Covid Drags Down Mexico’s Women, Already Worst Off in the Region

The women of Mexico already faced the worst economic prospects in Latin America. Now the pandemic threatens to sink them even further, aggravating chronic inequality and dragging down the country’s fortunes.

Almost two-thirds of the nation’s job losses during the outbreak fell on women, according to government data. These setbacks are compounded by the government’s failure to support parents during the crisis, while a lack of fiscal stimulus means any economic recovery depends mostly on male-dominated heavy industries that export.

Kindergarten assistant Citlali Magaña Santos was among the millions of Mexican women socked by the crisis last summer when her struggling Mexico City preschool no longer could pay her. The 24-year-old single mother took an informal job to support her daughter, working for a group of families to look after their kids while kindergartens are closed.

“If it weren’t for this, the truth is I wouldn’t have anything to eat,” she said in a phone interview.

She is one of the luckier ones by today’s standards: Only 40% of the country’s female workers hold jobs today compared with 44% before the disease outbreak, far below the average for Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the International Labour Organization.

Female unemployment “is one of the biggest development barriers that Mexico has,” said Gabriela Inchauste, a World Bank researcher and co-author of the bank’s “Mexico Gender Assessment,” which estimates the gender gap costs Mexico 25% of income per capita. “It’s a missed opportunity.”

In developed countries, lockdowns erased gains women had made in the labor force because schools closed and they bore the brunt of caring for children. This so-called she-cession was under way in Mexico well before the pandemic: The country ranked 124th out of 153 in a World Economic Forum analysis of female economic opportunity last year.

Private preschools such as the one Magaña Santos worked at have been under stress since early 2019, when President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador cut subsidies for schools to teach the children of working mothers, instead sending money to mothers directly. The number of people benefiting from the program has fallen by as much as 25%, according to one study.

The reductions in kindergarten staff have been an especially cruel blow for women, said Alexandra Zapata Hojel, an expert on the Mexican education system. “The preschool closes and a lot of women lose their jobs,” she said.

Because those mothers on average are paid less than their male partners and are expected to handle child care, they tend to be the ones who stop working.

The surge of female job losses also reflects Mexico’s failure to diversify its economy beyond manufacturing, mining and energy — industries dominated by men.

Lopez Obrador’s decision not to use debt to step up spending during the crisis aggravated the problem. Mexico’s economy has relied on U.S. demand for industrial products, while the female-dominated services sector has had to fend for itself.

Many of the businesses that employ women are small and local, and they lack the financial resources to ride out the Covid recession. Women hold two-thirds of the jobs in Mexico’s services industries, which largely depend on low-skilled labor. What’s more, women hold many of the most expendable jobs at services companies, which require being physically present.

“Women in the services sector weren’t the managers,” said Valeria Moy, director of the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness think tank. “They do cleaning, cooking, services. Those are the employees that were cut.”

Mexican Finance Minister Arturo Herrera has highlighted the scale of the problem in public statements, saying in November that if Mexico had Argentina’s employment rate, 4 million more of the nation’s women would have jobs. “This is symptomatic of a very profound inequality, but also of a loss of potential for economic growth,” he said.

Lopez Obrador has defended his record on trying to close the economic gender gap by offering stipends to single mothers, and his cabinet has achieved parity between men and women. His office didn’t provide further comment for this article.

Where other Latin American countries have given special paid time off for parents or sent money directly to help families during the crisis, Mexico made a 32% cut in the budget of the National Women’s Institute, the arm of government focused on boosting women’s rights and opportunities.

Mexico is one of several Latin American countries to have tried in recent years to combat the machismo culture that pervades the region, holding public awareness campaigns on domestic labor. Although Mexico City recently upped its paid leave for fathers to 45 days, paid paternity leave nationally is just one week, far below the average of about eight weeks among countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. That means many men are in no position to help out very much with caring for young children. Mexican mothers get 12 weeks of paid leave.

The anti-machismo campaign has had limited results and household labor is still widely seen as a woman’s job. The World Bank estimates Mexican women spend as much as 38 more hours a week than men on child care and domestic chores. This unpaid work equals 18% of national gross domestic product, according to government estimates. About 53% of Mexicans either strongly agree or agree with the statement “when a mother works for pay, the children suffer,” according to the 2017 World Values Survey.

Working women, especially those with lower education levels, have a “strong level of guilt” about being away from home, the World Bank’s Inchauste said. “To them, having children strips them of the right of a career. It’s like their first priority and their only duty is toward those children.”

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