2. Discriminatory social institutions: A development perspective

The term “social norm” is complex, and can have wide-ranging repercussions across all components of a country: society, economy, labour market, culture, etc. By creating barriers, discriminatory social norms not only constrain women and girls’ full empowerment, but they also generate a social and economic cost for society as a whole. Moreover, as the current coronavirus (Covid-19) crisis unfolds, the socio-economic consequences for women and girls across the region of Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) could jeopardise some of the progress accomplished, and could worsen the situation in other areas such as unpaid care work, violence against women, or access to sexual and reproductive health rights and services. Beyond the current coronavirus (Covid-19) crisis, discriminatory social institutions take various forms and their effects are exacerbated by intersectionality – that is, when a woman may suffer from additional forms of discrimination other than those related to her gender. This chapter looks at women’s economic empowerment from a social institution perspective, first by examining the economic impact of discriminatory social norms against women and girls in LAC, and then by taking a closer look at the intersectional discrimination faced, for example, by migrant women.

The first section describes how existing barriers impede economic growth, and it analyses the economic costs associated with gender-based discrimination in formal and informal laws, social norms and practices. This section also presents different prospective scenarios of a gradual reduction of this discrimination and it estimates the economic benefits that such a reduction would yield by 2030. The second section focuses on the importance of acknowledging intersectional discrimination, for instance in the case of migrant women, and on the costs associated with ignoring such challenges.

Gender-based discrimination in social institutions impedes economic growth. Through their influence on the unequal distribution of power between men and women in the family, in the economic sphere and in public life, discriminatory social institutions constrain women’s economic opportunities. For example, the practice of child marriage limits girls’ access to education and affects their future employment opportunities (OECD, 2019[1]). Similarly, threats to women’s physical integrity can transform schools and workplaces into unsafe spaces. Restricted access to affordable childcare facilities or family-friendly job policies creates barriers to women’s full participation in economic life. By reducing the pool of talent and limiting countries’ capacity to innovate and accumulate human and financial capital, discriminatory social institutions limit economic growth. In other words, the global economy cannot operate at its full potential if there are systemic constraints holding back half of the world’s population. Consequently, in addition to fulfilling fundamental human rights, gender equality in social institutions could also generate substantial macroeconomic gains, benefitting all. As the coronavirus (Covid-19) crisis unfolds across the region and threatens its macroeconomic stability, with deep socio-economic ramifications, addressing the gender “bill” becomes even more important in light of the future economic recovery plans.

Controlling for other geographic, economic and institutional factors that also explain economic growth, the current level of discrimination induces a loss of almost USD 6 000 billion, equivalent to 7.5% of global income in 2017 (see Box 2.1 for more details on the limitations of the methodology). On average, discrimination represents a loss of USD 1 552 per capita globally. At the LAC regional level, the estimated losses in gross domestic product (GDP) caused by existing gender-based discrimination amount to USD 401 billion, representing a loss of USD 1 135 per capita (Table 2.1).

The distribution of losses across LAC sub-regions is not uniform. While gender discrimination yields an estimated loss of USD 16 billion in the Caribbean, the gender “bill” rises to USD 106 billion in Central America and USD 279 billion in South America. However, due to different population sizes and differences in terms of GDP per capita, the losses per capita are higher in the Caribbean, amounting to USD 1 301 per person, compared with USD 1 115 per capita in South America and USD 894 per capita in Central America. At the country level, the cost per capita is more than USD 2 000 in Trinidad and Tobago and in the Bahamas. For 15 LAC countries,1 gender discrimination represents a cost per capita that is greater than USD 1 000 (Figure 2.1).

Gender-based discrimination in social institutions hampers global development by lowering women’s human capital, reducing women’s labour force participation and constraining physical capital accumulation. The literature demonstrates that a country’s level of economic growth depends on its levels of physical and human capital, as well as on total factor productivity (Mankiw, Romer and Weil, 1992[4]; Solow, 1956[5]). Given the similar distribution of innate abilities between men and women, the exclusion of women from the job market artificially reduces the pool of talent from which employers can draw. Consequently, it decreases countries’ ability to accumulate physical and human capital, and to innovate (Ferrant and Kolev, 2016[6]).

It has been estimated that discriminatory social institutions lower the development of women’s human capital by 16% (OECD, 2019[1]). Countries in the LAC region have achieved gender parity in school enrolment at all educational levels – primary, secondary and tertiary. However, persistent discriminatory practices – such as child marriage, adolescent pregnancy, and the unequal distribution of caring and domestic responsibilities – primarily affect young girls and make it more difficult for girls and women to invest in their own human capital development. The regional prevalence of child marriage among girls (16%) is much higher than the prevalence of child marriage among boys (5%). In Central America, the rate of child marriage among girls reaches 20%. Evidence shows that these high child marriage rates are associated with high rates of adolescent pregnancies (see Chapter 3). The LAC region exhibits the second highest regional rate of adolescent pregnancy in the world, with around 15% of all pregnancies occurring between the ages of 15 and 19 years (PAHO, UNFPA, 2017[7]).

Discriminatory social institutions also reduce women’s labour force participation by 12% (OECD, 2019[1]). Across the LAC region, women represent 51% of the working-age population – that is, the population aged 15-64 years. Yet, women account for only 42% of the employed population. Differences in labour force participation between men and women are very large across all LAC countries, reaching more than 30 percentage points in Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Nicaragua (Figure 2.2). The main underlying factors are: discriminatory labour laws; important pay gaps and discrepancies in occupational activities; unequal distribution of domestic responsibilities; and deeply embedded negative attitudes towards women’s right to work for pay.

Discriminatory norms that confine women to the home result in the bulk of unpaid domestic work falling on women’s shoulders and in women’s reduced labour market participation. On average, 52% of the population agrees that children will suffer when a mother is in paid employment outside the home, ranging from 33% in Haiti to 68% in Argentina. In addition, across the 12 LAC countries2 for which data are available, 51% of the population considers being a housewife to be just as fulfilling as working for pay, ranging from 19% in Haiti to 70% in Guatemala (see Chapter 3). Women’s participation in employment is closely related to beliefs about whether women should be working at all. Environments that are supportive of women’s employment are essential, especially for women with children, who face more demands within the household. Consequently, the prevalence of these negative attitudes towards working women reinforces large gender gaps in labour force participation (Figure 2.3). Not only do discriminatory norms and attitudes towards women’s role in the household constrain their labour force participation, but they also lead to a higher share of unpaid care work falling on women’s shoulders. Compared with men, and according to pre-coronavirus (Covid-19) estimates, women spend three times as much time on unpaid care and domestic work, including raising children, caring for sick or elderly family members, and managing household tasks. This is more than the average among OECD member countries (where women spend around twice as much time as men), but lower than in other sub-regions around the world (women in Southern Asia spend nearly six times more time than men, and in Northern Africa, they spend close to seven times more time than men).

Meanwhile, some discriminatory legal barriers continue to prevent women from entering certain professions, constraining their employment opportunities across sectors. In nine LAC countries,3 legal frameworks restrict the jobs women are allowed to work, often preventing access to jobs deemed physically intensive, dangerous or insalubrious, such as employment in mining, in chemical industries or underground (see Chapter 5). Meanwhile, in five LAC countries,4 the law prohibits women from working the same number of night hours as men.

At the same time, women continue to earn significantly less than men and to hold lower-status jobs, which lowers their economic opportunity and could discourage them from seeking paid employment altogether. On average, in the LAC region, women earn 30% less than men (see Chapter 5). Women’s labour force participation is characterised by sectoral segregation: compared with men, they are overrepresented in low-productivity sectors such as agriculture, commerce and services (Figure 2.4). Conversely, men are more represented than women in sectors of average productivity.

Finally, discriminatory social institutions restrict women’s physical capital accumulation by 8% (OECD, 2019[1]). Discriminatory inheritance practices, as well as restricted access to land and non-land productive assets and to financial services, limit women’s ability to contribute to physical capital accumulation. Women’s lower ownership of land and non-land assets limits their ability to provide collateral in order to secure loans. In all LAC countries for which data are available,5 except Argentina, the share of men with an outstanding loan from a bank or another type of financial institution to purchase a house, an apartment or land is higher than the share of women (World Bank, 2017[11]).

Gender equality represents an immense economic opportunity. Reducing gender-based discrimination in social institutions through appropriate policy measures could yield substantial economic benefits. A gradual reduction of gender-based discrimination in social institutions by 2030 could increase the global annual GDP growth rate by 3.6 percentage points between 2018 and 2030.

In order to measure the potential economic gains that countries and regions could harness from a significant reduction in gender discrimination, the SIGI developed four distinct scenarios (Ferrant and Kolev, 2016[6]):

  • The first scenario, called “Business as usual” (BAU), assumes no change in the global level of gender-based discrimination in social institutions between 2018 and 2030, and therefore constitutes the baseline scenario.

  • The second scenario, “SIGI upgrade”, assumes that each country addresses its respective gender-based discrimination so that its SIGI score by 2030 allows it to change its SIGI category.6 For instance, considering a country that is classified as having a medium level of gender-based discrimination, with a score between 30 and 40, the “SIGI upgrade” scenario assumes that by 2030, the country has addressed this discrimination in a way that has advanced it to the next category and the country is now classified as having a low level of gender-based discrimination – meaning a SIGI score of 20-30.

  • The third scenario, “Best in region”, assumes that each country in the LAC region and sub-regions addresses its respective gender-based discrimination so that by 2030, its SIGI score reaches that of the region’s or sub-region’s top performer in 2019. For instance, consider a country with a SIGI score of 45 that is located in a region where the top performer has a SIGI score of 20. The “Best in region” scenario assumes that by 2030, this country has addressed its own gender-based discrimination in a way that has enabled it to reach the score of the region’s top performer in 2019. By design, this scenario also assumes that the score of the region’s top performer does not change by 2030.

  • Finally, the fourth scenario, “Gender parity”, assumes that each country fully addresses its respective gender-based discrimination by 2030 and reaches a SIGI score of 0, indicating no discrimination.

These four scenarios enable the measurement of the potential economic benefits that the LAC region and LAC countries could gain from reductions in gender-based discrimination. In the LAC region, under the “BAU” scenario (the baseline scenario), GDP is expected to grow on average by 2.6% annually between 2018 and 2030 (USDA, 2017[12]).7 Under the “SIGI upgrade” and “Best in region” scenarios, annual growth forecasts increase slightly to 2.7% and 2.9%, respectively, for the LAC region. In monetary terms, this translates to forecasted GDPs per capita in 2030 that reach USD 10 027 and USD 10 266 under the “SIGI upgrade” and “Best in region” scenarios, respectively, compared with USD 9 906 under the “BAU” scenario. The “Gender parity” scenario assumes a gradual and total elimination of gender-based discrimination by 2030, and clearly yields the largest economic gains. Under the “Gender parity” scenario, average annual GDP growth is expected to reach 6.2% in the LAC region, equivalent to an annual increase of 3.6 percentage points compared with the baseline scenario. In monetary terms, the “Gender parity” scenario would lead to GDP per capita reaching USD 14 964 by 2030, representing a gain of more than USD 5 000 per capita compared with the baseline scenario (Figure 2.5, Panel A).

All three LAC sub-regions display similar potential economic gains as a result of reducing gender-based discrimination; however, the absolute gains in terms of monetary value differ, as they primarily depend on the different initial GDP levels of each sub-region (Figure 2.5, Panels B, C and D).

Women are not a homogeneous group. Depending on their socio-economic status, ethnicity and race, disability, and geographical location, women face different challenges at any given time. Ignoring the challenges of intersectionality and the subsequent additional discrimination add to the economic cost of gender discrimination in social institutions. This section examines the intersectionality perspective by using the example of migration. Migration is a factor that poses both opportunities and challenges for women. The section first explores the contributing factors of migration in the LAC region, and more specifically of female migration in relation to discriminatory social norms as measured by the SIGI in the different LAC countries. It then analyses the consequences of migration for women left behind in the country of origin and, finally, the consequences of migration in destination countries for both migrant and native-born women.

International migration has been an integral part of the LAC region’s social and economic development. The number of international migrants – i.e. individuals who were born in a country other than the country in which they live – has rapidly increased, reaching 40.5 million people in 2019, up from 24.8 million in 2000 (UNDESA, 2019[13]).The main destinations remain outside the LAC region, namely the United States and the European Union. However, intra-regional migration has also been increasing and diversifying since around 2000. In 2019, 73% of the 11.7 million immigrants living in the LAC region were born in another LAC country. This represents a sharp increase from 58% in 2000.

Female emigration across all countries in the LAC region is high in comparison with the rest of the world. Women account for 52% of the total emigrant stock in the region, compared with 48% at the global level (Figure 2.6). Some countries display very high levels of female migration. For instance, 59% of the emigrants from the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Trinidad and Tobago are women. In total, in half of LAC countries, women emigrants represent more than 54% of the nationals emigrating, and only two LAC countries – Haiti and Mexico – have more men emigrating than women.

International migration is a multidimensional phenomenon whose contributing factors are very diverse – ranging from historical ties, common languages and geographical proximity, to armed conflict. While these factors continue to influence migration patterns, differences in income, well-being and migrant networks play a key role in migration trajectories (OECD, 2016[14]). The LAC region is no exception, with labour and economic opportunities, family reunification, and violence as the main identified drivers of migration (McAuliffe et al., 2019[15]; Restrepo, Sutton and Martinez, 2019[16]). Climate change and severe droughts also appear to have an impact on human mobility, notably in Central America and the Caribbean.

Among many factors, economic crises in origin countries and income inequalities across the LAC region fuel the emigration of people searching for better job opportunities. This is unlikely to change in the aftermath of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, even when freedom of movement is affected. High income disparities across the LAC region’s economies and disparities with primary destination countries such as the United States encourage both intra- and extra-regional migration patterns. The improvement in economic conditions in some countries over recent years, coupled with a growing domestic labour market, has led to a gradual decrease in the rate of extra-regional migration and an increase in intra-regional migration (McAuliffe et al., 2019[15]). In some countries, such as Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica or Uruguay, the favourable economic development prior to the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic and political stability attract many immigrants, particularly from other countries with less favourable economic and labour conditions. Asymmetric economic dynamics between countries in the LAC region, coupled with the absence of significant cultural or language barriers between the region’s labour markets, have encouraged the development of important intra-regional labour migration flows. A striking example is the development in recent years of a female migration corridor between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, with Nicaraguan women taking advantage of the higher salaries in Costa Rica and the high demand for household and personal services from the growing Costa Rican middle class.

Since the mid-2010s, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (hereafter “Venezuela”) and some areas of the Northern Triangle8 have seen sharp economic contractions and deterioration, with corresponding increases in malnutrition and disease (Restrepo, Sutton and Martinez, 2019[16]). In addition, climate change-related episodes in these countries, such as droughts or hurricanes, have aggravated the economic situation, increased food insecurity and severely affected livelihoods. The sharp deterioration in quality of life has triggered migration across the entire socio-economic spectrum, from highly educated individuals, to low-income farmers, to women and children from indigenous communities. Indigenous communities engaged in traditional farming methods, which already occupy a precarious and marginalised position in Northern Triangle societies, have been severely affected by these droughts (Restrepo, Sutton and Martinez, 2019[16]). Similarly, in addition to the loss of lives, repeated episodes of hurricanes in the Caribbean have caused catastrophic damage to property and infrastructure. Many Caribbean islands, which rely heavily on sectors such as agriculture and tourism, have suffered significant economic impacts (McAuliffe et al., 2019[15]).

Pervasive violence across a large number of LAC countries also contributes to migration, notably the migration of high numbers of women and children. The LAC region is home to just 8% of the world’s population, but it accounts for 33% of the world’s homicides. The regional homicide rate is more than three times the global average, with four countries alone – Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela – accounting for one-quarter of global homicides. In 2017, 17 of the 20 countries with the world’s highest number of homicides were located in the LAC region. Moreover, as of 2016, the LAC region was home to 43 of the 50 most murderous cities in the world (Muggah and Tobón Aguirre, 2018[17]). Extortion and kidnappings are also rampant across the LAC region, and primarily affect women. The region has the world’s highest rate of femicide – intentional killing of a woman or girl because of her gender –, with 3 529 women killed in 2018 (OECD, 2020[18]). Unsurprisingly, this pervasive insecurity has contributed to large-scale displacement. Migrants and refugees from the Northern Triangle systematically flee the violence: in 2017, 39.2% of migrants and refugees mentioned direct attacks or threats to themselves or their families, extortion, or gang-forced recruitment as the main reason for fleeing their countries of origin (Médecins Sans Frontières, 2017[19]). The impact of violence disproportionately affects women and they are more likely to report violence as a cause triggering migration episodes (University of Washington, 2017[20]).

In addition to the factors already discussed, women’s motivation for migrating can also be explained by their desire to live in more gender-equal societies. Discriminatory social institutions can thus play a role in migration patterns. Lower levels of discrimination in destination countries can attract women to migrate, particularly high-skilled female immigrants (Baudassé and Bazillier, 2014[21]). In the country of origin, gender discrimination in social institutions can motivate women to leave, but it can also limit their choices in relation to moving (Ferrant and Tuccio, 2015[22]). Therefore, the interpretation of the relationship between discriminatory social institutions and female migration is complex and sometimes counterintuitive.

Overall, the literature suggests the existence of a tipping point in the country of origin before which increasing discrimination in social institutions encourages more female emigration, and beyond which the weight of discriminatory social institutions prevents women from emigrating. In other words, highly to very highly discriminatory social institutions in origin countries constrain female migration because of women’s restricted opportunities and low decision-making power. Therefore, higher discrimination in social institutions in the country of origin can actually lead to lower female emigration flows (Figure 2.7). At the same time, a certain level of high discrimination in social institutions can act as a powerful contributing factor for emigration. In other words, discriminatory social institutions in the country of origin operate as a push factor, encouraging higher levels of female emigration as women seek to avoid forced or early marriage, evade gender-based violence, or escape de jure or de facto limitations on their economic, political or social rights (OECD, 2019[1]). Indeed, the lower the level of discrimination against women in destination countries, the higher the female migration flows to those countries, which highlights the attractiveness of gender equality in host countries and the role that low levels of discrimination in social institutions plays as a pull factor (Ferrant and Tuccio, 2015[22]).

Female migration constitutes an opportunity for increased labour force participation and economic empowerment. Women are increasingly emigrating to seek jobs, becoming part of autonomous migration contingents subject to the supply and demand of labour markets (ILO, 2017[23]) and departing from the traditional role of accompanying their male relatives. Prior to emigrating, these women often undertook unpaid care and domestic work, and lacked personal income and decision-making power. Through the process of emigrating and joining the labour market in the destination country, albeit through informal work arrangements, female workers can therefore acquire greater economic independence and decision-making power than they had prior to migrating.

However, immigrant women often face double discrimination by being both immigrants and women. They are more likely to be employed in informal activities – as demonstrated for example in Argentina (OECD/ILO, 2018[24]) –, which significantly limits their access to social guarantees and labour rights, and makes them highly exposed to harassment, exploitation and abuse. The legal status of immigrants greatly affects their experiences in destination countries. The lack of a legal route into host countries and into the labour market can promote further discrimination and abuse. In addition, immigrant workers are employed mainly in the activities or occupations that are most highly characterised by gender segregation (ECLAC and ILO, 2017[25]). Consequently, any possible competition between immigrant and native-born workers will be among workers of the same sex (Aldaz Odriozola and Peña, 2015[26]). The combination of both of these dynamics translates into a high representation of emigrant women in the personal and household services sector. For instance, in Costa Rica, national household surveys show that in 2019, 33% of migrant women worked in household services, compared with 19% of native-born women (INEC, 2019[27]). Similarly, in Chile, 13% of migrant women are employed in domestic services, compared with 8% of Chilean-born women (ECLAC, 2019[28]).

In some countries, the concentration of immigrant women in domestic services is found to be correlated with a decrease in the amount of unpaid care and domestic work that native-born women undertake and an increase in native-born women’s labour force participation (OECD/ILO, 2018[24]). Female emigration increases the availability of household and personal services on the market, and reduces the associated cost. Consequently, better-educated and, on average, more highly remunerated women are able to afford to hire help for the care and domestic activities they previously undertook. Better-skilled women, in particular, may then be able to join the labour market (Furtado, 2015[29]; OECD/ILO, 2018[30]). In Costa Rica, for instance, large cohorts of immigrant women from Nicaragua have taken up native-born women’s housework over recent years, allowing native-born women to join the labour market (OECD/ILO, 2018[31]). Similarly, foreign-born women who work in the care sector provide Argentinian-born women with the opportunity to look for better work prospects for themselves (OECD/ILO, 2018[30]), and in Mexico, research suggests that Chiapaneca women have been able to access better-paying jobs due to the work that female Guatemalan workers carry out in domestic sectors (Meza González, 2016[32]).

In the country of origin, the emigration of men can pose both challenges and opportunities for women who stay behind. When men or husbands leave, gender dynamics in households change, leading to the redistribution of roles. Evidence shows that women in these situations take over tasks that are traditionally carried out by men (Sadiqi and Ennaji, 2012[33]; Wouterse, 2010[34]). If the person who left was the only breadwinner, women may have to compensate for the loss of income by engaging in economic activities themselves. This is particularly the case in agricultural households, where women have to work the land in place of the men who have emigrated (OECD, 2017[35]). In these situations, the women left behind find themselves with the dual responsibilities of financially supporting the family and caring for older family members and children. Girls may also find themselves more burdened with caring roles and doing household chores.

Additionally, in the absence of migrant men, women gain significant decision-making power as they become heads of households and take on more responsibilities (Bauer, Knerr and Maharjan, 2012[36]; OECD, 2017[35]). Once emigrants settle in destination countries, they often send remittances back home, and the women who are left behind are the primary recipients of these remittances. This allows women to make economic decisions on their own and have financial autonomy. Women tend to use remittances not only to cover their households’ basic needs, but also to invest in the education and health of family members, especially children. However, existing barriers in terms of access to land and credit markets often constrain women from using remittances in a more productive way (IOM, 2010[37]).


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[20] University of Washington (2017), The Cycle of Violence: Migration from the Northern Triangle, University of Washington, Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, https://digital.lib.washington.edu/researchworks/bitstream/handle/1773/38696/Cycle%20of%20Violence_Task%20Force%20Report%202017%20FINAL.pdf (accessed on 25 March 2020).

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[11] World Bank (2017), 2017 Global Findex database, https://globalfindex.worldbank.org/ (accessed on 12 December 2019).

[34] Wouterse, F. (2010), “Migration and technical efficiency in cereal production: evidence from Burkina Faso”, Agricultural Economics, Vol. 41/5, pp. 385-395, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1574-0862.2010.00452.x.


← 1. Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Bahamas, Barbados, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago, and Uruguay.

← 2. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, Mexico, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay and Venezuela.

← 3. Argentina, Barbados, Bolivia, Chile, Costa Rica, Dominica, Ecuador, Honduras and Panama.

← 4. Belize, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Dominica and Ecuador.

← 5. Global Findex 2017 data are available for Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela.

← 6. The SIGI classifies countries into five categories based on their global SIGI score: very low level of discrimination (SIGI <20); low level of discrimination (SIGI 20-30); medium level of discrimination (SIGI 30-40); high level of discrimination (SIGI 40-50); and very high level of discrimination (SIGI >50).

← 7. GDP forecasts are measured in terms of 2010 real GDP per capita at current PPP, and projections are extracted from the 2017 ERS International Macroeconomic Data Set of USDA.

← 8. The Northern Triangle is defined as El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

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