During the latter half of the twentieth century, society in Latin America has experienced fundamental changes as the population balance has moved from the countryside to the city, predominant employment has shifted from agriculture to industry and services, life expectancy has increased, birth rates have fallen, and average educational levels have risen. While these changes have deeply affected women's lives, they do not seem to have occasioned the liberating consequences that might have been expected. Despite the profound social changes that have accompanied the process of economic development and "modernization," for the most part, women retain their subordinate status both at home and at work.

Since the 1950s, women in Latin America have gone to work outside the home in increasing numbers. Household surveys conducted in 1990 show that the rate of female labor force participation varies from 34 percent in Chile to 50 percent in Paraguay. These same data show that women between the ages of 24 and 55 participate in the labor force in the greatest numbers and that labor force withdrawal tends to occur only after age 55. The bimodal pattern of female employment that resulted from withdrawal from the labor force during the childbearing years is largely a thing of the past. During the 1980s and 1990s, in fact, the greatest increase in women's labor force participation occurred among married women and common law wives.1

In addition, the characteristics of women's work have caused certain adaptations in daily and family life and have changed the respective economic contributions of family members to the household income. Most significantly, the dramatic increase in the number of households headed by women, which estimates place between one quarter to one third of all households in the Region, challenges the assumption that women's work is often only a secondary contribution to the family income. Numerous studies of low income households in the Region demonstrate the impact of women's earnings, which often raise the family income from below poverty levels. Household income studies show that although women's incomes tend to be lower than men's, women are more likely than men to contribute all of their earnings to the family budget.2 Nevertheless, women tend to remain subordinate in the home and family. In other words, increasing percentages of women work outside the household for wages, yet they maintain their secondary status as relentlessly as if they had never left home.

As economies have industrialized, new occupations have developed. But this occupational differentiation has been accompanied by labor market segmentation by sex, with specific occupations acquiring a "feminine" identification. Data indicate that, in fact, segregation indices increased in many countries in the Region during the 1980s. Women remain concentrated in a restricted number of low wage occupations, which have been culturally assigned to them. At the same time, to the extent that women have entered other occupations, they tend to be concentrated in the lower wage levels of these jobs, so that whether they find themselves in "male" or "female" jobs, their remuneration tends to be lower and their benefits fewer.3 More recently, micro level occupational studies show an intriguing phenomenon: even as women succeed in gaining entry to higher wage professions such as university teaching, computer programming, and medical specialties, the salaries in these occupations tend to fall.

These differences in wages and salaries are not explained by differential skill levels. The educational levels of women in Latin America have improved significantly over the course of the past thirty years, and the female labor force shows higher instructional levels than the male labor force, particularly in the youngest age groups. Moreover, at higher educational levels, salary differences tend to be greater between men and women, and these differences persist over time.4

Interestingly, income inequality among workers generally is strongly associated with inequality of education and skills. When predicting individual labor incomes, education is the single most important indicator, and skills, when combined with experience and occupation, always account for a significant amount of variation among individual incomes. When gender enters the equation, however, serious salary differences emerge that cannot be explained by either educational levels or skills and experience. The strength and the impact of discrimination based on sex, therefore, is difficult to overestimate.

Despite rapid advances, technological changes occurring in the context of economic development have not successfully provided women with a means of escaping inequitable labor market segmentation based on gender. On the contrary; oftentimes technological development occasions the fragmentation of an occupation along with its feminization and correspondent wage decline. Studies summarized by ECLAC emphasize the consistent reproductive capability of discrimination mechanisms: a woman's place in the occupational hierarchy remains largely determined by her gender, which in turn determines her salary, her working conditions and her opportunities.

While the positive developments that have occurred in Latin America over the course of the past fifty years have not had the beneficial impact on women's status and opportunities that we might have expected, the continuing fiscal crises in the Region have had a tangible negative effect. The structural adjustment programs imposed in many Latin American countries have increased levels of social inequity, diminished the scope and effectiveness of basic social services, introduced greater instability into the job market, deepened and broadened poverty and promoted more extensive migration in search of work. Women have absorbed the impact of these developments in terms of still lower wages, greater unemployment, and longer migratory job searches. According to the World Bank, in the Latin American adjustment process, the hourly earnings of women fell much more dramatically than the wages of men, often because women are concentrated in the informal sector or in low-wage industries, such as apparel assembly. Despite the fall in wages, however, women from poor households showed an increase in labor force participation, a phenomenon referred to as the "added worker" effect. In other words, market forces of supply and demand do not predictably influence labor market participation for poor women. At these levels of desperation, female workers exploit themselves more intensively rather than less when wages fall: as the demand for labor contracts, the supply increases. In fact, data show that unpaid female domestic labor, as well as wage labor, have intensified in recent years as women sought to compensate for the decline in family purchasing power as a result of increasing food prices and costs of basic necessities.

In short, women in Latin America seem to have suffered the consequences of the continuing economic crises that have affected the Region, but they do not appear to have harvested their share of the benefits that accompanied economic development and social change. Somehow, mechanisms of discrimination and oppression have managed to adapt to changed occupational structures, amplified educational opportunities, technological advance and increased urbanization in such a way as to recreate patterns of inequality based on gender consistently.

As Nelly Stromquist points out in this anthology of articles, educational programs and institutions are a society's most powerful mechanism of social reproduction, outside of the family itself. Therefore, if we are going to understand the ways in which social institutions reproduce social relations and hierarchies, even in the midst of economic transformation, we must look to the school to see how it adapts. In this case, we are particularly interested in discovering how the school accommodates change in order to preserve, in large measure, a status quo. And conversely, we would like to understand ways in which educational programs, both inside and outside the formal school system, might encourage more egalitarian social relations between men and women.

Because the social transformation that has occurred in Latin America would seem to undermine the traditional subordination of women, the school has undoubtedly faced enormous challenges in maintaining the gender hierarchy. The studies presented here constitute an effort to investigate the various aspects of educational institutions and programs involved in the reproduction of gender discrimination, and they suggest a number of subtle and not-so-subtle means of preserving the secondary status of women. Examining the hierarchical implications about gender relations in aspects of schooling that are traditionally perceived as neutral is an effective method of demystifying ideological messages about the relative capabilities of men and women. To do this, it is necessary to observe daily classroom practices as they occur. Often these practices are invisible to their practitioners because they are habitual and have never been examined or questioned. They take place "without witnesses" or awareness and therefore seem to be without alternatives.

The issue of alternative educational practices--or educational innovations--is also investigated in this volume with certain informative results. The research shows that educational innovations in formal educational programs typically neglect the question of gender, although in Latin America most primary school teachers are women. In contrast, educational innovations developed through non-formal programs outside the traditional educational system often represent initiatives taken by women themselves and adopt a more feminist perspective. Together, these conclusions suggest that women in education do not opt out of innovative policies, but rather that they are left out, or that their objective circumstances systematically exclude them.

When we examine the policy-oriented literature concerning educational innovations and adaptations developed to respond to changing international pressures, we can see quite clearly how this has happened. Currently, educational reform is a high priority throughout the Region, but in many instances it is primarily oriented by economists who support their policy recommendations using arguments that cite only the criterion of cost/benefit efficiency. While these recommendations may include provisions advocating the use of educational systems to address inequalities between men and women, the application of economic criteria alone to justify such provisions seems dubious and even naive. Moreover, the formulation of unrealistic and economictic recommendations lends stature to the ideology behind them: that only if a policy or action is financially "rational" or "cost effective," is it legitimate; that all political and social initiatives must, in the end, contribute to the accelerated accumulation of wealth. For example:

Increasing the skills and capabilities of workers is key to economic success in an increasingly integrated and competitive global economy. Investing in people can boost the living standards of households by expanding opportunities, raising productivity, attracting capital investment, and increasing earning power...

Increasing the human capital of workers boosts their earning power, because market-oriented economies reward the skilled worker who is able to deliver more output, or an output that is more highly valued in the marketplace.5

While these arguments for "investing" in human "capital" appear to be logical and even persuasive, problems arise when their proponents discover, as they inevitably will, that this logic is not strictly true. Certainly, for women it is not. Data show quite consistently that increasing the human capital of women workers may not boost their earning power very much if at all, and what happens then? Does this mean that educating or training women is a poor investment? Very possibly, and in fact, the World Bank says this:

So why has economic growth remained elusive in many parts of the world, despite rising levels of schooling and other forms of human capital? There are two reasons. First, human capital can be poorly used. Greater investment in human capital can neither compensate for nor overcome an environment inimical to economic growth. Second, human capital investments may be of the wrong type or of poor quality. Expenditures on human resources often fail to provide the quantity, quality or type of human capital that it might have if the funds had been better spent.6

The Bank, however, in this document actively promotes education for women, arguing that in addition to enjoying labor market advantages, more highly educated women benefit from lower fertility, lower maternal mortality and better health and nutrition. The perspective taken assumes that equal wages and salaries for men and women according to educational levels is the "natural" outcome of a market-based orientation, and that wage differentials are an accident, some kind of mistake, or an erroneous, backward and punitive policy.

A more realistic assessment of wage differentials, however, should focus on simpler and more obvious circumstances: where wages are relatively lower, profits tend to be relatively higher. While there may be long-term benefits to an economy overall for promoting education, training and income equality for women, the immediate individual gain accrues to the employer who can pay the least for the highest productivity. In this sense, then, there is every incentive to discriminate and to seek means to perpetuate discrimination. For if a group of people can be singled out on the basis of a characteristic that cannot be hidden, and if this group can be paid less because its members are socially deemed to be worth less, the returns to respective employers are correspondingly higher. A strict market orientation, then, does not necessarily discourage discrimination; on the contrary, it provides great incentive for social determinations of inferiority. Consequently, human capital investments in women may not pay off in quite the same terms as investments in men. Does this mean that these investments are "of the wrong type" or "of poor quality?"

Well, yes, in the context of this kind of logic and argument. But the argument shows something else, too. First, the arrival at the inevitable conclusion that discrimination makes good economic sense shows that there are important elements missing from the logic, and secondly, that what appears to be a strictly rational economic analysis is in fact highly subjective and can only be considered objective from a certain very narrow perspective with a specific interest.

Missing from the logic is the singular idea that certain policies are worth promoting because they are just and not because they may facilitate more rapid accumulation of wealth for some people. In fact, it might be possible that certain policies are worth promoting because they are just even if they mean less rapid accumulation for some people. If we are truly interested only in greater competitiveness in an increasingly integrated global economy, we might well advocate active, explicit wage discrimination against women and put men out of work altogether. Increasing the availability of low cost child labor would also make compelling economic sense under a wide variety of circumstances.

Only when we can introduce the principle of justice and social equality do we have any real basis for resisting discrimination. Further, the evidence shows that in the absence of calculated, targeted initiatives based on these principles and designed to eliminate discrimination, the educational system "naturally" tends to reproduce structures and processes that perpetuate oppression, even when the socioeconomic context of education is radically changed. In Latin America, fifty years of greater social differentiation, industrialization, urbanization, family planning, and extensive wage labor have done relatively little to undermine the traditionally secondary status of women.

The design and implementation of initiatives to achieve socioeconomic equality for women will therefore require political will rather than economic justification. It may be that the time has come to admit that unmitigated market forces may not inevitably lead to the most desirable world for everyone. Capitalist economists were obliged to admit this once before when market forces led to widespread impoverishment and international depression, from which there was apparently no exit based on these same forces alone. While unregulated market forces may lead to an extremely comfortable world for some, as time passes, the privileged few grow fewer still.

If women are to gain equal status with men, many things will have to change and one of them is education. When politicians or social scientists speak of education as a factor in processes of social change, however, they typically assume that it is a positive influence. They tend to assume that if only the parties involved in perpetrating an injustice had the pertinent information--which they will now receive through improved educational programs--problems of oppression and discrimination would disappear. But history demonstrates the obverse. Social change tends to take place through economic processes that have a momentum and dynamic of their own, but the change occurring seeks to maintain certain balances just as before. In other words, social structures strive to preserve existing hierarchies on changed economic foundations, and with the exception of family relations, educational systems are perhaps the most important structure of cultural reproduction.

In approaching the question of educational reform, however, one thing is certain. If the objective of new policies is simply to become more competitive and cost effective in economic terms alone, the full and equal participation of women in society will never materialize: lower wages for women is a great boon for those who employ them, and no known economic transformation "automatically" changes this. Nonetheless, fair and equal treatment should be accorded because it is desirable in itself. If economic "efficiency" for an employer is the only allowable justification for even a social policy, never mind a fiscal one, then we might as well resign ourselves to continuing discrimination, oppression and conflict, labor confrontation, spreading trade wars, increasing income disparity, the devastation of the natural world, and the exclusion of a growing percentage of the human population from the benefits of scientific and technological advance. If these eventualities are to be avoided, however, values other than dollars must be recognized some of the time--for some things. While it may seem heretical to say it, equality of access and opportunity is beneficial for its own sake, whether or not it is the most profitable approach to private production, which it almost certainly is not. For women, equal access to education and equal benefits from education will not occur without active political intervention, and the need to bring this about is now a most urgent challenge.

In this research collection, Nelly Stromquist presents a selection of approaches and methodologies that clarify the focus on this issue. The authors use qualitative approaches to questions concerning the construction of gender relations in education in order to identify the components that promote equality and the mechanisms that reproduce oppression. These relationships exist between the teacher and the school, the teacher and the student, the school and the home, the community and the state, the community and the school, and the teacher and the trade union, among others. In presenting these multi-level investigations, this work should contribute to a better understanding of the complex processes that perpetuate unequal relations between men and women and girls and boys, not just at school, but also at home and at work. For it is at school that we first learn the public worth of other people: who is in charge, who listens and who talks, who sits and who stands. This book represents an effort to identify the ways in which these many demonstrations of social value occur through the innumerable lessons that all of us have learned: lessons we do not even remember, but which we never forget.

Beatrice Edwards


1. Teresa Valdez, "Women, Education and Work in Latin America," Diálogo [OPI/LAC UNESCO/Caracas] 17 (September 1995): 10.

2. Valdez 10.

3. "Women and Urban Work in Latin America," United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, presented at the Regional Conference on the Integration of Women in the Economic and Social Development of Latin America and the Caribbean, Mar del Plata, Argentina, September 1994.

4. Valdez 11.

5. Workers in an Integrating World, World Development Report 1995 (Washington, DC: The World Bank, 1995) 36.

6. Workers in an Integrating World 37.