by Dalia Acosta
HAVANA TIMES, June 16 (IPS) — Women in Cuba are gaining ground in public life and earn the same wages as men. But the gender gap in the workplace is still a challenge for women, who are finding the odds more heavily stacked against them as the government of Raul Castro adopts economic reforms aimed at “updating” the country’s socialist system.
“I don’t know what to do,” a 53-year-old Havana woman told IPS, after finding herself for the first time ever without the security of a state job.
Another woman, 39 and highly qualified, remembers the times when she sought an executive position in the tourism industry: “Nobody said as much to me, but I heard that I didn’t get the job because I have a young daughter.”
As is the case with women around the world, despite the fact that generations of Cuban women are well-educated, they continue to lag behind in the most stable, best-remunerated sectors of the economy, says sociologist Mayra Espina Prieto in her findings on poverty for the Centre for Psychological and Sociological Research (CIPS).
According to official sources, women earn wages that are equivalent to 80 to 85 percent of what men earn, for reasons such as fewer days worked because of having to care for a family member, above all children and the elderly.
Men hold the majority of executive positions in joint ventures with foreign capital and the tourism industry, and a good part of the jobs that have possibilities of access to hard currency bonuses. The women may be better-qualified, but they tend to hold intermediate management positions.
Paid work for women is concentrated essentially in the state and civil sector, where they total 42.7 percent of employees. And in 2009, women held 59 percent of administrative jobs, according to the National Office of Statistics (ONE).
But this is starting to change, under the decentralization policies aimed at overhauling the country’s economic system, approved in April at the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba. Some of the policies began to be implemented prior to the party Congress, such as a major reduction in inflated state-sector payrolls, which began in 2010.
The ultimate goal is to reduce public sector employment by more than one million jobs, in this Caribbean island nation of 11.2 million people. The number of private activities in which self-employment is allowed was expanded to 178, and rules easing the tax burden were created, to encourage more people to strike out on their own.
While President Castro called for avoiding “any manifestation of favoritism, or discrimination based on gender or any other type” during this process, the disadvantaged situation of women set off a red alert among women’s rights activists and experts.
“I don’t see self-employment offering many assurances for the security of that whole mass of people without work, the majority of whom are going to be women,” Zulema Hidalgo, of the nongovernmental Oscar Arnulfo Romero Reflection and Solidarity Group (OAR), told IPS.
Women represent about 30 percent of those who opt for self-employment in Cuba, and work in occupations that are traditionally identified with women and have limited income potential, such as salespersons or hired workers. And they almost never figure as the owners of family businesses.
Based on her experience in working with local communities since 1994, Hidalgo says that women “need to start from scratch and overcome obstacles” if they want to make progress in non-state initiatives. In her opinion, greater business freedom is needed, and more knowledge about marketing and selling products or making headway in a given market.
The heavy burden of domestic work that women bear and their responsibility in taking care of their families limits their economic participation. Hidalgo says more awareness is needed about the growing number of women who have to leave their jobs to take care of sick relatives or small children, or to work as homemakers.
Cuban women devote more than 34 hours a week on average to housework and child-raising, while men devote about 12 hours, especially in support tasks, according to studies.
Around the world, women tend to have more unstable and lower-paid jobs, said María Ángeles Sallé, a Spanish expert on gender equality policies.
“Women do two-thirds of the work worldwide, earn 10 percent of the income, and own one percent of the property,” Sallé told IPS on a visit to Havana early this year, citing United Nations statistics.
“It is not a question of incorporating more women into work: they work all the time,” she said. The sociologist believes what is most urgently needed is to conquer key sectors of the economy, which currently are being transferred to the private sector – a phenomenon that is taking a toll on employment – as well as to redistribute the burden of domestic chores.
In Cuba possibilities for state employment are now concentrated in agriculture, where women have had minimal participation. According to the ONE, only 3.2 percent of people hired in agriculture, livestock, forestry and fishing are women.
More than 11,000 women have benefited so far from the process of distributing idle land to farmers, launched in 2008 as part of a reform to strengthen agriculture and boost food production.
Dilcia García, of the Cuban Association for Animal Production (ACPA), advocated in a conversation with IPS “carrying out actions to solve or narrow the gender gaps that still exist, and to overcome subjective obstacles” to achieve greater participation by women in rural economic life.
“In all sectors of the country we have a patriarchal culture, and in ours (farming) it may be a little stronger,” García commented. In ACPA, only 30 percent of about 36,000 members are women.