The status of women in the workplace was the focus this morning as young female entrepreneurs, secondary school students and members of non-governmental organizations gathered United Nations (UN) House for a panel discussion on women’s economic empowerment.
The event, dubbed Throw like a Girl: Women propelling through Business, was hosted by the Barbados Coalition of Service Industries (BCSI) and UN Women in observance of International Women’s Day.
BCSI Chairman Wendell Cumberbatch noted that women have fought hard to break down barriers in the labour market, and while they were yet to conquer all of them, there has been significant progress in terms of the number of women who have entered the workforce over the past 60 years.
However, he acknowledged that there were still structural obstacles hindering their ability to perform on a level playing field with men.
“There have been cultural and personal perceptions of the roles of women in the workplace that have hindered women. Women are often overlooked in key economic development, yet they have made vital contributions to the global economy.
“In 2008 when we had the global economic downturn and subsequent layoffs, we would have seen many more women become entrepreneurs than we would have seen in the past,” he said, while expressing disappointment that there were still some men “who still operate as if we were still in the darker ages, who still don’t see women as being anything more than housewives”.
As for women’s contribution to the economic development, Minister of Labour Dr Esther Byer-Suckoo told the gathering that many females have been overlooked because their work has been in the informal sector.
“We never considered it as work because they didn’t get ready every morning and go out to employment. Those who did when I was growing up probably did as shop assistants, or they worked in agriculture, in the fields and so on, but for many of us, our mothers actually supported us by providing services in the community.
“It is the women who did the needlework, they pressed the hair, they braided the hair, they made the pudding and souse, they sold the drinks . . . you name it, the women did that. And that tradition lives on, but they tend to fall out of the loop when we start to measure our economy and when we start to measure the GDP [Gross Domestic Product].”
Dr Byer-Suckoo said while such contributions have been critical to the development of communities, such women still found it difficult to access funding from financial institutions.
“You earn two dollars today because your child needs bus fare. You plait somebody’s hair for ten dollars because your child needs shoes, . . . but you can never take that to the next level because you don’t have the bookkeeping, you don’t have the formal training to be able to present what our funding agencies would like,” she said.
In addition to lack of funding opportunities, the Head of Office at UN Women Tonni Brodber said women often fell prey to gender discrimination in the job market.
She disclosed, however, that the UN Women Multi-Country Office in the Caribbean would soon be launching the first phase of a project to promote gender equality, sustainable development and decent work, which builds on a pilot project in onion production with women farmers in Dominica.
“Women throughout the Caribbean play important social and economic roles in the farming sector and yet continue to contend with a range of challenges from ensuring household food security and nutrition, to managing farm businesses at the scales needed for both domestic and export markets.
“As distinct from men in their households, women need support to balance both the earning and the non-earning aspects of their roles and responsibilities. Typically this means managing her household, care and community activities, and while important to the stability of the economy, they are not recognized in public policy,” Brodber said.
She argued that if gender inequality was not addressed, then changes in the world of work will not be dealt with, “nor will we be able to adequately change the world of work to tap into the potential of women and men in Barbados, the Caribbean and the world”.