The challenge of gender equality in Latin America

Gender equality and related topics are issues that inspire passionate debate. The #metoo movement and the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings in the US Senate pushed the topic to front pages of newspapers and launched a dialogue about what society should — or should not — do to promote gender equality.

Further complicating the issue are recent studies that societies with high levels of gender equality actually have more segregation of men and women into different professions. Researchers suggest that these results indicate that women in countries with high equality feel free to pursue their interests and relative strengths, while those in unequal countries are forced to seek financial security in traditionally male-dominated fields. As a result, findings from high-equality nations such as Scandinavia are not applicable to low-equality ones like Indonesia or Nigeria, and solutions that work in regions with low equality will not reflect what is needed in places like Germany.

These findings show just how difficult it is to generalize research about social issues around the world. Similarly, industry-specific knowledge is important, because generalizations from other fields also have limited applicability. Only detailed, empirical studies can provide the insights needed to identify the issues correctly and understand how to solve them effectively.

Because of this issue, in 2018 CSA Research extended its study of gender and family issues in the language industry to specifically examine Latin America using survey instruments localized into Spanish and Portuguese, resulting in over 600 responses from the region. These results allowed us to quantify how this region compares to the United States and Canada on the one hand and Europe on the other, and revealed some striking — and troubling — differences.

The perception gap

In the original survey, one of the most notable differences between North America and Europe was that European countries have a much larger pay gap than North America does (Figure 1). CSA Research’s examination revealed that the differential in Europe is structural in nature: women in Europe are much more likely to work as low-paid freelancers. Those who work in organizations actually earn as much or more than their male counterparts for all job descriptions in the survey. In North America, by contrast, they are more likely to work as salaried employees in organizations with established pay policies, and so the overall pay gap is very low.

The updated study shows that this difference is even larger in Latin America. Full-time male workers in Latin America make an average of 59% more than their female counterparts. Critically, it reveals that men make more than women within most job descriptions, whereas Europe and North America show very little difference within comparable jobs.

However, workers’ perceptions about their pay run counter to this reality. Although men in all regions showed very similar beliefs about pay rates and gender, women in North America overwhelmingly stated that men are paid more for equal work by their employers, while European women were more divided and Latin American women were the most likely to believe their organizations were fair in their pay policies (Figure 2).

These results demonstrate an inverse correlation between actual pay equality and the perception that it exists: the women most likely to experience discrimination in their salaries believe they have achieved equality, while the ones who are least likely to experience it believe that discrimination affects them.

Why would this be the case? Although the survey cannot directly provide the answer, CSA Research observes the following factors at play:

Structural issues hide inequality. To the extent that men and women work in different sorts of positions and compare themselves to those in similar situations, they will perceive more equality than if they look more broadly. This result certainly plays a factor in the results in Europe and — to a lesser extent — in Latin America but does not address why North American women perceive a larger gap than others do.

Media coverage and beliefs about national policies. Media coverage about gender pay issues in North America is common, and frequently emphasizes the lack of government-mandated solutions. As a result, leaders in organizations in the United States may be more likely to consider it important to have policies within the organization to promote pay equality. By contrast, Europeans may believe that governmental policies have largely solved the issue — and see equality within their own employers — and thus believe that their own societies are more equal than the United States. As in Europe, many respondents in Latin America mentioned government policies as beneficial in this regard.

Social expectations. CSA Research’s survey shows that European and Latin American workers are less likely to consider gender issues to be important to them and to society than those in North America (Figure 3). When CSA Research interviewed Latin American language workers, many were not surprised by these results. They stated that because of machismo culture, many women may believe they are being paid appropriately to their value, and that men deserve more because their work is in fact more valuable. The relative lack of media coverage contributes to their sense that the pay is equal.

The glass ceiling may not be so transparent

Similarly, the survey established that men in all regions are more likely to be in senior leadership positions than are women. This finding is important because CSA Research’s examination of leading LSPs shows that those helmed by women — who typically came up through the ranks and have a strong background in operations — are actually more efficient and have higher per-employee revenue than those led by men. Finding and promoting strong female leadership may be one of the most effective ways for language companies to boost their profitability, but to the extent that LSPs are blind to this potential, they do not capitalize on it.

Despite the potential of women in leadership, the study reveals a similar dynamic with regard to advancement as seen with pay. Women in North America are almost twice as likely as those elsewhere to believe that men have greater opportunities for advancement (Figure 4), even though they are more likely than those in Europe or Latin America to work in top positions. By contrast, strong majorities of women in those other regions believe that promotion is gender neutral, despite evidence that shows they are less likely to reach the executive suite.

As a result, CSA Research characterizes the glass ceiling as less transparent and less permeable in Europe and Latin America: women there do not perceive that it in fact limits them and do not see those who have moved past it. By contrast, workers in North America are more aware of the differential in who reaches those top positions. Women see that men are passing them up in the organization, but they also have more opportunity — despite the obstacles they face — to move past it.

Regional differences matter

As CSA Research’s examination of gender and family issues shows, the differences between regions is crucial. With larger numbers of results, it would almost certainly show considerable variation between individual countries and even regions within them.

Organizations, whether they buy or sell translation services, need to be aware of the issues that affect their workers and how their perceptions line up against reality. Those with employees in multiple regions also cannot trust that experience in their home markets will transfer elsewhere and need to carefully study the factors that affect their employees and work to address them and promote and compensate talent fairly. The policies that are most effective in North America may be very different from those that work in Latin America or Europe. Similarly, solutions that address the needs of language workers in Brazil, Argentina or Mexico may backfire in the United States or Germany.

For Latin America, the results suggest that companies in the region have a much bigger hurdle than those in North America to achieving gender equality. European organizations face a very different set of circumstances because their gender inequality issues are much more structural and out of their control. Providers and consumers of language services in Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries have much more say in their policies and how they reward talent. Raising awareness about and emphasizing these concerns are the first steps to solving them.