Beyond Barriers: The Gender Implications of Trade Liberalization in Latin America

By Vivianne Ventura-Dias on February 24, 2010


Empirical studies on gender impacts of trade liberalization in South American countries can be roughly divided into four groups. The first group comprises studies focused on the size and characteristics of female employment generated by non-traditional agro-export industries. The second group of studies is concentrated on the impacts of trade liberalization on female participation in urban labour markets. The third group concerns studies on the informal urban sector. Another important field of research addresses the impact of the liberal agenda on female smallholder or peasant production, a phenomenon associated with an increase in the share of female-headed rural households.

Key Findings:

  • Two major hypotheses that were generated by the literature on trade and gender in manufacturing exports are also valid for high-value agricultural exports:

    • The first hypothesis concerns the nature of female jobs generated by the expansion of exports known as the "feminization of exporting jobs" due to the working conditions of export-processing operations. The basic hypothesis is that labour-intensive exporting industries demand "feminine" skills, characterized as obedience, manual dexterity, patience, acceptance of hierarchy and lack of labour militancy. Women are sought because they are likely to accept working conditions unacceptable to men (lack of job security and work-related benefits).

    • The second hypothesis refers to the "glass ceiling" represented by the consequences of technological upgrading of exporting operations on female manufacturing jobs. Women are hired for unskilled "feminine" jobs (sewing in textile operations, for instance) and they are replaced by men when technological upgrading is introduced. Both hypotheses are validated in the cases of South American high-value agricultural exports with the caveat of insufficient data for rigorous conclusions.

  • In urban labour markets, data from household surveys show that over the past two decades, in all South American countries, there was a general expansion in female activity rates in all groups of women separated by age, income and years of schooling.

  • Available empirical evidence shows that, after trade liberalization, labour markets were not well-functioning and there was an unexpected mismatch between skills women (and men) could supply and those that the market was demanding. Consequently, unemployment hit the female working-age population harder when compared with the same male population.

  • High female unemployment rates must be added to underemployment data since, quite often, women find jobs in less productive sectors, such as personal and domestic services.

  • On the positive side, women have increased their stock of human capital and there has been a general reduction in the male-female wage gap, although that decline does not always correlate positively with the number of schooling years. Conversely, empirical data show that the male-female wage gap is higher in subgroups with more education.

  • During the period of trade liberalization, markets and public policies affected gender inequalities in access to resources and opportunities, although the net results are not clear. To what extent have the policies implemented during the 1980s and 1990s exacerbated or reduced gender inequality? To give a precise and comprehensive answer to this question is nearly impossible.

  • Moreover, liberal policies reached their zenith in the late 1990s, after a series of financial crises rendered manifest the external vulnerability of Latin America. On the other hand, other public policies were formulated to reduce social and gender inequities.

  • The result is that, at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, Latin American women, in general, are facing better social opportunities in accessing the "constituents of development" (education, health, legal and civil rights, decent jobs and political participation) than any time before.

  • Concrete improvements in women's lives can be measured by reduction in fertility and in mortality rates, longer life expectancy and incentives for girls to attend primary and secondary schools, together with greater participation in political life, as well as increased political representation.

Report details

Gender Equality
Latin America
Focus area
IISD, 2010