• Opinion
  • April 3, 2019
  • 9 minutes
  • 1

How to break the glass walls holding Argentine women back at work

Opinion: Women are concentrated in less dynamic and worse paid sectors

glass walls

This piece was written by Alejandro Biondi & Florencia Caro Sachetti, Social Protection Coordinators (CIPPEC). For more like this, see our gender equality newsfeed.


In the 1970s, more than 70% of students in computer science at the University of Buenos Aires were women. Today, they are only one in 10 students in this field.

Women in Argentina face glass walls in education and in the labour market: they are disproportionally concentrated in less dynamic and worse paid sectors and underrepresented in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) areas, which are overwhelmingly populated by men.

Can biased expectations about men and women and gender stereotypes affect female labour patterns? How can we counter them to promote gender economic equality broadly, including in STEM?

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Globally, women face greater obstacles than men in the world of work. They are less likely to participate in the labour market, and if they do so, they are prone to be employed under worse conditions, receive lower wages and be less represented in decision-making positions.

Women also face glass walls: while some sectors and occupations (such as domestic work) are considered “female” and overwhelmingly employ women, others have very low female participation, including STEM.

Argentina is no exception regarding horizontal segregation. Six out of 10 women work in commerce, domestic service, education or health, while six out of 10 men work in construction, transport and communication, the primary sector and the electricity, gas and water industries.

The average salary in male-dominated sectors is 58% higher than that for feminised sectors

Glass walls partially explain the gender pay gap in the country, given that the average salary in male-dominated sectors is 58% higher than that for feminised sectors.

In STEM careers, the situation is critical. Currently, more women than men are pursuing higher education, but while three out of four students in the social sciences are women, they are only 25% of all engineering and applied sciences students.

This isn’t getting any better: in programming courses, women make up only 15% of new enrolments. Among researchers and grant holders in the National System of Science, Technology and Innovation, a similar pattern emerges: women do more research in the humanities and social sciences, while engineering and technology are male-dominated.

Excluding women from decent job opportunities severely undermines their rights and autonomy. Existing legal frameworks should compel policymakers and the Argentine society at large to tackle these inequalities, especially in STEM.

The evidence suggests social norms play a key role

But bridging gender gaps is also smart economics: keeping women out negatively impacts growth and severely reduces available talent and productivity. These effects are especially relevant in light of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the changing world of work.

So what is behind glass walls? The evidence suggests social norms play a key role.

Gender norms embody what we expect in terms of behaviour from people we identify with a specific gender. Much like other implicit social rules, individuals internalise them through social interaction from early ages. Norms are reflected in internal stereotypes and unconscious bias and enshrined in external practices and institutions.

In Argentina, women’s enrolment in computer science studies dropped significantly as the use of information technology in society gained relevance. The stereotype threat (the perception that one’s group is not good at a specific activity) makes it harder for girls to identify themselves with STEM careers and can actually lead to poorer academic performance in those subjects.

Gender stereotypes are difficult to unravel, especially when there are fewer female STEM role models for girls to look up to. More critically, laws and regulations can also perpetuate stereotypes about gender and work: in Argentina, women are still banned from working in “dangerous or unsanitary activities”, in the “operation of heavy machinery” and in places selling specific alcoholic drinks.

A common argument against the need to promote gender equality in STEM claims that women prefer careers in other fields given the chance to choose, with evidence showing that the more gender-equal a country is, the fewer the number of female STEM graduates.

However, this paradox can be traced back to three main factors. First, in less-gender equal countries, quality of life considerations explain why more women prioritise a well-paying STEM career, a critical choice for a more secure and independent future.

Second, in more gender-equal countries, the smaller cost of doing without a STEM career plus greater equity can give women more freedom to pursue a career related to their own best subject. That is, even though an average girl is as good as or better than an average boy in science, she is usually even better at reading, and thus is narrowly encouraged to specialise on those strongest skills­. This is amplified by self-selection bias due to lower perceived competence, which is closely related, again, to the operation of harmful gender stereotypes. In Buenos Aires, 90% of girls already think being an engineer is mostly for men at ages six to eight, and one out of two parents believe that boys have more ability to use technology.

Argentina needs to reform parental leave regimes and care services

Finally, other studies also indicate that the factors keeping women out of science are more complex than those keeping them out of top management or public office, and so the measures of equality used in studies that explain gender differences in STEM ought to take complex cultural attitudes strongly into account.

So what can be done to counter glass walls and promote greater gender equality at work in Argentina?

First, existing initiatives to mainstream gender in school curricula need to be strengthened. Raising the visibility of men and women in non-traditional sectors must also be encouraged.

Second, Argentina needs to reform parental leave regimes and care services, to foster women’s labour participation by relaxing constraints on their time. Additionally, skill-based assessment tasks and structured interviews in recruitment, as well as including multiple women in shortlists for recruitment and promotions are effective ways to improve gender equity in the workplace.

Overall, progress in STEM will remain stalled unless science and technology sectors critically analyse the greater social impact of their work. For this purpose, the recoupling of STEM with the social sciences and humanities, as the STEAM approach favours, is ultimately vital.

Mainstreaming the gender perspective in these efforts, however, is essential for a recoupling process that also works for women. — Alejandro Biondi & Florencia Caro Sachetti

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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