Op-Ed: Women’s empowerment is the key to overcome economic slowdown

By Luiza Carvalho, UN-Women’s Regional Director for the Americas and Caribbean

Date: Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Luiza Carvalho, UN-Women’s Regional Director for the Americas and Caribbean. 

This week, top government officials responsible for gender affairs from more than 30 Latin American and Caribbean countries meet in Panama in preparation for the annual session of the most important global policy-making body dedicated exclusively to women’s rights: The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). This year, the priority theme is women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work.

This debate comes at a timely juncture. The economy of Latin America and the Caribbean shrank for a second consecutive year in 2016 and for 2017 a modest expansion of merely 1.3% is foreseen. Empowering women economically creates a real possibility of reverting this scenario: it is estimated that closing the gender gap in the labor market could increase GDP per capita in the region by 14%.

Despite some advances, these gaps persist at all levels. Women face three distinct realities in the labor market. On one end, in the so-called “sticky floors”, are women with higher levels of poverty and lower levels of education, trapped in sectors of low productivity and high precariousness with scarce possibilities of advancement. On the other, women who have developed their capabilities and have sufficient resources to access better jobs, collide with the “glass ceilings” that limit their promotion and block their access to decision-making. In between, women in the “broken stairs” with intermediate levels of education and participation in the workforce, are not covered by social protection and remain highly vulnerable to the volatility of the economic landscape.

The figures confirm this analysis: on average, men earn 19% more than women in Latin America and the Caribbean and 55% of women’s jobs are in the informal sector.

Furthermore, women carry out between three and five times as much unpaid domestic and care work than men and one-third of the female population do not earn an income.

To address this situation, we need laws that regulate, among other issues, equal pay for work of equal value, that penalise gender based discrimination in hiring and put an end to sexual harassment in the workplace. In addition, it is necessary to recognise, reduce and redistribute unpaid domestic and care work, through investment in basic social services, infrastructure and childcare. And particularly relevant for Latin America and the Caribbean is the ratification of Convention 189 of the International Labour Organisation that commits States to extend domestic workers basic labour rights, including overtime, annual paid leave, minimum wage and safe conditions at work. Domestic workers  represent 14% of women in the workforcein Latin America and the Caribbean.

These complex issues will be on the agenda of the government representatives gathered in Panama, who will be joined by renowned economists and members of civil society organisations and networks. As always, the expectations -as well as the stakes- are high. We simply cannot reactivate our economies in a sustainable manner if half of our productive and creative workforce remains in low wage and low quality jobs, with no access to decision-making and taking on the bulk of unpaid care work, a situation that intensifies during periods of economic slowdown and fiscal austerity. To build stronger and more sustainable economies, that work for both women and men -and benefit society as a whole- we need to change this equation.