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FOCAL Views: Equality for growth

Continuing gender gaps hold back economic growth and development in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). Although countries of the region have been largely successful in tackling health and education inequalities between men and women, the challenge ahead is to make similar headway on economic and political equality.

Women have made a marked entry into the LAC labour market. In fact, International Labour Organization data shows that the largest female labour participation rate increase worldwide occurred in LAC, where it rose by 5.1 percentage points during the past 10 years. In most countries of the region, this rate now stands over 50 per cent. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), differences in participation rates of women and men are the smallest in Bolivia, Brazil and Colombia, while the most important disparities lie in Chile and Mexico. 

However, even where women form a crucial part of the workforce, they are concentrated in precarious, low-wage, low-productivity jobs. Women are more likely to work in the informal sector and be occupationally segregated, mostly taking jobs in domestic service, teaching and office work.

Women of similar age and educational credentials as their male peers earn 17 per cent less on average, according to the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB); in some countries, this gap has increased in the past years. For professional women, there are fewer career prospects. There is only one woman for every nine men in senior management positions in LAC, reports the IDB.

But women in the region demonstrate impressive entrepreneurship, more than in any other region of the world. At times this self-employment alternative is one for survival; in other instances it is a strategy to obtain a job that is reflective of their skills, or that allows them to have the necessary flexibility to meet family responsibilities. The subsistence trend is suggested in the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, which highlights that in LAC, women’s entrepreneurial activity is higher in countries with low and medium incomes.

There remain many barriers to women’s participation in the formal economy. These include limited access to credit, excessive red tape, and few policies and programs that support entrepreneurship. ECLAC research demonstrates that microfinance, networks and access to technology can facilitate entrepreneurial ventures and overcome the subsistence barrier to expand businesses. Countries of the region could better position themselves in access to credit, notably by developing the microfinance sector. 

There is also a need for governments to continue to address gaps in knowledge and skills to make the most of the potential of female entrepreneurs. Social policies can offer avenues to harmonize paid work and family responsibilities, although ultimately public attitudes toward gender equality will be decisive.

More opportunities for youth employment are also needed. In the Caribbean, boys have lower educational attainment rates than girls do, and they are more likely to drop out. Throughout the region, violence disproportionately affects young men who are more likely to be victims of homicides. Offering positive alternatives for employment, such as including vocational training, if done properly, may go a long way to make education more relevant for boys and help contribute to a decline in youth violence. This would also ease the burden on families, especially women, who most often care for victims of violence.

The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) released its Sustainable Economic Growth Strategy in October 2010. The promotion of gender equality is an integral part of the strategy. The new CIDA focus on growth combined with traditional efforts in promoting gender equality offer a unique opportunity for Canadians to dedicate their efforts in this area.

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