promote women entrepreneurs and micro-entrepreneurs and that promote education and training to improve the school to work transitions, childcare, division of labour in families, increased social security coverage and respect for labour rights, among others.

And gender stereotyping should be given up once and for all.

We must be clear: the incorporation of women at the workplace in conditions of equality is essential to address the endemic problems of Latin America, such as poverty and inequality, and to pave the way for sustainable economic growth.