San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Costa Rican women among the best educated, but least economically empowered, new index says

For Costa Rican women, access to education has not equated to economic opportunity, says a new study from the World Economic Forum.

The 2013 Gender Gap Report, released last week, ranked Costa Rica as the 31st most gender-equal country out of 136 countries based on indicators in four different areas – a drop from 29th in last year’s index.

Iceland was the top-ranked country with Scandinavian countries following closely behind. Canada is in the top spot for North America at 20th, with the U.S. at 23rd. Nicaragua is the highest-ranking Latin American country in 10th place.

Unlike other indices, the Gender Gap Report does not measure women’s empowerment. Instead, it measures the difference between men and women in certain indicators to determine whether or not men and women have equal opportunities in each country.

Costa Rica scored well in educational attainment, political empowerment and health. It is among the 25 countries that have completely closed the educational gender gap, and women have a higher life expectancy than men. A comparatively high number of women are in high political positions, including as head of state.

In the 13 years since the report has been released, Costa Rica has closed its gender gap by 15 percent, tying it with five other countries for the most-improved. Contributing to these advances are updates to the country’s legislation to comply with international standards. Costa requires that political parties set aside a percentage of their seats for women.

Though Costa Rica sits at the top of the heap in educational equality, the slip in rankings is due to a lack of improvement in women’s participation in economic affairs.

“Women here are reaching higher levels of education, but we have yet to advance in transferring that to women achieving high-level, decision-making positions in the economy,” María Isabel Chamorro, minister of women’s affairs, told The Tico Times. “We keep finding that businesses looking to fill higher-paid positions want to hire men.”

Chamorro said that the institute is working on campaigns and incentives to encourage private companies to hire more women to high-powered positions, but that cultural expectations also play a large role in keeping women out of the workplace.

“The responsibility of being a caretaker still falls primarily on women in Costa Rica,” she said. “Women don’t only care for children, but also for the elderly and the handicapped.”

Chamorro hopes that Costa Rica will expand its caretaking network beyond public daycare to something more comprehensive. The country has already seen success with alternative education programs enabling women with children or other responsibilities to finish education at home or at night. While efforts are being made, for Chamorro the changes need to come first from families.

“Even with alternatives, we need a change of perspective,” she said. “We are trying to show that caretaking is a responsibility for the entire family, not just the women.”

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