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


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.

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  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).


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Bando, R., Berlinski, S. & Carrasco, J.M. Progress and Challenges for an Evidence-Based Gender Equality Policy: a Focus in Latin America and the Caribbean. J Econ Race Policy 2, 187–201 (2019).

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  • Gender inequality
  • Gender gaps
  • Latin America and the Caribbean

JEL Codes

  • J10
  • J16
  • J70
  • O54