*Regina Cortina

The year 1975 marked the beginning of the United Nations Decade for Women, the theme of which was Equality, Development, and Peace. Twenty years later it is pertinent to ask what impact the subsequent policies that focused on the advancement of women have had on women in Latin America. What do the past two decades of change and continuity in public life have to teach about efforts to help Latin American women obtain equality in such things as education, health services, employment, and housing?

This essay reviews the efforts to include women in public policies by examining the policies that have more directly benefited women, focusing specifically on the participation of women in education and its effects on their professional life and political participation. In the last two decades, girls throughout Latin America have achieved access roughly equal to that of boys in primary schools. The increased opportunity for women can be explained in part by increased urbanization in the region, the expansion of public education systems, and both national and international efforts to improve the quality of schooling (Bustillo 1993). Without doubt, the policy initiatives of these two decades resulted in greater access to education for women. Women's illiteracy declined as girls and boys experienced greater and more equal access to elementary and secondary education. But the goal of equal access to basic formal education is only a first step. Rates of participation beyond secondary school still show disparities. In addition, there is much work to be done in providing access to women in fields within higher education that have traditionally been the domain of men, such as law, medicine, and engineering.

In educational planning, an important change taking place is that women's needs are being recognized in educational policy making. Public investment in the education of women is finally taking place in Latin America. Moreover, the countries of the region now see the education of women as an investment priority; justified not only because it increases earning potential or productivity, but also because the influence that women's education has on the size, well-being, and health of the family (Schultz 1993). For example, Mexico has increased the capacity of its institutions and expanded secondary degree programs which offer specialized skills that are useful in the job market. Today 67 percent of the students in such programs are female, though they are often destined for jobs in low-paid service fields (Sandoval and Tarres 1994).

The increased education of women has not, however, resulted in equal pay for women. In Latin America, women, on average, receive between 60 and 80 percent of men's salaries for equivalent work. Brazil and Mexico are the two countries in the region with the greatest wage equality between women and men (Psacharopoulos and Tzannatos 1992).

Part of the explanation for the gender inequality in earnings can be found in outright differences in pay for the same levels of work and skill between men and women. However, another part of the explanation can be traced to the greater enrollment of men in higher levels of education in general and in the higher paying fields of study in particular. In higher education, especially when viewed in terms of fields of study as well as overall rates of enrollment by men and women, the democratization of access has proceeded at a surprisingly slow pace. This is significant because 20 years ago higher education was expected to greatly influence the professional opportunities and quality of life for women in the future. Yet, despite the slow pace, there has been an increased enrollment of women in higher education. Greater enrollment of women in higher education is as important as the growth of public universities in the region and the increasing role of private universities as centers of academic excellence. Nonetheless, educational opportunities for women continue to be underdeveloped because the expansion of post-secondary education in Latin America has gone hand-in-hand with a notable decrease in quality.

Reflecting on the integration of women into regional economic development after the United Nations Decade of Women, a publication issued by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean described women's participation in organizations, noting that "women are isolated especially because of being primarily devoted to their household or of having to work both in a paid job and at home." The report added that for women, "associations with the labor market are more negative, than even those of the men in the same group...[and] their professional and technical training is usually inferior to that of the men in their group" (ECLAC 1988, 45).

Isolation, tension between work and home life, and lower professional training continue to characterize women's participation in the professional world and in labor organizations. To analyze the professional participation of women in Latin America we turn to look at the teaching profession.

Women as Professional Teachers

The expansion of public education systems has indeed opened avenues for the professional employment of women. Today, women constitute the majority of employees in the field of education in both industrialized and third world nations. Among the developing countries, Latin America has the highest proportion of women in teaching, though the proportion varies by country and region.

A recent report by the International Labor Organization estimates that, on average, 77 percent of teachers in primary school and 47 percent of teachers in secondary school are women. The country with the highest percent of female teachers in Latin America is Uruguay, where 93 percent of the teachers are women, followed by Argentina with 92 percent (ILO 1991, 115-126).

Teaching has been the most common profession for both urban and rural women for most of this century. Despite the barriers to the advancement of women in the professional world, access to teaching has been one of the only available avenues into public life. In most countries, however, gender differences have been institutionalized in teacher education and employment, and women exercise little influence on policy making, professional organizations, and the management of schools where they work.

The Mexican experience reflects the greater continuities in the professionalization of education throughout the world. Teachers were the first group in the middle class who had access to professional education, but the quality of their training and the social status of their profession declined as more women entered its ranks. Contrary to stated aims, policy decisions have tended to lower the status of teacher education in Mexico. A century after the inception of the first teacher training institution, teaching continues to be an occupation open to women in Mexico, but the reins of power in the educational system are still held by men. As in the past, women form a large majority of educational employees, yet they are a small minority in the leadership and decision-making positions within the national Ministry of Education (Secretaría de Educación Pública; SEP) and the national teachers' union (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación; SNTE). The participation of women and men in the teaching profession in Mexico shows differential roles, despite efforts by the leadership of the teachers' union and the Ministry of Education to represent the entire profession as united in spirit and harmonious in its interests.

The employment of women within teaching has given them stable employment in which they earn the same as men in the same job, while most women in Mexico earn markedly less than men with the same level of education. The advantages that women in education have in relation to other women workers appears to be related to their urban middle-class background, but in spite of their relative success when compared to other women, their gender has acted as a barrier in restricting the educational and occupational opportunities open to them. This has happened in large part because they have been channeled into specialized secondary schools designed to provide access to teaching, a lower-paid and lower-status profession than those accessible to students who go on to academic high schools and from there to universities.1

In the case of Mexico, not only is teaching an occupation with a high proportion of women, but women work mostly in the lower levels of the educational systemCat the preschool (100 percent female) and elementary school levels (64 percent female).2 In Mexico City, women also play a central role in the daily management of public education. Of the 54 superintendents that work for the city, 67 percent are women. Among the school inspectors, 55 percent are women. Among the school principals that are responsible for the 3,045 schools in the city, 57 percent are women. As these statistics show, at least in a major metropolitan area, it is possible for women to advance to managerial positions and play an active role as leaders in their profession. The challenge is to make such advancement a reality on a much larger scale beyond the nation's capital and across all of Latin America, where the percentage of women in managerial and leadership roles remains much smaller.3

Mexico's Plans for Modernizing Education

The advancement of women, both as students and as professionals, is influenced by broad changes in the structure and governance of education, as the Mexican case illustrates. In the early 1980s, successive administrations in the Ministry of Education initiated reforms to manage education in a more decentralized fashion and improve the education and professional life of teachers. At that time, the completion of high school became a requirement to enter the normal schools in an effort to improve the quality of teacher education. Then, under President Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994), the government for the first time publicly acknowledged the shameful neglect of public education in Mexico. Abandoning decades of empty political rhetoric, the national government decided to spotlight the poor quality of the teaching force, the inequities in the access to educational opportunities between rural and urban areas, the lack of a teacher training policy, the fact that the diminishing resources devoted to education limited the access of school-aged children to public education, and the deterioration of the public school buildings. A recently published book referred to these realities as The Silent Catastrophe (Niebla 1992). What was most remarkable was that the crisis became a high priority in national policy.

In confronting the alarming evidence of the crisis, the Salinas administration devoted substantial new resources to reorganizing the educational system, which serves 26 million students. This shift in political priorities regarding education has continuing implications for the advancement of women as the successive administrations focus more seriously on the structure and quality of teacher education for improving schooling in Mexico. Alongside this focus on educational improvement there has been an effort to redistribute administrative authority between the federal government, state governments, and municipalities. There has also been a focus on revamping the curricula and improving the professional status of teachers. All this has been part of a broader drive to modernize education and help the country face new demands brought by economic adjustments and reforms and the North American Free Trade Agreement.

During the Salinas administration, the laws and regulations of the education sector were transformed. First, the change started with the "Acuerdo Nacional para la Modernización de la Educación Básica" in 1992, which transferred a substantial amount of authority over the elementary education from the national government to the states. This was followed by an amendment to the third article of the Constitution (Diario Oficial de la Nación, 5 marzo 1993), which reinforced the decentralization of the management of public education in Mexico. More recently, the passage of the Ley General de Educación (Diario Oficial de la Nación 13 julio 1993) increased the commitment of the national government to equalize access to education.

This change in the educational responsibilities of the State coincided wiht other events that captured the public's attention for months. First was the intervention of President Salinas in ending the long rule of leadership by Vanguardia Revolucionaria over the affairs of the national teacher's union, making it possible for Elba Esther Gordillo to assume leadership of the union. This was followed by the appointment of Ernesto Zedillo to head the Ministry of Education (particularly significant, in retrospect, since Zedillo became the successor to Salinas as President of Mexico in 1994). Then, the participation of Aguilar Camín and others in rewriting the textbooks was followed by a public uproar provoked by what was seen as the doctoring of Mexican history, glorifying the role of ninteeth century dictator Don Porfirio Díaz in the modernization of Mexico. That he would no longer be called a dictator in official textbooks was seen as reflecting a diminishing role for the Mexican Revolution, which Lorenzo Meyer has called the "second death of the Mexican Revolution" (Meyer 1982).

The ideological revamping of the textbooks and the fact that Zedillo requested a private printer to publish the books left millions of undistributed copies in the warehouses of the Ministry of Education. In the fall of 1993, Mexican children started with their new books, except for in history. The latest edition of the revised textbooks ended with events before 1968, when the country was racked with protest movements.

All the above cited examples show how the winds of change are blowing on Mexican education. Among all the other reforms, the most important for the career and advancement of women in teaching is the professionalization of the teaching force and the effort to improve the quality of their training.

The Professionalization of Teachers

Contrary to stated aims, policy decisions have tended to lower the status of teacher education in Mexico. An important reason is that teacher training institutions have served as an alternative to high school. When normal schools were defined as equivalent to high school, males from lower socioeconomic status and women were attracted to these institutions, and it is easy to understand why. With only one additional year of schooling in the normal school, a student could get a professional degree in addition to a secondary school diploma. Having obtained the degree, a teacher could hold a part-time teaching job while also continuing to pursue an education at the postsecondary level. The teaching certificate became, then, the conduit of lower class males and many women to higher education. But at the same time, teacher training became the lower tier of a two-tier educational system, since the high schools remained more exclusive, more academically oriented, more male, and more affluent. Policy makers have been slow to address this institutionalized form of subordination. The debate on improving the quality of teacher education has been going on for over forty years.

Once within the public system, a typical career path for teachers has been to progress through the structure to mid-level positions in the Ministry and the union. Since the 1930s, the seniority system has provided incentives to teachers as they move to administrative positions in the schools and at the district level. Almost no incentives, monetary or otherwise, existed for teachers to remain in the classroom. Indeed, the incentives were largely toward rising from the classroom to administrative positions, from there to union leadership, and from there to positions in the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), the dominant party in national politics, and this progression has been the traditional preserve of men. The new legislation included in the Acuerdo Nacional para la Modernización Educativa devotes a whole section to the reevaluation of the teaching profession. A critical part of that reevaluation is breaking the highly concentrated link between politics and the profession through decentralization of governmental authority and union control. An equally important part is strengthening the compensation and professional conditions of work for teachers at the classroom level. The latter development shows for the first time in Mexican public life a commitment to the teachers as educators of children in the classroom, rather than as public employees and union members.

Two aspects of this new legislation are crucial to the possibilities of advancement for women in the profession: the training of teachers and the carrera magisterial or teaching career. In regard to the former, the new law gives the states the responsibility for training their own teachers, and it gives them control of all teacher training institutions. This ends the centralization of teacher training and reduces the traditional prerogatives the national union leaders had over the assignment of jobs and the promotion of teachers to mid-level positions, such as school principals and supervisors.

Second, to provide incentives for teachers to remain in the classroom, the carrera magisterial was created as a legal specialty and defined as a horizontal mechanism of promotion. The goal is to keep teachers in the classroom by giving them better salaries, and linking the salary level to the level of education, performance, years of service, and an examination of the teacher's knowledge. This measure will benefit women who in the past tended to remain as classroom teachers while men in greater numbers advanced to administrative positions or political positions within the union. More importantly, this new legislation will provide stronger incentives and assign greater value to the work of women as teachers inside the classroom.

All teachers are required to take a multiple choice exam as part of the process of being placed within the different categories of the carrera magisterial. At the elementary school level, many teachers were unable to answer even one of the questions in the multiple choice questionnaire. Only 45 percent provided the right answers. Among the pre-school teachers, 70 percent were able to give the right answer.4 The preliminary results of these exams show that the states face a daunting task in working to retrain teachers currently in service.

Decentralization increases the states' decision-making in educational affairs, giving them control over resources and autonomy in planning their education system. It also gives direct responsibility to the states for illiterate adult and indigenous populations. The decentralization of education is expressed in the text of the law as federalismo educativo, or federalism in education. This is not to be understood as merely a reform of the central and national and state bureaucracies. It has as an ultimate goal promoting autonomous interests in the school and the communities. The idea is to create a grass-roots force for change. In states where dissident teacher movements have been strong since the early 1970sCChiapas and OaxacaCthis opening will allow teachers to develop their own criteria for professional advancement. Given the heavy participation of women in dissident teacher movements, this opens new opportunities for them to achieve leadership positions in the decentralized and more autonomous structures of governance. It can be expected that the same will be true nationally as decentralization creates more leadership opportunities at the state and local levels.

In short, the new law redistributes the responsibility of public education so that states and communities play a more important role. This reallocation of the administration of education is creating many interesting changes at the state level. The top administrator for education at the state level often manages a larger budget than does the governor. For the states, the responsibilities given to them is enormous, since in the past they have never had such direct control over their resources or effective decision-making powers over education. The logistical capacity of the states is minimal. Their capacity to provide training for their teachers is virtually nonexistent. Regional differences in the use of the resources provided to them will be interesting to follow in analyzing the impact on opportunities for women.

Certainly, there have been many important changes toward the modernization of education in Mexico, though most of these changes are still on paper and have not yet reached the classroom. Among the positive elements, however, is a more truthful evaluation of the crisis of education in the country. One positive action has been to include in the legislation the responsibility of the federal government to establish compensatory programs to promote equal access to education. One example is the investment in education that Mexico's National Council of Education Development has poured into the more marginalized areas since the new legislation was passed, aiming to benefit teachers, schools and children in states such as Chiapas and Oaxaca, among others with marginalized, rural populations. A much greater effort is being made to equalize educational access for all children.

It is too soon to measure what effect this legislation will have. It seems likely, however, that increased democratization in the management of education, by increasing teacher participation, will help women in the months and years to come.

Teachers and Union Activities

For women, teaching and political mobilization have been associated since the Mexican Revolution. The teaching profession has been central to the quest of Mexican women for equal rights and better treatment as workers. As far back as the First Feminist Congress of Yucatán in 1916, when Mexican women came together to discuss their social and political rights, a large proportion of the participants were teachers. Among the issues discussed in the congress were the right of women to education and their right to work. Female teachers also stood out in the movement during the 1930s, fighting to obtain full citizenship and the right to vote. More than 50,000 women participated in the Frente Unido Pro Derechos de la Mujer (United Front for Women's Rights) between 1935 and 1938.5 As a consequence of the social programs of that period under President Lázaro Cárdenas, female teachers today are entitled to maternity leave and free day-care for their children, plus all the social benefits provided by law for unionized state employees: retirement after thirty years of service, social security, paid vacations, low interest loans, and equal pay for employees working at the same level, whether male or female.6

Due largely to the social programs of the Cárdenas period and the mobilization of women at that time, female teachers have become a relatively privileged group among women workers in Mexico. As state employees, they receive salaries equal to those of men who have the same number of years of experience and education. Most importantly, women gained legal equality in public employment during those momentous years of state-building a half century ago. Yet, they were still limited in the profession, not so much by overt legal discrimination as by the more subtle political and institutional constraints over which they had little control.

The relationship between the union and the PRI was an important force in mapping the present state of education in Mexico. During the twenty years that Vanguardia Revolucionaria was in control of the union, the teaching profession and teacher training institutions were used to support the political aims of Vanguardia and the PRI. During these two decades, the decision-making authority for education affairs in the country was concentrated within the National Ministry of Education and the national teachers' union.

Since the mid-197Os, women as a group have played a small but ever-increasing role in union politics. The union leadership has become acutely aware that almost half of its membership consists of women and that women are a large majority in some of the most powerful sections. Consequently, leaders have promoted a small number of women to positions of power in the union hierarchy. Women were promoted because of their image of honesty and devotion. The male leadership studiously avoided promoting women active in dissident movements or groups making demands for democratization of union politics. As some of my earlier writing on the subject has argued, this practice of highly selective and token mobility can be seen as way of legitimizing the leadership in front of the rank-and-file. The promotion of a few women to the union leadership is not related to any feminist consciousness, nor does it represent any serious campaign to increase equality between the sexes. The promotion of individuals to leadership roles can be explained by the existing patterns of handling recruitment to leadership roles within the Mexican political system. Individuals within a group are promoted, but there is little corresponding promotion of group interests as the selected leaders shift their attention to maintaining the balance of power within the political hierarchy.7

Today the union, which represents 1.1 million educational workers, continues to have great influence on the educational affairs of the country. The new leadership of the union, which since 1989 has been under the direction of a woman, Elba Esther Gordillo, appears to be interested in improving the education and professional development of the teaching force. For the first time in many years, the ministry and the union have a common goal, but certainly not everything is friendly coexistence in Mexico's politics of education.

One result of the decentralization of education has been that the national executive committee of the union no longer controls salaries, promotions, and reallocations of all teachers in the country. For the first time, the union section in each state has autonomous bargaining power. The negotiation takes place with the local administration of public education. Already in quite a few states, such as Oaxaca, Baja California Sur, and Quintana Roo, the state-level union section is in control of educational affairs at the local level. Meanwhile, the national executive committee continues to control the one percent of teachers' salaries that is deducted monthly as union dues.

The new secretary of the union, Elba Esther Gordillo, was a prominent member of Vanguardia Revolucionaria as the agenda of the Salinas administration began to take shape. Elba Esther Gordillo decided to support the administrations' plan to modernize education. She has been able to exercise enough control to be able to facilitate the administrations' aims, but the union is presently divided in three main groups: the hard line Vanguardistas, the supporters of the new secretary, and the teacher's movements.

During her years as secretary general of the national teacher's union, Gordillo has embarked on many projects and reforms, some of them explicitly aimed at helping the female teachers. A new monthly publication, Ser Maestra, speaks directly to and acknowledges the vast number of women in the ranks of the teaching profession. The union under her leadership has participated, along with many institutions of higher education, in the Second National Congress of Education Research in Mexico, which resulted in the publication of several volumes about the state of educational research. In addition to the traditional role of the union as the politicized campaign arm of the party, the union under Gordillo's leadership is also becoming more of a professional organization involved in the creation of knowledge about education, exploring new policy strategies for schooling, and helping to create active dialogue about professional issues beyond the economy and workplace of the union. The union under her leadership is moving away from focusing solely on the control of job access and mobility; it is becoming more visible in helping to improve the quality of public education and to professionalize teaching. More recently, the union has been working toward a First National Congress of Education in order to be able to frame its own vision of the objectives of education for the future. Although the union has sponsored many national convocations in the past, this is the first to deal exclusively with pedagogical and professional issues connected with the quality of teaching and learning.

Esther Gordillo's term as general secretary ended in 1995. It will take some time to see how much of the change she initiated will be institutionalized. Yet, there can be little doubt that the changes are favoring women, who will be better recognized for their work as teachers if the reforms continue to move forward along with the political will that has been dramatically more evident in recent years.

Mexico has embarked on a wave of reforms to modernize education. Many of those reforms are centered around the teaching profession. Are female teachers going to be able to seize this opportunity and break from the traditions of subordination and control that have characterized their employment in teaching for the past 50 years? Mexico's successful implementation of economic reform has been closely connected with its accelerated adaptation to economic globalization and the North American Free Trade Agreement. The process has produced many effects on the differentiation and modernization of Mexico's social structure. Indeed, it is an understatement to say that in the mid-1990s we are witnessing a society that is rapidly changing. Education is a central part of this change, and Mexican womenCas students and as professionalsChave been and will be continue to be central actors in the new movements that characterize the political environment of Mexico today.

*Regina Cortina is currently an adjunct associate professor of Latin American Studies and Education and Associate Director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Brown University. Dr. Cortina has worked extensively in public policy and education in Mexico, particularly concerning women teachers and teacher training, unionization of teachers, and national policy development.



1. For a study on the participation of women in Mexican education see Regina Cortina, "Women as Leaders in Mexican Education," Comparative Education Reveiw 33 (1989): 357-376.

2. The figures are based upon data provided to the author by the Secretaría de Educación Pública, Dirección General de Planeación, August 1981.

3. The figures are based upon data provided to the author by the Secretaría de Educación Pública, Dirección General de Educación Primaria, Subdirección de Planeación, "Recursos Humanos de Escuelas Primarias, Diurnas y Nocturnas, en el Distrito Federal, Año Escolar 1990-1991," March 1991. The reasons for such strong representation of women in educational leadership in Mexico City have to do with the concentrated strengh of the national teachers' union in that locale, the relatively larger proportion of women in that section of the union, and the greater access of that section to political power in the PRI, the dominant political party; see Regina Cortina, "Gender and Power in the Teacher's Union of Mexico," Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos 6 (1990): 241-62.

4. Information obtained from an interview with an official in the Ministry of Education, Mexico City, August 1993.

5. On the participation of Mexican teachers in the feminist movement during the first half of the century see Anna Macias, Against All Odds: The Feminist Movement in Mexico to 1940 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1982); see also Alaide Foppa, "The First Feminist Congress in Mexico, 1916," trans. Helen F. Aguilar, Signs 5 (1979): 192-99.

6. Entitlement to these benefits does not, however, necessarily mean these services are provided by the government. In the case of child care, for example, the demand greatly exceeds the government-sponsered services. Women see this gap between rhetoric and reality as an important problem in their conditions of employment, impeding professional advancement at all levels.

7. For a close analysis of the participation of women in union life, see Regina Cortina, "Gender and Power in the Teacher's Union of Mexico" 241-262.


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