Message To President Bachelet: Chilean Women Are Still Left Behind

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

By: Day Robins, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

The administration of Chilean President Michelle Bachelet must refocus its reforms on integrating women into the South American nation’s workforce. In October 2013, Chile was one of the most unequal countries in the world in terms of gender equality according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap index.[1] Alarmingly, of the 136 countries studied, the index ranked Chile in the bottom third.[2] President Bachelet was comfortably re-elected for a second presidential term in 2013; though she took laudable steps toward gender parity in her first term (2006-2010), recent statistics suggest that these reforms were not enough, and fell short in addressing deep-rooted sexism in Chile’s workforce.

 From Pinochet to Bachelet

Twenty-five years after Pinochet’s fall, elements of traditional sexist beliefs persist in Chilean society. Under Pinochet’s rule, women were defined by their roles as wives and mothers and were solely responsible for raising a patriotic youth and not working outside the home.[3] Nevertheless, in spite of perpetuating the traditional machista belief system in Chile, Pinochet paradoxically appointed several women to prominent political positions, especially as mayors. [4] In addition, neoliberal reforms drove many families into poverty and forced some Chilean women to join the workforce in order to be able to provide for their families.[5] However, most women, especially in rural areas, wedded themselves to the traditional domestic sphere.[6] By the end of the Pinochet regime in 1987, women made up only 28 percent of the workforce—a shockingly low share compared to workforces in Uruguay and Brazil, where women made up approximately 45 percent of the labor market by the late 1980s.[7] During this period, only 14 percent of women in rural areas worked a paid job, while over 90 percent of men in rural areas held workforce jobs.[8]

The election of Michelle Bachelet as president in 2006—making her Chile’s first female President—gave new impetus to the struggle for legislation to improve women’s rights and highlighted the process toward gender equality that had been under way for some time in Chile, a country of dynamic economic growth but a fragmented society. During her first presidential term, Bachelet introduced emergency contraception and initiated a national Early Childhood Development (ECD) program that has since been expanded. Now, in her second presidential term, Bachelet has sought to change the nation’s decades-old labor laws to help encourage female employment and has introduced legislation that would decriminalize abortion. While not seeking to underestimate the importance of Chile’s advances in terms of gender equality under Bachelet, one can argue that reforms under her rule were superficial and limited in their ability to challenge deep-rooted sexism within Chilean society. Moreover, the reforms do not directly address the sector of gender inequality where Chilean women need them most: in the economic sphere.

 Machismo Dominates Chile’s Labor Market

In 2006, women made up at least 60 percent of the labor force in Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Colombia, and Bolivia, among other countries, while Chile’s female participation rate hovered around 40 percent.[9] Though the presence of women in the labor market has increased substantially within the past decade, Chile’s percentage of female participation continues to lag behind regional trends. In 2008, Chile’s female labor force participation rate averaged 19 percent lower than that of other Latin American countries.[10] Currently, less than half of women participate in Chile’s overall labor force.

Low female participation in Chile’s labor market is most striking in rural areas. Only 38 percent of women in rural areas work in paid positions, while 88 percent of men work—a gap of 50 percentage points.[11] In urban areas, the gap is smaller but still significant at 30 percentage points, with almost 60 percent of women working in a paid job. [12] These numbers do represent a notable increase since the end of the dictatorship, when the gap was 76 percent in rural areas and 50 percent urban areas. But a closer look at gender differences in employment by sector reveals that women dominate domestic service, education, and low-tech industries—the lowest paying jobs—while men dominate high-paying jobs like those in the high-tech industry. In 2011, women were 10 times more likely than men to work in domestic services, and there were over five times as many men than women employed in the high-tech industry.[13]

Despite having either equal or more years of education than men on average, women have not been trusted with greater responsibility or better pay. Dramatic wage discrimination is one factor that deters women from joining the workforce. In fact, according to the 2014 Global Gender Gap Report sub-index “wage equality for similar work,” Chile ranks 128th out of the 142 countries surveyed.[14]

Inadequate job training and lack of access to affordable day care services also deters women from obtaining a job, particularly among poor women. According to the 2014 OECD Better Life Index on Chile, “the participation of low-income women in the labor market is held down by economic barriers because work often does not pay enough to compensate the cost of childcare.”[15] Moreover, according to a 2009 survey, 50 percent of low-income females who do not work in Chile listed childcare as the primary reason for not working.[16]

To address this issue, in 2012, the Chilean government introduced an in-work benefit (Bono al Trabajo de la Mujer) that targeted women in the poorest 35 percent of households and has since benefited about 300,000 women and encouraged labor demand.[17] Furthermore, in her first term in 2006, President Bachelet charged the Ministry of Planning with implementing her national ECD policy Chile Crece Contigo (Chile Grows With You), which aimed to ensure the availability of preschools for working mothers by granting a subsidy to the lowest-income families (up to 40 percent of households in Chile are eligible for the program).[18] However, despite increases in enrollment rates since the 1990s, Chile is tied with Brazil for South America’s lowest ECD enrollment rate at 41 percent—compared to Colombia’s 91 percent.[19]

Perhaps more disappointing, investments in early childhood education do not necessarily translate into increased rates of women entering the workforce. One recent (2014) study by Towson University does find evidence of a positive relationship between mothers’ labor force participation and children’s enrollment in primary education. But multiple studies on ECD policy specifically do not find evidence of correlation between ECD access and women’s employment rates.[20] In an interview with COHA, Professor of Economics and researcher at the IDEAS Economics Research Institute Dr. Esteban Puentes asserted that although ECD policies “are good for the children and the mothers…more day care will not be the solution [to increasing female labor force participation rates in Chile].”[21] Instead, Dr. Puentes suggested that “[girls] have to star in school and try to avoid gender differences…so that girls feel that they can perform just as well (and better) than boys.”[22]

The aforementioned discussion has led many experts, including Dr. Puentes, to point to cultural factors as the primary explanation for Chile’s wage inequality and low turnout of women in the labor market. According to Dr. Puentes, part of the reason Chilean women participate less than their Latin American counterparts is “due to cultural factors such as gender attitudes,” adding that “more conservative women tend to work less.”[23] Thus, one could argue that the future is promising for women in Chile’s workforce; a 2012 study found that younger women who have less traditional views about gender roles are more likely to join the workforce—probably the result of a variety of factors such as reduced gender discrimination in schools and the dulled influence of the authoritarian period on women in Chile today.[24] But even as cultural attitudes toward the issues of gender discrimination shift over generations, Chile’s culture will continue to impede the country’s socioeconomic development unless the Bachelet administration can help integrate women into the nation’s workforce.

 Women Take the Lead but Remain Underrepresented

 President Michelle Bachelet’s election—and reelection—carries important symbolic implications, but sexism in Chile’s government remains a harsh reality. In the past decade, countries throughout Latin America, including Chile, have put increasing numbers of women in leadership roles, as exemplified by the rise of female heads of state in countries like Argentina and Brazil. In Chile, women hold 8 out of the country’s 23 cabinet posts, or 35 percent.[25] Comparatively, women head just over 30 percent of agencies in the United States and Canada. [26] Moreover, Chilean female ministers do not occupy less-powerful positions symbolically; women hold key roles such as Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Mining—the cornerstone of Chile’s economy.[27]

But Chile’s silver linings also have dark clouds—which also hang over other OECD nations like the United States and the UK According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, less than 16 percent of lower house politicians and only 18 percent of senators in Chile are women. These numbers fall short of the world average of over 22 percent female representation, ranking Chile 93rd among the 142 countries surveyed worldwide.[28] However, relative to the UK and United States, whose legislatures are made up of only about 20 percent women, Chile’s numbers are only marginally lower. Argentina, Mexico, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Cuba, have surpassed countries like the United States and the UK in terms of the percentage of women elected to national legislatures with female participation rates ranging from 35 to 50 percent. High-profile success stories of women in leadership mar the reality of rampant sexism in Chile’s government.

 Chilean Women’s Integration in the Armed Forces and Military Police

In terms of female representation rates in the armed forces, Chile is ahead of the curve when compared to other OECD nations. The Chilean army approved the total integration of women, even into combat, in 2001.[29] The following year—after current President Bachelet took office in her former role as minister of Defense—the Chilean Navy and Air Force Academy began accepting women. Currently, women make up 14 percent of personnel in the Chilean Armed Forces, which has a total of 59,000 service members.[30] In contrast, women in the United States make up just over 15 percent of the U.S. Army.[31]

During the Pinochet regime, women were admitted to the armed forces voluntarily and were allowed to join the ranks of officers and non-commissioned officers, but were barred from becoming generals.[32] Within a decade of Pinochet’s fall, Chile’s Carabineros military police appointed its first female general—a milestone for gender equality not only in Chile, but also in Latin America as a whole.[33] With the exception of anomalies Cuba and Nicaragua, whose armies have women commanders since their militaries arose from irregular forces, there were no other cases of women in high-ranking military positions in Latin America at the time.[34] Though this has changed in just over a decade—with Colombia appointing multiple women to the rank of general—Chile led the way in 1998. In sum, though women’s rate of voluntary enlistment is low relative to men, female integration into the Chilean Armed Forces is high relative to the rest of the world.

Solving the Right Problem the Right Way

According to the World Economic Forum’s most recent (2014) Global Gender Gap Report—which quantifies women’s economic participation, education attainment, health, and political empowerment relative to their male counterparts—Chile’s score improved to 69 percent (on a scale where 100 percent represents perfect equality between the sexes) and ranked 66th out of the 142 countries surveyed—an impressive 25-point improvement from its 2013 ranking of 91st. [35] In fact, Chile is now ranked in the top 40 countries in three of the four areas surveyed: educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment.[36] Chile is still doing relatively very poorly, however, in the category of economic participation and opportunity for women, ranking 119th out of the 142 countries surveyed around the world.[37] Chile’s score according to this sub-index, which compiles women’s participation in areas such as labor force participation, wage equality, and participation in government relative to their male counterparts, has decreased since 2007 and remains appallingly low relative to other OECD nations.

The economic empowerment of women is a necessary step not only for Chilean women, but also for Chile’s economic development. Moreover, since inequality is closely related to differences in labor income, addressing economic gender disparity can help greatly reduce poverty and mitigate the country’s rampant economic inequality.[38]

Fortunately, President Bachelet’s administration is on the right track—especially when it comes to encouraging low-income women to take up work. According to a late 2014 Bloomberg article, the Chilean government’s budget for 2015 will extend existing subsidies for female workers, established in 2012, from the current 40 percent to 60 percent for the lowest-income families.[39] The government also plans to better-educate employers, unions and workers about available subsidies. [40] Lastly, there has also been much debate over the repeal Article 203 of the Labor Code, which requires companies with more than 20 female workers to provide day care services for employees’ children but has unfortunately deterred employers from hiring women.[41]

Concerning women’s rights and representation more generally, Bachelet’s annual address to the National Congress on May 21, 2015 focused on a variety of now-familiar promises to address inequality and improve education and healthcare, which are likely to benefit women. Perhaps more notably, Bachelet’s recent efforts to increase women’s political representation through reform of Chile’s electoral law—which was approved by the Constitutional Court in late April 2015—promises to bring in more women. Only time will tell whether or not the new voting system will translate into tangible results in female representation in Congress, but if successful, more women in Chile’s Congress will almost certainly advance efforts to address women’s underrepresentation in other institutions.


Chile’s deep-rooted sexism is widespread but appears to manifest itself most starkly in the workforce. Nearly a decade ago, The Economist asked, “Will Michelle Bachelet help women or hinder them?” This 2006 article underlined Chile’s extraordinarily low number of women workers relative to other countries in the region as well as the country’s large wage gap.[42] Though Chile has inched toward gender equality under President Bachelet, women’s underrepresentation in government and the workforce persists today.

Chile’s social conservatism will undoubtedly continue to hinder Bachelet’s ability to move beyond machismo and close the country’s gender gaps. Since Bachelet is now one year into her second term and in her fifth year as president—and her New Majority coalition has a majority in both chambers of Congress—Chile has a rare opportunity to further shift social and cultural realities that persist in the country. A starting place is reforms targeting gender disparities in the economic sphere. The absence of such reforms not only leaves Chilean women behind, but also compromises the country’s socioeconomic development.

By: Day Robins, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated. For additional news and analysis on Latin America, please go to: and Rights Action.

Featured Photo: President Michelle Bachelet speaks at Teatro Caupolicán.

[1] World Economic Forum, “Global Gender Gap Report on Chile,” World Economic Forum, last modified October 2014, accessed June 12, 2015,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Megan Kareithi, “Women of Santiago: Gender Conceptions and Realities under Pinochet” (PhD diss., Tulane University, 2010).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Socio-Economic Database for Latin America and the Caribbean, Excel Table: Labor_Gender.xls (SEDLAC, 2013), accessed June 11, 2015,

[8] Ibid.

[9] The Economist, “Women in Chile: Left behind,” The Economist, last modified August 10, 2006, accessed June 12, 2015,

[10] Dante Contreras and Gonzales Plaza, “Female Labor Force Participation in Chile: How Important Are Cultural Factors,” December 2008, 2, accessed June 12, 2015,, 2.

[11] Socio-Economic Database for Latin America and the Caribbean, Excel Table: Labor_Gender.xls ( SEDLAC, 2013), accessed June 11, 2015,

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] World Economic Forum, “Global Gender Gap Report on Chile,” World Economic Forum, last modified October 2014, accessed June 12, 2015,

[15]  OECD, OECD Better Life Index on Chile (OECD, 2014), accessed June 12, 2015,

[16] Medrano, Patricia, “Public Day Care and Female Labor Force Participation: Evidence from Chile.” Department of Economics, Universidad de Chile, Santiago de Chile, last modified 2009, accessed October 10, 2014.

[17] OECD, OECD Better Life Index on Chile (OECD, 2014), accessed June 12, 2015,

[18] Ministerio de Desarrollo Social, “Anuncios de la Presidenta Michelle Bachelet amplían la Protección Social y garantizan nuevos derechos” [President Michelle Bachelet extends social protection and guarantees new rights], Ministerio de Desarrollo Social, last modified May 21, 2015, accessed June 12, 2015,

[19] Vegas, Emiliana and Santibáñez, Lucrecia, “The Promise of Early Childhood Development in Latin America and the Caribbean,” World Bank, last modified 2010, accessed June 12, 2015, License: CC BY 3.0 IGO.”

[20] James Manley and Felipe Vasquez, “An Empirical Examination of the Chile Crece Contigo Program,” Working Paper Series, last modified 2014, accessed June 12, 2015,

[21] Esteban Puentes, e-mail interview by the author, June 5, 2015.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid. See also Contreras, Hurtado and Zara, 2012.

[25] Gobierno de Chile, “Ministros” [Ministries], last modified 2015, accessed June 12, 2015.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Reuters. “Chile to reform voting system, increase women in Congress,” last modified January 14, 2015, last accessed June 12, 2015,

[29] Franz Kernic, Armed Forces and International Security (LIT Verlag Münster, 2003), 160, accessed June 12, 2015,

[30] Ibid.

[31] McGregor, Jenna, “Getting More Women Into Army Leadership,” last modified June 3, 2014, last accessed June 12, 2015,

[32] Gonzales, Gustavo, “First Female General, a Landmark in Gender Equality,” Inter Press Service, last modified November 17, 1998, last accessed June 12, 2015,

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] World Economic Forum, “Global Gender Gap Report on Chile,” World Economic Forum, last modified October 2014, accessed June 12, 2015,

[36] World Economic Forum, “Global Gender Gap Report on Chile,” World Economic Forum, last modified October 2014, accessed June 12, 2015,

[37] Ibid.

[38] Contreras, D., L. de Mello and Esteban Puentes, “Encouraging Labour Force Participation in Chile” (OECD Economics Department Working Papers, No. 608, 2008), last accessed October 10, 2014,

[39] Azzopardi, Tom, “Chile: Labor Legislation to Boost Union Rights, Female Employment,” Bloomberg BNA, last modified November 17, 2014, last accessed June 12, 2015,

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] The Economist, “Women in Chile: Left behind,” The Economist, last modified August 10, 2006, accessed June 12, 2015,