On July 25, 1992 representatives from 32 countries met in the Dominican Republic to celebrate the contributions of African descendant women in Latin America and the Caribbean, marking the first International Day of African Descendent Women. Now, almost 30 years later, what do we know about black women? In many ways African descendant women in Latin America and the Caribbean are Hidden Figures, much like the women in the groundbreaking book by Margot Lee Shetterly—turned into a blockbuster movie—about the untold contributions of African descendant women to the international Space Race. The real-life story of these three brilliant African-American women at NASA took many by surprise. I, on the other hand, am continuously surprised by the amount of information that is still waiting to be discovered about the achievements of African descendant women in the region.
Did you know that African descendant women in Panama are the most educated of all racial and ethnic groups? Or that black women in urban areas of Costa Rica have an average of 10.3 years of schooling —the highest of all Costa Ricans? Or that in 2010, 60% of college students in the Caribbean were women?
However, despite their impressive educational achievements, Afro-Panamanian women have the lowest wages and highest unemployment rates. Afro-Costa Rican women are most likely to occupy the lowest status positions and receive pensions at the lowest levels (29.6 %) –less than half of pension rates for white men, and 36% less than black men. Afro-Caribbean women, with one of the highest female labor force participation rates in the world at 55%, are underrepresented in leadership positions, only 10% of top Caribbean executives are women.
In order to design inclusive policies, we need to move beyond generalizations and stereotypes. Stereotypes not only hide the educational achievements of African descendant women in the region, but also the potential barriers that they face as they transition to the workforce, advance in their professional lives, and strive to secure their economic futures. It is simple to say that black women are doubly burdened – being black and female – however a much more relevant question for development professionals is how to best harness the educational achievements and advances of black women in the labor market. And specifically, how can we better understand and address why the returns on education for African descendant women are lower than expected?
Uncovering these barriers will harness the economic potential of African descendant women and unlock potential ways to improve competitiveness of the region. A better understanding of public expenditures through tools like Splitting the Bill and analysis of workforce composition by gender, race, ethnicity, disability and status are all a start, however studies must lead to a willingness to experiment and pilot potential solutions and document their impact. In many ways the situation of black women is a canary in the mine and demonstrates larger labor market inefficiencies. If there are educated black female individuals that are not realizing their potential in the job market, the tools that are needed to integrate them into the labor market will likely also work to curb labor market inefficiencies for other population groups as well. Adopting more inclusive policies is how to move the economies of nations.
There is still so much that we do not know about African descendant women in the region that is still waiting to be told or uncovered. I encourage all of us during this time of reflection to uncover hidden stories of advancement, achievement, and success, and challenge us to take a deeper look in order to explore ways that we can go beyond stereotypes and assumptions to recognize the potential of all people to make a contribution to Latin America and the Caribbean.