Jorge Dan Lopez/Reuters
Nurse Brenin Lopez uses her finger to simulate the mouth of Adriana del Rosario, during the "Kangaroo Mothers" program in the maternity ward of the Roosevelt hospital in Guatemala City October 29. Though Latin American women are better educated than ever before, they continue to earn far less than their male counterparts.

Latin American women: better educated, but still underpaid

A recent report found that men earn 17 percent more than women in Latin America. It's an improvement over data from 10 years ago, but the pace of gains remains slow.

Latin American women are better educated than ever before. So why do they continue to earn far less than their male counterparts?

A new study from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) highlights the apparent paradox and tries to explain the reasons behind it.

Challenging the notion that parents tend to favor investing in boys’ education, the study found that Latin America has achieved gender parity – and in much of the region, the balance tips in favor of girls – in terms of schooling.

However, even with an educational advantage, women are still mostly employed in lower-paid occupations in Latin America such as teaching, healthcare, or the service sector, like restaurants. Comparing men and women of the same age and educational level, the study found that men earn 17 percent more than women do in Latin America. That number is actually down from 25 percent in 1992, but the pace at which the gap is narrowing remains slow.

Part of the problem is that the majority of the better-paying jobs available for high-school graduates in the region are culturally associated with men, says Isabel Londoño, an education and gender issues specialist in Bogota, Colombia. These include positions such as bus and truck drivers, security personnel, military service, miners, and oil workers, Ms. Londoño says.

“There are sectors of the economy that culturally are reserved for men and those are the ones that generate most jobs,” says Londoño.

Progress, but...

And when it comes to the higher-paying fields such as law, architecture, and engineering – where women hold just a third of the jobs – the gender gap widens to 58 percent.

“There has been progress in recent decades, but the wage gap between men and women still prevails,” notes the study’s author, Hugo Ñopo.

Londoño, who is also a life coach, says one of her clients works as a high-level executive at a multinational food company in Colombia. When she demanded her salary be raised to equal that of her male colleagues, she was initially rebuffed, Londoño recounts. The executive told Londoño that her company’s CEO had asked why she wanted so much money, highlighting the cultural assumptions that can surround gender-based pay in the workplace. In the end, her yearly salary was increased by 55 percent.

Architect Anamaria Velasquez, says she worked for 15 years at a firm where she earned 20 percent less than her male colleagues. “My whole career, I have earned less than men, even when I had more years experience,” Ms. Velasquez says. “I would bring it up from time to time, but nothing ever changed.”

Cultural attitudes

Mr. Ñopo found that the disparity in income is partly due to the fact that women in Latin America tend to work part-time, and are often involved in informal jobs, such as selling homemade food on the street. According to the data collected, one in every 10 men works part-time in Latin America, whereas for women it’s 1 in every 4.

While the job flexibility of part-time or self-employed workers allows women to earn wages while at the same time taking care of family obligations, this translates into lower total income. Along those same lines, women generally enter the labor market at a later stage and participate in it irregularly, often taking time off to raise children. So while men continue to accrue experience and professional development, women often start and stop their careers.

The study says that in order to close the gender income gap in Latin America, there is a need for more equitable distribution of household chores between men and women, and wider availability of day care facilities. Equal parental leave for men and women would help level the playing field with respect to decisions of hiring women and men, as well.

But Londoño adds that cultural attitudes toward hiring women must also change. “There continues to be a perception that women generate higher labor costs because of maternity leave and time off for family care, but there are studies that show that alcohol consumption and fighting among men create similar levels of costs and inefficiency because of days taken off,” she says.

Income for women is perceived as being complimentary to a family’s finances, Londoño adds. “So employers still believe it’s better to hire a man who has to support a family, even though in Colombia for example 40 percent of households are headed by women.”

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