San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Ticas Travel Long Road Toward Equality

As many people celebrated International Women’s Day this week, Costa Rica took stock of how far Costa Rican women – Ticas – have come, but they also eyed the stretch of road to equality that still lies ahead.

Today’s Ticas are having fewer children than did past generations and they’re taking jobs outside the home to climb the employment ladder like never before. And Laura Chinchilla will become the first Tica president on May 8.

“On a macro-level, I think women in Costa Rica have come a long way in a number of areas,” said Simone Bunse, a former lecturer at INCAEBusinessSchool in Costa Rica, who has researched women in leadership. She cited both the literacy and education levels of Ticas as surpassing the male levels.

“However, we are far from a picture of ‘the empowered woman’ we may want to see,” she said.

Hurdles to equality still lay across the nation’s labor playing field. As national unemployment hit a more than 20-year record of 7.8 percent in July 2009 – the last time the National Statistics and Census Institute measured it – Tica workers seemed to suffer the heaviest blow. Women’s unemployment was above average at 9.9 percent while joblessness among men was measured at just 6.6 percent.

However, the Great Recession aside, studies show women’s earnings have been trailing those of men for years and the gap is widening.

In 1996, female employees earned 15 percent less than their male counterparts in similar jobs. In 2008, the salary gap grew to 26 percent, according to a report released in October 2009 by the State of the Nation independent research group and the state-run National Women’s Institute (INAMU).

Mabel Figueroa, INAMU’s coordinator for public policy for gender equality, explained that while women have made strides into the workforce, neither working conditions nor the national perception of them has caught up.

“One of the most powerful reasons (for the wage gap) is that society believes that a woman’s salary is a household’s secondary, and not a primary, income,” said Figueroa.

Women also struggle with what Figueroa calls the “double shift”: one is their paid job in the office, the field or the factory, and the other is what is expected of them in the household, as caretaker, cleaner and cook.

“Now we want to share the load more with you guys,” said Raquel Herrera, a Tica who works as programs specialist at the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) Costa Rica office. Herrera said moves toward women’s equality in Costa Rica are among the leading factors behind the country’s level of human development.

She noted that the work landscape has shifted, citing a recent survey that found 27 percent of Ticas are breadwinners in their homes.

“This is very important,” she said. “It implies a change in society of the model of the male as the sole provider and the woman with all the reproductive responsibilities.”

Karla González is a road safety adviser to the Inter-American Development Bank, but she is better known for having been Costa Rica’s first female head of the Public Works and Transport Ministry. She said times definitely have changed, even since the days of her mother, who is just 18 years her elder.

“Our mothers and grandmothers worked really hard, but in the home as housewives. It’s a respectable and totally admirable task,” González said. “It’s up to us to maintain the same family cohesion and quality of life for our children, while at the same time contributing economically to our households.”

However, while acknowledging the challenges faced by her fellow Ticas, González said her road into politics “in all honesty was not a hard struggle.”

This year’s International Women’s Day came under the United Nations’ theme “Equal rights, equal opportunities: Progress for all.”

If you go by the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index, Costa Rican women have made progress. The country scores 0.718 (1.000 is gender equality) and ranks 27th out of 134 countries, an improvement from 32nd in 2008. The life expectancy of Ticas is 81 years, compared with 76 for Costa Rican males. A number of other indicators show women equal to or ahead of men in health and education.

With women public figures like González and Chinchilla, as well as other high officials such as Finance Minister Jenny Phillips, it would seem that the most noticeable progress for women has been in the political sphere.

With a 40 percent female Legislative Assembly, Costa Rica boasts a level of women’s political participation in step with countries such as Norway and Finland – and blazing past the United States’ 16.8 percent of women in Congress, according to data compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, a Switzerland-based association of more than 150 parliaments and congresses.

In Costa Rica, the percentage is the law: a quota obliges political parties to put women in 40 percent of electable seats, including ballots for the executive branch (one of either the  presidential or the two vice presidential candidates must be a woman). The government is working toward a Legislative Assembly with 50 percent female members by 2014.

The private sector is lagging. While several top government officials are women, female CEOs and board members are few and far between.

Chinchilla on Monday reiterated a pledge to close the gap, promising to seek solutions for women who work but who also want to raise a family. Ticas are increasingly choosing the former and opting for fewer children than the 2.1 children per woman needed for population replacement, according to Luis Rosero, a leading demographer at the Central American Population Center at University of Costa Rica (TT, Dec. 14, 2007).

Childcare played an important part of Chinchilla’s campaign, as billboards across the country announced the promise to build a robust Red de Cuido, or care network, so that every family has access to childcare. Chinchilla said her government program has children, the nation’s future, in mind.

“It took a woman to think of this segment of the population,” she told The Tico Times in an interview before the election (TT, Jan. 8). However, whether a woman or a man thinks up solutions to the hurdles still in Ticas’ way, it undoubtedly will take a nation to follow through on them and bring about the equality many wish to see. Meanwhile, women will keep a close eye on Casa Presidencial to see whether having one of their own in the country’s top office will make a difference.

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