Journal of Economics, Race, and Policy

, Volume 2, Issue 4, pp 187–201 | Cite as

Progress and Challenges for an Evidence-Based Gender Equality Policy: a Focus in Latin America and the Caribbean

  • Rosangela BandoEmail author
  • Samuel Berlinski
  • José Martinez Carrasco
Original Article


Women in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) made important progress towards labor participation in the past century. However, the labor sex gap has remained largely stable in the last 10 years. We reflect on what the remaining gaps in LAC represent. To do that, we introduce a lifecycle perspective to describe the gender gaps in the region. We show some patterns that connect the adult gender gap in labor force participation to choices early in life. Next, we collect the lessons learnt from recent policies adopted in the region, while introducing the work of the contributing authors to this numbers. We discuss the challenges remaining to design evidence-based policy. Finally, we warn researchers of challenges ahead resulting from data limitations and unconscious bias.


Gender inequality Gender gaps Latin America and the Caribbean 

JEL Codes

J10 J16 J70 O54 


The status of women in modern society has been at the forefront of the policy discussion for more than a century. It is safe to say that, for the most part, women in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) today finally have rights and responsibilities similar to those of men. It is relatively easy to find examples in the region of successful women in the arts, business, education, politics, science, and sports. Moreover, as in most of the world, women in LAC tend to live significantly longer than men.

However, women of working age in LAC are 30% age points less likely than men to participate in the labor market, despite a rapid increase in women’s participation during the 1990s and 2000s (World Bank 2018). This difference in labor participation between men and women in the region for the most part has remained unchanged over the past 10 years and today poses a threat to basic human rights and economic efficiency. Acknowledging this, the United Nations General Assembly met in 2018 with global leaders from governments, private sector firms, trade unions, and representatives of civil society to pledge concrete actions towards closing gender gaps by 2030.1 This special issue reflects on what the remaining gender gaps in LAC represent and how evidence-based policies can contribute towards providing equal opportunities for women and men to achieve their life potential.2

There is no shortage of policy options to close the gender gap in labor market outcomes. The likely success of these policies depends on the causes of the existing gaps. However, understanding the causes of gender gaps is challenging. Labor is only one dimension in which women and men differ. Gender roles influence outcomes (Cianelli et al. 2008; Giles and Heyman 2005; Blau et al. 2017; Nollenberger and Rodríguez-Planas 2015). Differences between women and men in choices and outcomes start way before they enter the labor market. These earlier behaviors likely affect many of their subsequent choices and outcomes in many spheres later in life, including fertility and labor (De Hoyos et al. 2016; Busso and Romero Fonseca 2015; Binstock and Naslund-Hadley 2010; Cruces and Galiani 2007). Policies that reduce women’s opportunity cost to work, such as subsidies and childcare, tend to reduce the gender gap (Larraín and Henoch 2016; Bustelo et al. 2016; Berlinski and Galiani 2007). Policies that focus on children and youth are also likely to be effective (Ellis et al. 2016; Belfield et al. 2006; Catino et al. 2011; Behrman et al. 2011). Moreover, policies may have different effects across genders, as in the case, for example, of education and pension policies (Muralidharan and Sheth 2016; Lim and Meer 2017; Escobar Loza et al. 2013; Galiani et al. 2016).

This paper introduces the special issue on “Progress and Challenges for Evidence-based Gender Equality Policy: A Focus on Latin America and the Caribbean.” This special issue aims to take stock of progress towards designing effective gender equality policies and to identify remaining challenges. To set the stage, this introductory paper provides a broad overview of gender gaps in LAC and discusses progress and challenges in terms of designing evidence-based gender equality policy. The paper first provides a broad view of the labor gender gap dynamics in LAC. It then introduces a life cycle perspective and explores possible determinants of this gap in the region. This framework has the advantage of linking gaps at any age with choices and outcomes earlier in the life cycle. Descriptive statistics are presented for dimensions of well-being at different points over the life cycle, starting from children up to 5 years old and moving up to persons 65 and older. The paper then discusses policy options in the region that could contribute to closing the gaps observed and introduces the work of the authors contributing to this special issue. Their work exemplifies how gender equality can be approached at different stages in life and in diverse policy arenas.

The findings and analysis in this paper lead to the conclusion that labor gender gaps open up early on; yet, there are few policies with a preventive focus. Findings include the following:
  • Different from other studies, this paper highlights that men and women experience gaps in labor, health, and education starting early in life. Boys are more likely than girls to work in child labor. Boys tend to suffer more from being overweight than girls, although this pattern reverts later in life. At age 15, young women perform significantly better in reading tasks, while young men do better in math tasks.

  • Later in life, men and women in the region attain similar education levels, with gaps in fields of specialization.

  • About 1 in 4 women ages 20 to 24 in LAC become mothers before reaching 18 years of age.

  • Labor participation gaps open to 30% at prime working age. Women spend more hours than men in unpaid house work.

  • Around the age of retirement, women have less access to pensions (52.4% of women versus 62.3% of men). Men are more likely than women to continue working after retirement age. However, women and men are equally likely to be taken care of by family members (UNDESA 2017a).

In terms of policy, the analysis finds that governments in the region have focused on adults. Examples range from wage subsidy policies to the provision of subsidized (or free) childcare. There has been less focus on policies to address gender equality earlier in life. This area therefore represents fertile ground for evidence-based research. A better understanding of how individuals and families make choices is key to identifying effective policies for equal opportunities.

This paper provides a broad framework to relate the work discussed in this special issue. The main contribution of the issue is its focus in LAC, while taking a broad view of gender gaps. LAC is different than other regions in that, for the most part, women have recently reached worldwide labor participation rates. LAC is also unique in that it has some of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the world. Explaining these regional features requires a broad view on gender. Such an approach may allow for embracing welfare as a lifetime, multidimensional concept. The studies in this issue contribute with evidence on many relevant dimensions. Aparicio, Gerardino, and Rangel find that, early in life, men’s health in Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia is more vulnerable to air pollution in utero, giving women an advantage at birth. Bando, Hidalgo, and Land find that in El Salvador, young women in their teenaged years are more amicable to changing gender attitudes in school than young men. Duryea et al. find that in Brazil, women in college do not reap the benefits of social mobility due to the major they choose. In terms of the labor market, Arceo-Gomez and Campos-Vazquez find that married women in Mexico may face more job discrimination than single women. Martinez, Mitnik, Salgado, Scholl, and Yañez-Pagan find that public services in Peru such as public transport influence the likelihood that a woman will work. Jaitman highlights how security issues on public transportation limit mobility patterns of women. Beuermann et al. remind us that the effectiveness of public services depends on the endowments of the target population. Their study finds that in Peru, text messages to pregnant mothers to remind them of appointments and make health recommendations improved the health of their newborns only for those women who had completed secondary education. Corral and Montiel highlight the need for different public services for men and women. They find that women are more likely than men in Ecuador to request legal support to regularize their land. Jaitman and Anauati also make this point: they find that women are more likely to be victims of gender-based violence, a type of crime that is unlikely to be reported to police. Martinez, Perez, Tejerina, and Yarygina find that in El Salvador, women are more likely to reach retirement age without a formal pension. The authors find that noncontributory pensions improve the welfare of their beneficiaries. They also find that pensions may boost school enrollment for boys living in households with a male pensioner.

All of these valuable contributions are a reminder that gender gaps in labor markets are only a part of the story. Policy design should recognize that gender gaps are multidimensional, and that multiple factors influence decision-making during a person’s lifetime. As such, policies should focus on acknowledging the different needs of men and women. Gender policies should aim to ensure enabling choices. These findings motivate future work to move forward in the design of evidence-based policy in favor of equal opportunities for men and women.

Gender Gaps in Latin America and the Caribbean

This section describes the different dimensions of gender gaps in LAC, starting with a description of the labor force participation disparity among adults (ages 25 to 64). A broad view is provided of the magnitude and trends related to this disparity in the region. The next section introduces a life cycle perspective (under age 25). Within this framework, potential determinants and consequences of the LAC labor force gender gap are discussed (for ages 25 to 64, and for older adults). In order to identify the most important challenges in the region going forward, gender gaps in different welfare dimensions are explored.

Gender Gaps in Labor Force Participation

Closing the gender gap involves guaranteeing women’s freedom to choose and act (ILO 2017; Nussbaum 2011). In this quest, the freedom to work is integral to women’s welfare. It not only reflects the consequences of choices made earlier in life by women and their parents, but it is also a key determinant of women’s participation in other social and economic circles during later stages of life. Therefore, this section starts by exploring the level and trend of female labor force participation (LFP).3

Six of every 10 adult women (ages 25 to 64) participate in the labor market in LAC. Although the participation rate of women is lower than that of adult men (90%), it has increased substantially in recent decades, with LAC countries experiencing a period of convergence from 1990 onward. While male LFP remained at around 90% between 1990 and 2015, female LFP increased more than 17 percentage points. By 2015, women’s LFP had reached 62%. As shown in Fig. 1, a sharp increase in women’s LFP over 1990–2005 (14 percentage points) was followed by a more modest increase from 2005 to 2015 (only 3 percentage points). Over the same period, the average female LFP worldwide fluctuated around 60%.4
Fig. 1

Labor force participation by gender (1990–2017). Source: Elaborated by the authors based on ILO estimates posted in the World Development Indicators repository (World Bank 2018). It considers adult labor force participation that includes individuals aged 25 to 64 years old

A look at LFP by age groups suggests that the LFP gender gap may open early on. Figure 2 shows LFP by gender across different age groups in 2015 (except for child labor) in LAC.5 Boys from ages 5 to 17 are 5 percentage points more likely to work than girls.6 During young adulthood, the gap for those ages 15 to 24 opens to 20 percentage points, and in adulthood (ages 25 to 64), it reaches its maximum at 30 percentage points.
Fig. 2

Labor force participation by gender across different age group. Source: Elaborated by the authors based on ILO estimates posted in the World Development Indicators repository (World Bank 2018). Children labor force participation is defined as the share of employed children (5–17) and data is collected by the ILO-IPEC initiative

The LFP gender gap is equal to 30 percentage points in LAC. In most countries of the region, it fluctuates between 25 and 35 percentage points.7 Among the countries with less disparity are Jamaica, Uruguay, and Peru, with a gap between 17 and 18 percentage points. On the other hand, countries such as Honduras, Mexico, and Guatemala have a large difference favoring men that reaches 40 percentage points or more. As can be seen in Table A1.2 in Annex 1, there is no clear relationship between the LFP gender gap and GDP per capita, share of informal employment, and labor regulation. For instance, Mexico and Uruguay share similar labor regulations and GDP per capita, but their LFP gender gaps are very different.

When compared to other regions in the world,8 LAC had the highest rate of convergence between male and female LFP over 1990–2015. While the gap decreased by 17 percentage points in LAC, it decreased by at most 6 percentage points in the other regions. Despite this progress, LAC still has the third highest LFP gender gap out of seven regions, behind only South Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, where cultural norms have a preponderant role exacerbating favoritism toward males (Jayachandran 2015). Female LFP in LAC is still 10 percentage points lower than in more developed regions (North America and Europe).

Exploring the difference in LFP across regions for different age groups provides a first hint about the determinants behind the LFP gender gap in LAC. Once the countries of South Asia and the Middle East and North Africa are excluded, the LFP gap at adulthood (ages 25 to 64) in LAC is 1.3 times higher than the rest of the world. Particularly noteworthy is that the LFP gap for young adults is two times higher. The question that follows is: What happens in LAC that differentially affects male and female LFP between the ages of 15 and 24? Forty-four percent of young women and 29% of young men in the region are not in education, employment, or training (NEET). De Hoyos et al. (2016) show that while most young men are living with their parents, one-third of young women have already started a new household and already have children. Choices during youth are key to understanding LFP decisions later in life.

At adulthood, women tend to be the adult mainly responsible for household chores. This represents a barrier to freely participating in the labor force. Adult women spend, on average, 22 more hours a week on household care than men.9 The figure for the number of hours a week spent on paid jobs is quite different. Men spend six more hours a week on paid jobs than women.10 Overall, women work almost 14 additional hours a week than men—that is, if one considers both paid jobs and household work. As can be seen in the Mexican case, almost half of this time (44%) is spent on family care (Busso and Romero Fonseca 2015). Figure 3 shows the number of hours spent on paid work and unpaid domestic care by gender and country. The pattern is consistent across the 14 countries for which data are available for LAC. While only 13% of employed men have a part-time job as a main source of income in LAC, 27% of employed women have a part-time job (World Bank 2018). Considering the productive definition of informality,11 50.5% of employed women are informal workers compared to 43.7% of men (Gasparini and Marchionni 2015). Part-time and informal jobs are characterized by offering few social benefits, which puts women at risk, both during adulthood and old age.
Fig. 3

Number of hours in a week spent on paid jobs and unpaid domestic care by gender. Source: Own calculations based on SEDLAC (hours worked on paid jobs) and world development indicators (World Bank, for hours spent on domestic work and care)

Gender Gaps in Nonlabor Outcomes over the Life Cycle

LFP gaps are likely to be influenced by several choices that precede decisions involving working. For instance, part of the LFP gender gap at adulthood is associated with choices made about marriage and the timing of a first birth (Goldin and Mitchell 2017). Understanding the life cycle of key development indicators can shed light on the design of effective policies. For example, if young women, relative to young men, have inaccurately pessimistic expectations about earnings trajectories, then a targeted information campaign may favor greater investment in their careers. In the life cycle framework, children are born with an endowment of health and skills. Given these initial endowments and preferences, individuals make consumption, work, and investment choices subject to the constraints they face and the expected returns they perceive from their actions. These choices and individual preferences determine outcomes over the life cycle (e.g., school completion, labor market participation, family formation, health status, and retirement income) and ultimately an individual’s well-being. Within this framework, the discussion turns to the potential determinants and consequences of the LFP gender gap.

We start by looking at educational decisions and outcomes. Educational outcomes in LAC are similar when comparing boys and girls. Young women ages 15 to 44 years are slightly more educated than men. The gap reverses in favor of men for the age 45 and older group, reflecting cohort changes in educational attainment. Figure A2.2 and Table A2.1 in Annex 2 present the years of education attained by gender across different age groups. While gender gaps in primary school attendance have largely been eliminated, attendance favors women at secondary levels and onward. On average, 78% of girls of the relevant age group attend secondary school in LAC, compared to 75% of boys. The secondary completion rate is consistently higher for young women than for young men in the region, and was 81% for women and 76% for men in 2015 (World Bank 2018).12 The LAC gender gap in years of education is smaller than that of the world. It follows a pattern similar to the gender gap in North America and Europe. As in other regions of the world, there are also significant differences in LAC in performance across genders by subject. According to results from the Programme for International Student Assessment for 2015, 15-year old girls perform significantly better than boys in reading, while boys perform better in mathematics (OECD 2018a). Interestingly, this pattern starts earlier in life. Results from the 2013 Tercer Estudio Regional Comparativo y Explicativo (TERCE) (“Third Regional Comparative and Explanatory Study”) (UNESCO 2014) confirm this pattern for girls and boys in the sixth grade of primary school. Differences in performance by subject might influence career choices later in life (Ellis et al. 2016).

Turning to health outcomes, women have better health prospects than men. Demographic studies have established that women are less likely to die than men at any age worldwide and certainly in LAC (Barford et al. 2006; Zarulli et al. 2018; Kalben 2000). Columns 1 and 2 in Table 1 show mortality rates by gender. Women in LAC have a life expectancy at birth that is 6.3 years greater than that of men (78.5 versus 72.2 years), a difference that is almost 2 years greater than that in any other region.13 Life expectancy is a noisy proxy for health; thus, we also explore nutrition.14 As has been shown previously, men and women have advantages in nutrition at different stages in life without one group dominating the other throughout the life cycle. Nutrition is especially relevant early in life because it has long-lasting effects on labor outcomes (Nandi et al. 2018). Columns 3 to 6 in Table 1 list outcomes related to malnutrition for 2016.15 The rates of overweight and underweight children are similar across gender groups before the age of 5. Later in life, boys and young men are more likely to be overweight than girls and young women ages 5 to 19. By adulthood, this pattern reverses. Women are more likely to be either underweight or overweight relative to men. It seems unlikely that the patterns in health observed can explain gaps in labor market outcomes.
Table 1

Health indicators by age and gender


Mortality rate (per 1000 individuals), 2010

Overweight or obese (per 100 individuals), 2016

Underweight or thin (per 100 individuals), 2016













Panel A. Female

  Ages 0–4




























Panel B. Male

  Ages 0–4




























Source: Authors’ calculations based on the Global Health Observatory database for overweight and underweight; and on World Development Indicators (World Bank 2018) and Hill et al. (2015) are for mortality rates

LAC Latin America and the Caribbean

aCorresponds to the 10–14-year-old age group

Education and health indicators do not show a clear imbalance at early stages of life. Given the progress in these dimensions in LAC in the last 10 years, the question that follows is what events take place during young adulthood that differentially affect male and female LFP. One possible factor influencing LFP is adolescent childbearing and marriage. Among the world regions, LAC has the second highest adolescent fertility rates: the share of women in the region ages 20 to 24 who gave birth before reaching 18 years old was 25% in 2015.16 The birth of a child decreases the probability that a woman will work (Cruces and Galiani 2007). Although fertility in the region has been declining, the decline has been slower among adolescents (Binstock and Naslund-Hadley 2010).

Furthermore, 25% of women in LAC ages 20 to 24 were married before the age of 18 (and 5% before age 15).17 Overall, LAC has the world’s third-highest early female marriage rate, behind only South Asia (30%) and sub-Saharan Africa (38%). Compared to other regions, LAC is the only one with no significant reduction in early marriages over the last three decades (OECD 2017). Not surprisingly, as shown in a cross-section of LAC countries in Fig. 4, there is a positive association in the region between early marriage and early childbearing.18 Thus, early childbearing and marriage may be a challenge to overcome on the road to closing the gender gap in LFP in the region.
Fig. 4

Share of women 20 to 24 years old married or having one birth by age 18. Source: Early marriage data is provided by the World Development Indicators. On the other hand, early childbearing comes from the UNICEF data (Monitoring the situation of children and women)

Gender roles are likely to be important determinants of the decisions made by men and women. Although rapidly changing, social norms in the region tend to reinforce the view that women are better suited than men to meet family needs (including child rearing) (Cianelli et al. 2008). These social norms may influence the perceived social benefits and costs of promoting certain fits between genders when an individual chooses an occupation (World Bank 2012; ILO 2016).

All in all, data on human capital investment through the life cycle does not show a pro-male bias. If anything, women may currently enjoy a relative advantage. As shown in Fig. A3.1 in Annex 3, the female LFP rate is positively associated with educational achievement. While 70% of women with complete secondary education participate in the labor force, only 57% of those who did not finish secondary school do so. At this level of analysis, evidence suggests that differences in educational achievement are not the main hurdle to promoting female LFP in the region. Rather, early marriage and childbearing among women suggest an early specialization in household care activities. The fact that women primarily carry the burden of household care influences their decisions related to their job search and selection of job type. Figure A3.2 in Annex 3 shows that while LFP participation among married women is 58%, it is around 79% among single women.19,20

Notably, aggregate data suggest that the LFP gap is associated with women’s economic welfare throughout the life cycle. Both in LAC and the world, women of childbearing age (15 to 39 years old) are more likely to be poor in comparison to men of the same age.21 Figure A2.1 in Annex 2 shows poverty rates by age and gender groups in LAC and the world. These patterns are associated with the fact that women marry younger, new households are more likely to be poor, and women of childbearing age are more likely to stay home or work in lower-quality jobs (part-time).

Finally, it is important to note that gender gaps in LFP in adulthood also have consequences as people become older. Men 65 and older are 20% more likely to work than women in the same age group. Women have more limited contributory histories. While 33.6% of male adults (15–64) contribute to a pension program, only 22.3 of women do so (ILO 2014). Governments in the region have recently started to tackle this inequity by offering noncontributory pensions to the elderly. Considering all pensions (including noncontributory ones), 52.4% of women (62.3% of men) above statutory pensionable age are receiving a monthly stipend in the region. Besides the difference in income independence, women and men are virtually equally likely to live with children: 53% of women and 51% of men over 60 years of age live with their children.22 Also, women and men over 60 are equally likely to live in an extremely poor household (Fig. A2.1 in Annex 1). Note that elderly women’s lack of income independence can be a risk factor. In Mexico, according to the 2006 national survey on household relationship dynamics, 27% of women age 60 or over, married, or in a relationship were victims of violence (Huenchan 2017).


The labor force participation gender gap at adulthood is 30 percentage points in LAC, which is 1.5 times greater than in more affluent regions such as North America and Europe. This comes despite the fact that no gender-differentiated outcomes in critical inputs such as education and health are observed in LAC. Importantly, the LFP gap in LAC is two times greater during young adulthood than in North America and Europe. Unlike those regions, one in four women in LAC marries before age 18 and one in four has a child before reaching that age. In general, women in the region specialize in household chores and spend an average of 22 more hours a week on these activities than men. This is associated with the type of jobs that women search for and get. Among employed individuals, women are more likely to have an informal and/or part-time job. These jobs are typically characterized by low social benefits, which put women at risk of poverty during retirement age.

The current situation should not obscure the fact that the region has seen great progress in terms of LFP during the 1990s and 2000s. While other regions in the world have reduced the LFP gender gap by at most 6 percentage points, LAC has reduced the gap by 17 percentage points. As shown in Figs. A3.1 and A3.2 in Annex 3, female LFP in LAC has increased by a greater proportion for low-educated and married women. In the last decade, LAC countries have adopted multiple policies to guarantee equal opportunities for men and women, which may have contributed to closing many of the gender gaps. This section presents some of the different policies aimed at tackling differences in outcomes that may originate at different stages of the life cycle. The aim is not to include all policies, but rather to focus on examples of priority policies in the region according to OECD (2017) and Vezza (2015). In addition, the analysis looks to contextualize the other papers in this special issue as well as the studies discussed in them. Table 2 summarizes the policies discussed in this section.
Table 2

Examples of pro-gender policies in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC)

Main program objective

Main program mechanism

Example programs


Panel A. Programs that target youth

  Counseling programs to prevent early marriage and childbearing

Weekly sessions in which girls (ages 8–12 or 13–18) engage in activities to increase their communication skills, knowledge of their rights, and tools to question traditional gender norms for reproductive health. Group sessions are key to build a safe social network around beneficiaries with access to mentors and role models

Abriendo Oportunidades in Guatemala; Abriendo Futuros in Mexico

Suggestive evidence of improvements in educational attainment and reduction in adolescent fertility (Catino et al. 2011).

  Change expectations on labor force participation

  Reduce gender violence

- Provide group workshops where attendees learn about gender, rights, and obligations.

- Attendees learn strategies to deal with conflict - Includes activities to promote social norms directed towards gender equality

Amor…pero del bueno in Mexico; Program P and Program M in Brazil; Program H and M in El Salvador

Not available on achievement of objectives. However, the programs may change attitudes (Sosa-Rubi et al. 2017; Bando, Hidalgo and Land in this volume)

Panel B. Programs that target adults

  Promote employment

Improve entrepreneurship skills through training

Mujeres Jefas de Hogar in Chile; Nontraditional Skills Training Program in Trinidad and Tobago; Promujer in Uruguay

Improvement in employment among women (SENCE 2013; Lafortune et al. 2018).

Relax constraints on time use by providing childcare services.

Subsidized childcare services: Hogares Comunitarios de Bienestar in Colombia, and Red Nacional de Cuido in Costa Rica.

In a related study, Berlinski and Galiani (2007) showed that the implicit childcare subsidy induced by the expansion of pre-primary school increased mother’s employment

Monthly monetary bonus for vulnerable employed women

Bono al Trabajo de la Mujer in Chile; Objetivo Empleo in Uruguay.

Increase the likelihood of getting a paid job (Larraín and Henoch 2016)

  Promote employment

Avoid discrimination by firms against women due to maternal breaks by requesting paternity leave

Parental leave programs: In most of LAC, maternity leave is 12 to 15 weeks, while paternity leave is less than a week (Vezza 2015)

Maternity leave has a negative impact on employment among women (Molinos 2012; Ramírez Bustamante et al. 2015)

Reverse discrimination by firms by providing gender-equality certifications based on a firm’s human resource practices

Sistema de Certificación Laboral con Sello de Equidad de Género in Costa Rica; Sello Iguala in Chile; Modelo de Equidad de Género in Mexico

No available evaluation

  Improve women’s intrahousehold agency

Family-oriented conditional cash transfers

Bolsa Familia in Brazil; Chile Solidario in Chile; Oportunidades in Mexico.

No effects on women employment (Alzua et al. 2010; Gasparini et al. 2015).

Provide land property rights

Documentation Program for Rural Women Workers in Brazil; Joint Titling Program for married couples in rural Peru.

Increase women’s involvement in household/agricultural decisions (Wiig 2012).

  Reduce gender violence

- Reduce the cost of reporting crime

- Provide victims with effective immediate assistance

Women: Living Without Violence Program in Brazil

An increase in likelihood of women reporting violence (OECD 2017)

Panel C. Programs that target older adults

  Reduce poverty

Provide noncontributory pension programs

Renta Dignidad in Bolivia; other countries that have introduced noncontributory programs are Brazil, El Salvador, Mexico, Peru, and Trinidad and Tobago

Reduction in poverty (Galiani et al. 2016; Bando et al. 2017; Martinez, Perez, Tejerina, and Yarygina, in this volume)

Source: Prepared by the authors

Early Years and Childhood

The gender gap in outcomes for children in the first 5 years of life is very small. Thus, the role of gender-specific policies here is more limited. However, gender differences in terms of preferences and beliefs emerge early in life. Giles and Heyman (2005) show evidence that even before children reach school age, they associate behavioral patterns with gender. In their empirical study, Giles and Heyman report that preschoolers (ages 3 to 5) described physical aggression as most common among boys and relational aggression as most common among girls. There is an ample role for public policies that can address this issue.

In addition, gender-neutral policies may affect men and women differently. A program that aims to increase the efficacy of parenting and consistent and non-violent discipline by parents in vulnerable populations can reduce behavioral problems among young children. Such policies might affect incarceration later in life (which is more prevalent among boys) or teenage pregnancy. Quality preschooling can also have important impacts. For example, the Perry School Project, a high-quality preschool intervention for at-risk toddlers implemented in the USA in the 1960s, has shown that by age 40 those who participated in the program had lower teenage pregnancy rates and incarceration rates than persons in the control group (Belfield et al. 2006).

More indirectly, perhaps, programs that improve maternal health may favor gender-specific health outcomes. A woman’s exposure to pollution during pregnancy is correlated with the health of her baby. In this issue, Aparicio, Gerardino, and Rangel study data from Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru and find that pollution affects both baby boys and girls. However, boys are more affected by their mother’s exposure to pollution during pregnancy.

There are no marked gaps in school competition in primary school (ages 6 to 11) across gender. However, differences in performance on standardized achievement tests start to emerge. For example, on a regional test (TERCE) administered in the 6th grade, girls outperform boys in reading but boys outperform girls in mathematics. This may be explained by gender-specific physiological characteristics shaping attitudes toward competition and risk (Halpern et al. 2007), as well as by culture determining the stereotype and availability of role models (Kahn et al. 2017). Nollenberger and Rodríguez-Planas (2015) showed that two-thirds of the gender math gap among second-generation immigrants in Spain can be explained by parents’ cultural attitudes. On the other hand, previous research has shown that a gender match between student and teacher increases math performance among young women but has no impact among young men (Muralidharan and Sheth 2016; Lim and Meer 2017). More policies targeting teachers and parents’ beliefs are needed to overcome the math performance gap in the region.

Young Adulthood

Women are more likely to finish secondary school than men. Therefore, many programs for young adults have turned to modeling attitudes and providing counseling to change patterns of violence, pregnancy, and educational choices that seem to affect the youth population in LAC.

There is a wealth of new public programs in the region geared towards changing attitudes about the division of unpaid work at home and the use of violence among youth. Salient examples of these programs are Program P (P stands for padre or “father”) in Brazil and Amor Pero del Bueno (“Love, but Good Love”) in Mexico. Program P aimed to actively engage young men in fatherhood from their partner’s pregnancies through their children’s early years. The Amor Pero del Bueno program aimed to reduce violence among dating couples. Sosa-Rubi et al. (2017) evaluated the latter program. They concluded that it reduced the share of students who justify the use of violence by 5% age points. In this issue, Bando, Hidalgo, and Land study the impact of a program that aimed to promote changes in attitudes through same-gender group workshops in high school. The authors found that women were more malleable to change their attitudes than men. The authors concluded that educational programs that aim to change attitudes should consider differentiation in treatment intensity.

To prevent early marriage and adolescent fertility, some LAC countries have implemented counseling programs for vulnerable young women. For instance, Guatemala launched the program Abriendo Oportunidades (“Opening Opportunities”) in 2004. It targets vulnerable female adolescents from ages 8 to 19. The program provides professional and leadership training within a support network composed of peers, mentors, and role models. Monitoring of the program indicates progress in educational attainment and in reducing adolescent childbearing. All of the girls who participated in Abriendo Oportunidades completed primary school (compared to 81.5% of girls nationally), and 97% of them remained childless during the program cycle, compared to 78.2% nationally among girls 15 to 19 years old (Catino et al. 2011). A randomized controlled trial experiment is currently under way in 40 communities in Guatemala (Population Council 2016). Similar programs under the name Abriendo Futuros (“Opening Futures”) have been implemented in Belize and Mexico.

A further area of interest is career choice. In this issue, Duryea et al. find that, as in the USA, female entrants to the Federal University of Pernambuco in Brazil have lower intergenerational income mobility than their male counterparts. The authors find that young women are entering universities at higher rates than young men. However, men have maintained an advantage when it comes to remuneration. Their analysis suggests that this difference may in part be explained by the type of majors that men choose.

During young adulthood, there are some non-gender-specific programs that are likely to influence the LFP gap later in life. For instance, the PROGRESA conditional cash transfer program in Mexico increased schooling attendance among youth (both boys and girls) exposed to the program. However, later in life, it only increased LFP among girls (Behrman et al. 2011). Another example is programs that aim to keep young men and women in school for longer hours. Berthelon and Kruger (2011) evaluate the effect on youth behavior of the Chilean reform that lengthened the school day from half-day to full-day shifts (jornada escolar completa). For girls, the change reduced the likelihood of becoming adolescent mothers. For boys, it reduced the probability that they would participate in crime.

As seen earlier in this paper, an interesting area of study is how programs that increase schooling patterns affect LFP and other gender gaps later in life. These programs are likely to complement the subsequent provision of other public goods and services. In this issue, Beuermann et al. study the effectiveness of sending text messages to pregnant women in Peru to remind them of prenatal care appointments and give recommendations on healthy eating and vitamin intake. The authors found that the text messages led to better attendance at prenatal care appointments and improvement in self-reported measures of eating and vitamin intake among those participants who have completed secondary school.


The most noticeable difference in outcomes among men and women in LAC is labor participation. Several policies implemented in the region are trying to address this issue. Governments have implemented multiple policies to ameliorate potential negative consequences of the uneven distribution of household work and family care. Some policies focus on improving the marketable skills of women by providing training. For instance, Chile implemented the program Mujeres Jefas de Hogar (“Women Heads of Households”) in 2007 to increase the employability of female household heads through training. A survey conducted in 2013 showed 93% of participants reported their professional situation improved due to the program (SENCE 2013). As shown by Lafortune et al. (2018), a key aspect of this training program is that those mothers with an ex ante low propensity to work learned from more employable peers.

The expansion of publicly provided (or subsidized) childcare is likely to affect female labor force participation. Berlinski and Galiani (2007) show that the implicit childcare subsidy induced by the expansion of pre-primary school facilities for 3–5 year-old children increased mothers’ employment outcomes in Argentina. Indeed, most published research outside the region supports this evidence (Bettendorf et al. 2015; Cascio et al. 2015; Givord and Marbot 2015; Haeck et al. 2015; Nollenberger and Rodríguez-Planas 2015). Further, Martínez and Perticará (2017) find that providing after-school care for children ages 6 to 13 boosts female labor participation in Chile. Indeed, there are many examples of subsidized childcare services in the region that are likely to be promoting female employment, such as Hogares Comunitarios de Bienestar (“Community Household of Wellbeing”) in Colombia and the Red Nacional de Cuidado (“National Network of Care”) in Costa Rica.23

A direct way to encourage vulnerable women to get a job is by providing them a monthly bonus for being employed. A cash transfer is provided to potential beneficiaries who are registered as employees of a formal firm. This subsidy also benefits employers by reducing hiring costs and wages. An example of this targeted subsidy in the region is Bono al Trabajo de la Mujer (“Bonus to Work for Women”) in Chile. Larraín and Henoch (2016) suggest that that this program can effectively increase the employment rate among vulnerable women.

Some governments have introduced gender-equality certifications to promote the adoption of female-friendly policies. To get certified, employers must show evidence that they have a set of required human resource management practices. Certifications typically require nondiscrimination in recruitment, selection, and training; eliminating gender-based pay gaps; enhancing women’s access to nontraditional jobs; addressing harassment in the workplace; and ensuring a work-life balance.24 Firms’ participation is voluntary. Versions of this policy have been adopted by 11 countries in the region, and to date more than 1400 public and private companies have been certified (UNDP 2016). Examples of such policies are Sello Iguala (“Seal of Equality”) in Chile and Modelo de Equidad de Género (“Gender Equity Model”) in Mexico. To the best of our knowledge, these programs have not been evaluated yet.

In this issue, Arceo-Gomez and Campos-Vazquez studied discrimination in Mexico by sending fictitious curricula in response to employment ads and recording call-back rates. The authors found that for every 10 ads, two explicitly discriminated based on gender. Of those ads that discriminated based on gender, 60% were targeted towards women. The authors of the study recognize that their findings are not enough to identify optimal policies. If employers are targeting men or women based on needs, then discriminatory ads may lead to lower search costs. On the other hand, if employers are targeting men or women based on discrimination, then discriminatory ads may lead to further discrimination. Employers may further discriminate based on marital status or race. The study follows from a previous evaluation in 2014 in which the authors found that employers discriminated by favoring white women and disqualifying indigenous-looking women (Arceo-Gomez and Campos-Vazquez 2014).

Ten percent of men do not have an income of their own vis-á-vis 33% of women (OECD 2017). Conditional cash transfer (CCT) programs are one of the most popular instruments used to address poverty in the region. Vezza (2015) shows that in 15 of 19 countries in LAC with CCTs, mothers are the designated receivers of the transfers. Importantly, CCTs have not generated a disincentive to female labor force participation in the region (Alzua et al. 2010; Gasparini et al. 2015). Furthermore, Bobonis et al. (2013) examine the impact of the Mexican Oportunidades program on spousal abuse rates and threats of violence and find that beneficiary women are 40% less likely to be victims of physical abuse but are more likely to receive violent threats with no associated abuse.

A different policy program to increase women’s agency is to guarantee their access to property rights. Property rights are potentially important for women’s empowerment because they can, for example, enhance women’s bargaining position within the household. This is especially important in rural areas where less than a third of agricultural property right holders are women, ranging from 8% in Guatemala 2003 to 31% in Peru 2012. In 2001, the latter country reformed rural land ownership and established mandatory joint land titling for married couples. Wiig (2012) showed that this reform increased women’s involvement in household decisions, particularly decisions related to agriculture. In this issue, Corral and Montiel study land regularization of rural farmers in Ecuador. The authors found that female-headed households were 13% more likely to request legal assistance to regularize their land than male-headed households. The authors conclude that informed targeting based on categorization of beneficiaries, plots, and communities can benefit those who will profit the most from regularization.

A challenge associated with empowering women is that of protection against violence. On average, 33% of women in the region have experienced sexual or physical violence (OECD 2017). Moreover, women are often victims of violence in public spaces. In Bogota and Mexico City, 6 out of 10 women have been harassed on public transportation. In the case of Lima, this indicator is 9 out of 10 for women ages 19 to 29 (ECLAC 2015). These statistics are likely to be downward-biased. In this issue, Jaitman and Anauati study underreporting and estimate that only 9 out of every 100 crimes that occur according to victimization surveys are recorded by the police. LAC governments are implementing policies to reduce the cost of reporting and to provide victims with effective immediate assistance. An example is Mulher: Viver sem Violência (“Women: Living Without Violence”) in Brazil. A key component of the program is a toll-free hotline (call 180), coordinated by the Women’s Policy Office. As a result of this program, 20% more women chose to report a first incident of violence between 2012 and 2013 (OECD 2017).

Safety is a consideration for women who work. Programs that provide infrastructure also favor LFP. In this issue, Martinez Mitnik, Salgado, Scholl, and Yañez-Pagan study the impact of improving public transportation services in Lima, Peru. The authors argue that women may not feel safe using public transportation. They find that providing public services such as safe public transport influences the likelihood that a woman will work in Peru. Also in this issue, Jaitman measures how security on public transportation limits mobility patterns of women in Lima and in Asunción, Paraguay.

An innovative approach to close gender gaps is to bundle multiple existing services under one roof. Ciudad Mujer (“Woman City”) in El Salvador has grouped 20 different female-oriented services (from 18 different institutions) into the same physical space. Those services are related to maternal health, empowerment of women to participate in economic activities, and gender violence. Several offices for this initiative have opened across the country. In a preliminary evaluation, Bustelo et al. (2016) explored how the program offices increase the take-up of already-existing female-oriented public services. Take-up of some services increased by 43%. Women significantly increased their use of maternal health services. In terms of economic empowerment, the authors found three important results: women were more likely to get a national ID card, obtain property titles, and claim children’s food support.

Older Years

The most common approach to helping older adults is through noncontributory pension programs. Since women are less likely to contribute to private pensions, noncontributory pensions provide them with a private source of income. For instance, in 2008 Bolivia launched the universal noncontributory program Renta Dignidad (“Rent with Dignity”). It guarantees a monthly pension of US$58.50 (in 2011 purchasing power parity) for every adult over 60 years of age (ILO 2014). An evaluation of this program reported a positive impact on household consumption (Escobar Loza et al. 2013). Similarly, Galiani et al. (2016) evaluate the impact of the Mexican noncontributory pension program Adultos Mayores (“Older Adults”). In addition to the program’s significant positive effect on consumption, the authors found a positive impact on mental health. Previous research has not found a differential effect by gender in LAC. In this issue, Martinez, Perez, Tejerina, and Yarygina study the effects of a noncontributory pension program in El Salvador. The authors find results consistent with those of Bolivia and Mexico. However, the authors also note that men and women may use pension funds differently. The program increased school enrollment and attendance for girls, an effect that appears to have been driven by female pension recipients. On the other hand, boys are more likely to benefit only when the pension beneficiary is a man.


The labor force participation gap in Latin America and the Caribbean has remained largely unchanged in the last 10 years. There is no shortage of policy options to close the gender gap, but evidence shows that the likely success of these policies depends on the causes underlying that gap, which can be challenging to understand.

This special issue focuses on LAC while taking a broad view of gender gaps. It contributes to the evidence on gender gaps across a variety of dimensions. Each study describes the progress and challenges in the design of evidence-based gender equality policies in the region, while also focusing on the specific dimensions of such policies. Designing effective policies demands answering such questions as: Why are young women choosing to marry earlier than men? Why are women not choosing higher-paying professions? Why cannot men and women share family and household responsibilities more equally?

This issue examines some lessons that feed into the challenges associated with gender gaps and development. Gender inequality fosters income inequality and may deter economic growth. The statistics presented in this work and the research discussed here point to differences in the life patterns of men and women. Gender norms and biological differences both play a role in these differences. The consequences go beyond the direct effect on women. For example, in utero, boys are more vulnerable to pollution than girls. Men suffer from higher homicide rates. An overall lesson is salient: men and women are different and face different challenges over their lifetimes. Thus, some policies may demand tailoring to the gender of the beneficiaries.

The opportunities for research are clear. There needs to be a stronger focus on programs early in life, and the effects of tailoring the provision of public goods and services to accommodate the different life patterns of men and women need to be explored. Researchers need to be careful, however. Biology, society, and individual traits will influence how policies translate into outcomes. Moreover, gender research may be prone to unconscious bias (Goldin and Rouse 2000; Teal et al. 2012). Thus, we must be aware of those biases and keep in mind that we are prone to them.

Despite these challenges, the papers in this special issue illustrate how teams of men and women can work together to study issues and deal with data limitations. These papers are a tangible example of the opportunities that lie ahead to generate evidence to inform policies in favor of gender equality.


  1. 1.

    The meeting was part of an initiative to support efforts to attain the Sustainable Development Goal to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls (OECD 2018b).

  2. 2.

    Gender refers to a social construct. Gender denotes a group of behaviors that society considers appropriate for men and women. Sex denotes the biological and physiological characteristics that separate men and women defined by chromosomes. “Male” and “female” are sex categories. “Masculine” and “feminine” are gender categories.

  3. 3.

    International Labour Organization estimates are used for LFP, based on employment surveys and censuses. The estimates include people who are either employed or actively looking for a job. They also include both the formal and informal sectors, but do not include family and unpaid workers. When specific age ranges are not specified, adult LFP refers to person 25 to 64 years old. As noted in the methodological notes of ILO (2013), labor force activity among young people (15 to 24 years old) reflects the availability of educational opportunities, while labor force activity among older adults (65 and over) provides an indication of attitudes towards retirement and the existence of social safety nets. UNDESA (2017a) lists the retirement age by gender for the largest 17 countries in LAC. In the case of men, the retirement age is always between 60 and 65; for women, it is between 52 and 65. However, in more than three-quarters of LAC countries the retirement age for women is also between 60 and 65.

  4. 4.

    The worldwide statistic is a population-weighted average of all countries in the world and thus includes LAC countries. Note that LAC only represents 8.6% of the world population according to the World Bank’s 2018 World Development Indicators.

  5. 5.

    Child labor force participation as shown in Figure 2 is a proxy for the share of children ages 5 to 17 working in 2012.

  6. 6.

    The International Labour Organization does not measure child labor regularly. Typically, labor surveys do not include individuals under 15 years old, so child labor estimates from UNICEF are used here. Those estimates measure the percentage of children ages 5–17 involved in paid or unpaid labor. Children considered to be involved in child labor include the following: (1) children 5–11 years old who, during the reference week, did at least one hour of economic activity or at least 28 h of household chores; (2) children 12–14 years old who, during the reference week, did at least 14 h of economic activity or at least 28 h of household chores; (3) children 15–17 years old who, during the reference week, did at least 43 h of economic activity or household chores; and (4) children 5–17 years old in hazardous working conditions.

  7. 7.

    Figure A1.2 in Annex 1 plots the LFP gender gap by country in LAC.

  8. 8.

    Following the World Bank criteria, seven regions in the world are considered: East Asia and Pacific, Europe and Central Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East and North Africa, North America, South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. Figure A1.1 in Annex 1 shows LFP gender gap dynamics from 1990 to 2017. In addition, Table A1.1 in Annex 1 shows how the current LFP gender gap varies across different age groups. The next section contextualizes LAC gender gaps in other welfare dimensions such as education, health, and early marriage by comparing them to other regions in the world.

  9. 9.

    Calculations by the authors based on the variable proportion of time spent on unpaid domestic and care work from the World Development Indicators (World Bank 2018). Information has been collected in multiple surveys and does not necessarily correspond to the same year for each country or region.

  10. 10.

    Calculations by the authors based on the Socio-Economic Database for Latin America and the Caribbean of the Centro de Estudios, Laborales, Distributivos y Sociales (CEDLAS), Universidad Nacional de la Plata, Argentina.

  11. 11.

    An individual is considered an informal worker if he or she pertains to any of the following categories: (1) unskilled self-employed, (2) salaried worker in a small private firm, or (3) zero-income worker. In this framework, labor informality is closely related to self-employment.

  12. 12.

    The completion rate aims to capture the probability of finishing lower secondary school. It is calculated as the number of new entrants in the last grade of lower secondary education, regardless of age, divided by the population at the entrance age for the last grade of lower secondary education (World Bank 2018).

  13. 13.

    Calculations by the authors based on 2016 data from World Bank (2018).

  14. 14.

    Determinants such as exposure to crime can influence mortality. In LAC, while the female intentional homicide rate is 4.2 per 100,000 population, it is 10 times higher for men (41.6 per 100,000 population). Indicators calculated by the authors based on the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Database for 2015 (UNODC 2017).

  15. 15.

    Malnutrition indices have been calculated by the World Health Organization (WHO) for 2016. Note that the definition of malnutrition changes by cohort. Overweight (Underweight) for cohort 0 to 4: Weight for height is greater (lower) than +2 standard deviations. With respect to the median for the international reference population, for cohorts ages 5–9 and 10–19, Body mass index (BMI) is greater (lower) than +2 standard deviations; for cohort 18 years and older, BMI is greater than 30 (lower than 18).

  16. 16.

    According to UNICEF global databases based on Demographic and Health Surveys, Multiple indicator Cluster Surveys, and other nationally representative surveys. See UNICEF, Adolescent Health, December 2017. (accessed 27 March 2019).

  17. 17.

    See UNICEF, Adolescent Health, December 2017. (accessed 27 March 2019).

  18. 18.

    The case of Mexico is a curious one. Although the female early marriage rate was 23% in 2009 (World Bank 2018), early childbearing was 39% (UNICEF data for 2010). This evidence suggests that many female adolescents are single mothers. A key dimension to understanding the impact of early childbearing on female labor force participation is whether the young woman has the support of her partner, other relatives, or neither. The Mexican context seems appropriate for further research in this regard.

  19. 19.

    Interestingly, the largest progress in female LFP participation is concentrated among low-educated and married women (Figures A3.1 and A3.2 in Annex 3).

  20. 20.

    Note that outmigration plays a minor role in explaining the current LFP gap in the region. According to UNDESA (2017b), approximately 39 million country-migrants in the world come from LAC, which is equivalent to 6% of the region’s population. Among those who migrate to other countries in the Americas, 45% are women (OAS 2015).

  21. 21.

    Using the set of harmonized household surveys from the World Bank’s Global Monitoring Database, Buitrago et al. (2018) defined poor households as those whose level of per capita consumption is under US$1.90 a day (2011 purchasing power parity), which is typically the definition of an extremely poor household. Women or men are then defined as poor if they live in a poor household.

  22. 22.

    Estimates of living arrangements are from UNDESA (2017a).

  23. 23.

    However, policies to augment the provision of childcare services will not always favor female labor participation. In Chile, nurseries are mandatory in firms that employee 20 or more women (Vezza 2015), but Escobar et al. (2017) estimate that this policy reduces female employment by 1 percentage point.

  24. 24.

    An alternative approach to engaging more women in nontraditional jobs would be to adopt affirmative action policies. However, no LAC government has used this type of policy in the labor market. LAC countries have only adopted gender quotas for Congress. Since Argentina pioneered this policy in 1991, another 18 countries have followed in the region. According to the World Bank’s World Development Indicators, LAC had the highest female participation rate in terms of legislative power (23%) among world regions in 2016 – higher than in Europe (22%) and North America (19%) (World Bank 2018).


Supplementary material

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ESM 1 (DOCX 89 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Office of Strategic Planning and Development EffectivenessInter-American Development BankWashingtonUSA
  2. 2.Inter-American Development Bank and IZA, GermanyWashingtonUSA

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