How Are Women Doing in Latin America?
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When I was 17, and a good student in high school in Brazil, the obvious career path was to become an engineer, a medical doctor or a lawyer. None of these prospects attracted me much, but most of my close friends in school were taking up engineering, so I followed them.
I passed the difficult university entrance exam and was accepted into one of the best universities in my region. On my first day of college, I noticed there were only a few girls in the class. I wasn’t surprised: this was a man’s course after all, we all knew that. Women should go for Portuguese or English majors, architecture or even medicine, but not engineering. However, those female classmates of mine decided to stick together, which was a good strategy. I admired them for it because, despite being a typical South American male, my instincts told me there was something wrong with the gender imbalance in our program.
I grew up in an extended family of many strong women; men were ridiculously outnumbered, partly because they often died young. It came as a shock to me when I realized, in my teenage years, that we actually lived in a patriarchal society, with a culture of machismo handed down from Portuguese colonial times, when women were considered and treated as second-class citizens. The situation was different in my house, where women clearly ruled and had the last say on every single issue. However, their power stopped at our doorstep.
It’s a fact that women’s rights have made great progress in Latin America, especially in the past 30 years or so. We’ve had women presidents in four countries in the past decade: Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Costa Rica. Women today stay in school longer than men, which is likely to raise their professional prospects in the near future. We can already see more women in higher positions in the corporate world: my last four bosses in the publishing industry were all women! According to The Economist, the proportion of women in the workplace in the past 25 years has risen more in Latin America than in any other part of the world. Despite all this, we know that most women hold low-skilled jobs; domestic, low-paid jobs are still the biggest source of employment for women in the region.
While women have gained ground in Academia, the workplace and politics, the sad reality is that social attitudes toward them haven’t changed much. We can see this clearly now in Brazil, where a huge campaign for the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff is in progress. I’m 100 percent against her policies myself, and one of the many people actively demonstrating against her in the streets, but I would be a hypocrite not to admit that when President Collor, a man, was accused of corruption in the early 90s (and I was in the streets fighting against him as well), he was never subjected to the level of disrespect and verbal abuse Rousseff has had to face. This is irrefutable proof that there are clear machismo-related attitudes at work here. I hear Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina was also treated with shocking disrespect by the local tabloids, which would hardly be the case for a male politician.
The media isn’t restricted to tabloids, however, and I firmly believe that the roles women are playing today in movies and TV shows, for example, have had some influence in opening society’s eyes to the inequalities and imbalance of power between the genders in Latin America. It’s true that most of these cultural products come from the US and do not exactly reflect life in Latin America and that they are mainly popular among the middle and upper classes, where women are already more aware of the tyranny of machismo. Still, shows such as Orange Is the New Black, The Good Wife and House of Cards discuss women’s issues and social inequalities from different perspectives and in creative and powerful ways. The first tells the stories of a group of inmates in a women’s prison, which is meant as a microcosm of the outside world; the second deals with an intelligent and independent lawyer who is going through marital problems after finding out her husband has been sleeping with prostitutes; and the third depicts the strong woman behind the man in politics. These themes trickle down to the more popular soap operas of Latin America, watched by less sophisticated audiences, and have an educational effect.
In summary, we realize there’s still a long way to go if we’re serious about eradicating machismo in Latin America. I would say three basic measures need to be implemented to improve women’s status in the region: the creation and enforcement of more pro-equality laws in all areas; a stronger commitment from primary and secondary schools to address issues of gender inequality and to confront and punish machismo among young students; and last but not least, encouragement of the belief that femininity and feminism can go hand in hand. The message to pass on to girls: “Aim for the stars professionally, but don’t be afraid to pack as many pairs of nice shoes as you wish in your spaceship.”