OECD-EU-ECLAC joint side event: Opportunity has no gender: Unlocking women’s potential in LAC

On Monday 27 January 2020, I participated in an EU-OECD-ECLAC side event: Opportunity Has No Gender: Unlocking Women’s Economic Potential in LAC in the framework of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (UN ECLAC) XIV Regional Conference on Women in LAC.

Find below my opening remarks including the presentation of the ongoing work in SIGI LAC regional report (part of the OECD-ECLAC-EU joint project).

Thank you Alicia Bárcena and Ambassador Zervoudakifor your kind words.

Dear Ministers and panellists,

Today, I feel honoured to be here with the champions of gender equality in Latin America and the Caribbean. Certainly, worth making a long trip from Paris!

And I’d like to thank the “EU Regional Facility for Development in Transition” for providing us with a tremendous support to launch the joint EU-ECLAC-OECD project on gender.

We are here today because we believe that a truly inclusive growth cannot be achieved if we leave half of our population unempowered.

Of course, significant progress has been made in the region to close the gender gaps.

Women’s labour force participation in LAC is now around 50%, almost at the OECD average 52%! But when you look at the gender gaps, it still stands at 27% compared to the OECD average of 15.8 % in 2018. Let alone access to quality jobs – women earn 16% less than men on average compared to the OECD average of 13.5%. In the private sector in LAC countries, In Latin America and the Caribbean, women still only account for between 7.5% and 15% of seats on boards of largest publicly listed companies. This is well below the OECD average of 22%. In 11 countries of the region, women are still prevented by law to enter certain professions (i.e., jobs requiring heavy lifting or deemed dangerous.)

Women’s potential can be reached only if they have physical, economic and decision-making autonomy.

Today, women’s economic empowerment is trailed.

Women in LAC spend two to three times more in unpaid care activities than men[1]. From 2.2 times more than men in El Salvador to 5.8 times more than men in Guatemala.Even when both parents participate in housework, women still take most of the burden: For example, in Peru, women spend an average of 15 hours per week cooking, compared to less than 5 hours for men.

And women are doubly disadvantaged. These unpaid activities are not officially counted as work, which leads us to two challenges:

First, because they are not officially recognised as work, these unpaid activities do not open rights to social security, which severely limits women’s independence and their ability to engage fully in society.

Second, the invisibility of unpaid care work leads to misleading perceptions of women’s economic role.  Of course some countries are taking measure: For example, Colombia has formally acknowledged the key economic contribution of unpaid care and passed a law (ley 1413 de 2010) mandating the collection of time-use surveys to account for the care economy in national accounts. We need more data like this to have a clear picture of the work women and men are undertaking.

And then, there is a human rights aspect that have a significant impact on girls’ and women’s future life, hampering their potential.

Although progress has been made in reducing the number of VAW incidence in the LAC region thanks to new laws enacted to protect women, 27% of the women have still suffered at least once in their life from intimate-partner violence. And this persisting trend creates a vicious cycle of violence, adolescent pregnancy, poverty, marginalization from the society and economic activities. Indeed, the LAC region has the 2nd highest regional rate of adolescent pregnancy in the world, with around 15% of all pregnancies occurring between the ages of 15 and 19. There are many reasons, including child marriage and violent act of getting women pregnant and abandoning them – and the toxic masculinities allow men to believe that violence is justifiable. And shockingly, women also believe that violence against them is justifiable! In 2018, 12% of women in the region considered that a husband was justified in beating his wife under certain circumstances as trivial as burning the food or neglecting the care of the children.

Because I mentioned girl child marriage, let me give you a shocking number figure as it remains widely practiced, concerning 1 in 4 women of the region.  LAC is the only region of the world where child marriage rates have remained stagnant over the last 30 years. At this rate, 20 million more girls will become child brides by 2030. In Nicaragua, 30% of girls below 18 are or have been married.

All these bring about a steady rise of single-mother households in LAC, exacerbating the “feminization of poverty” (low education, low income, and limited employment choices). In 2015, 1 out of 3 households in the region was headed by women, ranging from less than 20% in Mexico to over 35% in Uruguay.

We need to break this vicious cycle! This is a global problem affecting so many girls today and tomorrow.

Toxic masculinities, women’s passive mindset, child marriage, lack of access to family planning and contraception, lack of access to justice – all have to be changed!

And the OECD is taking a major step forward, following up on members’ concern. We will be making a renewed commitment to ending VAW in the OECD VAW Conference next week in Paris.

Why can’t we eradicate these persistent gender inequalities?

It is often because of a stigma. Even with all the great policies, reforms and progress in many areas, cultural norms and stereotypes prevail in our society. Media, social networks, news, films, school, home all reproduce the gender stereotypes, and as a result, girls have lower level of ambition and aspire to a certain role. And we should all take responsibility to change the mindset of both men and women.

In Argentina, for example, 68% of the population believe that “when a mother work for pay, the children will suffer”.  

Gender-based mindset has to change for both men and women. But we need effective tools to do it right.  

This is why the OECD has the Social Institutions and Gender Index to look at how social institutions shape women’s lives, and to identify what is driving various forms of discrimination.

We measure deep-rooted discrimination in social institutions and looks at the laws and social norms that restrict women and girl’s rights.

For the upcoming LAC Regional SIGI report, we will introduce four key dimensions that affect the life cycle of any women and girls: family (incl. girl child marriage and responsibility within the household); physical integrity (incl. VAW and reproductive rights); access to productive and financial resources; and civic liberty (incl. political representation and access to justice).

In addition to the SIGI updates, the joint EU-ECLAC-OECD project will also deepen the analysis of women’s disproportionate responsibility for unpaid care work.

Transforming social norms requires thinking creatively and starting early, when social norms are learned. Education plays an important part in challenging negative stereotypes: Sweden, Mexico and German, for example, have ensured that textbooks are free of gender bias. Much remains to be done, including training teachers, raising women’s confidence and tackling the highly competitive environment (particularly affecting boys to nurture their toxic masculinities later in life).

Media, social media, film industry, news, all have to change to move towards gender-neutral contents and campaigns. And the OECD, together with its partner like UN Women and member countries, are the driving force behind the international efforts to engage men in the process. This is why at the OECD we host our Barbershop Conference, in partnership with the Icelandic delegation.

Still, we should commend that, albeit very slowly, LAC countries have been on the right track towards achieving gender equality.

LAC has achieved three quarters of the path towards gender equality. On a scale of 0 to 1 [0 indicating no discrimination and 1 indicating full discrimination], LAC’s average level of gender-based discrimination now stands at 0.25. 

Women’s political representation has increased. Amongst the top 10 countries worldwide on female representation in national parliament, we find 4 LAC countries [Bolivia (53%), Cuba (49%), Nicaragua (46%), and Mexico (43%)]. On average, 25% of the region’s parliamentarians are women.

In Argentina, Costa Rica, and Mexico, quotas have led to impressive increases in women’s share of the legislature.

And, we see an increase of women in leadership. In 2018, Colombia elected its first female Vice President. Barbados now has a female Prime Minister for the first time.

So the region is on the right track, but not enough.

Fundamentally, we need to change legal frameworks and address social norms. Legal frameworks continue to allow discrimination in the forms of limited paternity and parental leave entitlements, unequal remuneration, and limitations in the choice of professions. For instance, all countries have laws mandating maternity leave, but only 9 have the same laws for paternity leaves, and 6 have parental leaves. The belief that women, and particularly mothers, should not work, contributes to the region’s large gender gap in labour force participation and in remuneration.

In sum, what can we do to accelerate progress towards full gender equality in the LAC region?

1. Close legal loopholes: for instance, the legal age of marriage needs to be set to 18 years old for girls and boys alike, and without exceptions.

2. Reduce women’s unpaid care work: We need to recognise, reduce and redistribute the burden of unpaid work. Ensuring well-paid father-specific parental leave and improving the availability of good quality and affordable early childhood education and care (ECEC) are two important levers.

3. Engage men and boys: through awareness-raising campaigns at all levels about healthy masculinities.

4. Adopt an intersectionality approach: to take into account the double burden that falls on women at the intersection of discriminated groups.   

5. Invest in gender-disaggregated data: to track progress and be accountable.

Economic case

And let’s not forget about the economic case for women’s empowerment, which always gives incentive for a high-level political commitment.

According to SIGI, discriminatory social institutions come with a huge cost!  Current level of discrimination in laws and social norms induces an income loss of USD 6 trillion, which is equivalent to 7.5% of global income! We could expect the increase of the regional annual GDP by 3.6 percentage points, if there is a gradual and total elimination of gender-based discrimination by 2030.

The case for gender equality is clear, and we should capitalise on building momentum and countries’ actions to promote fairer, more inclusive societies. Imagine the potential for growth that remains to be unlocked in Latin America, where only 33% of women were in paid employment in 2016[2]!

Dear Ministers, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Gender equality has been an OECD priority for years. We have supported countries to take action through evidence-based policy recommendations and guidance on best practices informed by our world-class research, evidence and data.

We hope that the lessons and commitment displayed during this meeting and during the 14th Women’s Conference will carry through to our next LAC Regional Programme “Inclusion, inclusion, inclusion” to be held on 15-16 June in the Dominican Republic. You are all invited!

The OECD is delighted to be part of this ambitious project.

I look forward to the panel discussion to deep dive into the challenges of unpaid work and future of work that women face in the region.

Thank you. 


[1] Across the region, women spend between two to three times more time on unpaid care activities than men  (ECLAC, 2017), pointing to the persistent perception of women as primary caregivers (OECD, 2016)

[2] OECD Gender Data Portal.

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