Sat | Apr 29, 2017

Women have always done more with less money

Published:Sunday | October 5, 2014 | 10:00 AM
Maverney Foster, a market vendor who has been selling at the Black River Market for 30 years. Portia Simpson Miller says women have been the backbone of families for years. - Norman Grindley/Chief Photographer

This is an edited address to the forum on 'Women, Work and the Jamaican Economy', organised by the International Monetary Fund and held at the Jamaica Conference Centre on Tuesday, September 30.

We can all agree that our country faces serious economic challenges. The impact of, and the everyday efforts to overcome, these challenges fall disproportionately on women. Even a cursory look at that history demonstrates that women in Jamaica have always worked to sustain their families and develop their communities.

The late Lucille Mathurin Mair, a Jamaican pioneer in the fields of history and women and gender studies, wrote extensively about the 'invisibility' of women's work on or off the plantation, in or out of the home.

Up to the early 20th century, the output of their labour was mostly harnessed by colonisers. This was the experience of Taino women, white indentured women, enslaved Africans and Asian indentured women. Formerly, enslaved women experienced setbacks in the post-slavery period. In 1833 when the Emancipation Act was passed, they received no economic compensation in cash or kind. They did not receive land to allow them to truly actualise their freedom and set them on a firm economic path.

It was their thrift during slavery and the apprenticeship period that allowed some women to buy small plots of land. At that time, unfriendly planter attitudes to black labourers were seen in the increase in land prices, their refusal initially to sell land in small plots and outright refusal to allow women access to land at all.

From so early in our history, women were faced with what is called the 'sex-typing' of work - determining work for men as differentiated from work for women; the application of gender-discriminatory wages; and the efforts of planters to return women to the sphere of uncompensated labour in the home. In addition, initially, male access to education was privileged over women's access to education, denying women access to better-paying jobs.

In spite of these obstacles, Jamaican women were never passive recipients of imposed race, class and gender codes of behaviour. Despite efforts to hold them back, women used education, domestic work, agricultural work on plantations and in their own plots and gardens to advance their own and their families' economic survival and well-being. They worked as teachers, seamstresses, laundresses and hucksters or higglers. They worked to improve their lives and their communities, locally and in the wider diaspora. They migrated to places where pay rates were higher.

It would be true to say that the Jamaican woman has always been working, working, working!

As time has passed and things have changed, there have been policies and legislation that gave us universal adult suffrage, equal pay for equal work, and maternity leave with pay.

RETHINK AND RESHAPE

The evidence is clear! We are all better off when women are better off. It is, therefore, imperative that we rethink and reshape many of the ideas that have served to limit women's developmental capacities for generations.

As the World Bank 2012 Development Report: Gender Equality and Development Report argues, "Gender equality is a core development objective in its own right ... . It is smart economics ... . Greater gender equality can enhance productivity [and] improve development outcomes for the next generation."

The perceived devaluation of the woman and all her outputs, including the ability to bring life itself, has, over time, become a deterrent to economic progress for women and national growth. I am working assiduously towards building an economic system that measures progress and growth not only by way of a healthy balance sheet. Growth must also be measured by the generation of decent work with pay equity and resource mobilisation to fund investments in public infrastructure and social services.

I salute the pioneering women. We must never forget those women in our markets, our schoolrooms, in our hospitals and on our farms, who still endure many of the legacies of our past. It is their work that has helped Jamaica to get to a point where 2014 workforce data tell us that we have one of the highest female labour force participation rates in Latin America and the Caribbean; and women comprise 46 per cent of the country's total labour force, and 52 per cent of the professional labour force.

As of April this year, 1.3 million people comprised our total Jamaican labour force.

While the male labour force was relatively unchanged between April 2013, the female labour force decreased by 11,200, from 606,300 to 595,100.

Findings from the 2013 Labour Force Survey indicate that 62.3 per cent of all employed women were in low-wage jobs. These primarily include domestic work within private households, work as hotel and restaurant servers and housekeepers, or the wholesale and retail sector.

The 2010 Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) Working Paper, Gender Earnings Gaps in the Caribbean, revealed that on average, women in Jamaica at all levels earn approximately 12.5 per cent less than their male counterparts for the same jobs. Even as women earn less than their male counterparts, their value-added contributions often drive the various sectors, in particular the service sector, which contributes about 64% of Jamaica's GDP.

The unemployment rate is also higher for women than for men despite the fact that a larger percentage of women are better educated than their male counterparts.

WOMEN UNDER-REPRESENTED

It is also true that there has been great improvement and there are several women who have ascended to many positions of power. Yet, women still remain under-represented as leaders within our private sector, particularly at the CEO level and in the boardroom. This is despite research emanating from the Women's Resource and Outreach Centre in 2009, which found that "... companies with the highest number of women in senior management positions have a 35 per cent greater return on equity and a 34 per cent higher total return to stakeholders".

This demonstrates that the task of accelerating economic empowerment for women is not a challenge to be addressed by Government alone. I agree that a woman's place is in the house - the Houses of Parliament! We are working to ensure that more women make it to both Houses of Parliament.

At the national level, we are working to systematically correct gender disparities and inequity. The rules must change to support women who are primary breadwinners and primary caregivers at the same time. We challenge our employers to become knowledgeable about the pay gap and take action to redress it. We challenge our educators to make girls aware of careers that offer higher pay and make sure that our girls are exposed to science and technology school-based activities.

We encourage our human-resource professionals to support the advancement of deserving, hard-working women. We must make much of the daily efforts of parents, especially fathers, who make sacrifices for the betterment of their girl children.

My administration is committed to seeing to the economic empowerment of our women to drive development in our nation. We have already taken some steps in this regard. Increasing the participation of women in business and economic activities is essential for economic and social inclusiveness and for reducing poverty. The Jamaican Government is committed to gender equity and has put in place policies and legislation that foster greater participation of women in the country's economy life.

Already, the Jamaica Business Development Centre (JBDC) is reporting that more women are starting and operating businesses in Jamaica. A recent JBDC profile of 300 micro and small enterprises showed 51 per cent to be female owned.

We can be proud of the National Policy for the Reintegration of School-Age Mothers into the Formal School System, which was approved in May 2013. The policy now mandates teenage mothers to return to school so that their education and subsequent economic productivity will remain relatively unaffected by the birth of a child. In this way, we do not allow a woman's biology to become her destiny.

Portia Simpson Miller is prime minister of Jamaica. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.