The unspoken paradox of women in the workplace

In recognition of International Women’s Day, which is commemorated on 8 March, we highlight some of the still unaddressed issues why women may not be as well represented in the workplace.
For Caribbean girls and women who have the opportunity, academic excellence is generally encouraged. As a result, there tends to be a larger proportion of females to male students at both the secondary and tertiary levels of our education system, and across most disciplines, including the STEM subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. For example, for the regional institution, the University of the West Indies and across the three main campuses (in Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago), total female student enrolment ranges between 60% and 70%.

There are those who are quick to point out that females are well represented in our halls of learning. However, males have been underperforming and their enrolment numbers have been declining, which is exacerbating many of the social challenges our countries have been experiencing, and so deserve our attention.

Whilst the issues associated with males and education ought to be addressed, it is interesting to note that post-school, and in the world of work, men still tend to fare better than women:

  • the unemployment rate is lower among men than women
  • in the same position, men typically make more money than women , and
  • men significantly outnumber women in positions of power, such as in senior management and executive positions, on boards, and in politics.

Why is this still happening?  There are several reasons, ranging from the latent biases that still exist that favour men in certain positions and the more submissive behaviour women may demonstrate in the workplace, to the choices women sometimes make, or the expectation that is thrust upon them, that their families and relationships will be their number one priority. However, another longstanding and known issue, which increasingly is receiving attention, is the fact that generally women do considerably more unpaid work as men. Hence, can women truly excel in the workplace – if they wanted to – when they already so overburdened at home?

According to data from the World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which was recently highlighted by Melinda Gates, Co-Founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, women do up to five times more unpaid work than men, as shown in Figure 1. In Latin America and the Caribbean, they tend to fare better but still do about two and a half times more work than their male counterparts.

Unpaid work per day by men and women (Source: Gates Foundation, OECD 2014)
Figure 1: Comparison of the amount of unpaid work men and women do per day (Source GatesNotes/Gates Foundation)


As stated before, this issue not new, and is echoed in households from Aruba to Australia, where working wives and mothers still tend to have almost sole responsibility for keeping their households in order, for doing chores and attending to the children.  Such arrangements free up the time of their husbands and partners to relax and rejuvenate, and even to undertake work-related tasks that can help them go up the career ladder.  However, it also means that women tend to have two full-time jobs – one within and one outside the home – and so really do not have the bandwidth to truly excel at any one of them, as this video below highlights.

Hence as much as our societies might seem  amenable for women to excel in the workplace, we have socialised, and continue to socialise, its children – both girls and boys – for girls to step back (not lean in) in other parts of their lives in favour of their homes and families. More importantly, boys are not being held to that same standard.

Ultimately, should the Caribbean, and by extension the world, truly wish for women to excel professionally and take their place as equals in the society, the perception of men and women’s roles still need to change. Women ought not to be seen as being chiefly responsible for their households and children, and be judged almost exclusively on how well those aspects of their lives are performing. On the flipside, men and boys must participate more fully at home, and should be judged on how involved they are and those results.