Home This Week Front-Page Story Women have made big strides in Puerto Rico workplace
Issued : Tuesday, August 13, 2013 12:00 AM
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Women have made big strides in Puerto Rico workplace

Edition: August 15, 2013 | Volume: 41 | No: 31

In the nearly 100 years since a workforce of women—skilled laborers making a meager living way under the minimum wage—plied their craft in the garment industry, women have slowly erased the income gap and made considerable progress in the ranks of the employed.

Today, a wage-gap reversal in Puerto Rico has placed the island in a unique position in the U.S. Puerto Rico is the only U.S. state or territory where women, on average, earn more than men, as working women salaries are 103% of what working men earn, according to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau data, the latest available with gender comparisons.

In the first decades of the 20th century, women worked the garment industry, the tobacco fields, sugar plantations and, of course, at home. Today, we see women in all walks of industry as managers, CEOs, supervisors, lawyers, doctors and journalists. On a daily basis, they manage their jobs, children and home, often juggling multiple responsibilities with a marked ability for multitasking.

Women make up 52% of the general population in Puerto Rico and 45% of the island's total labor workforce, Census figures show. Of those working women, 74.4% have a high-school degree and at least one year of college, with a growing number earning college degrees, according to the Puerto Rico Labor & Human Resources Department. Meanwhile, 51% of working women today are married, 31% are single and 13% are divorced or widowed. What's more, 40% of all families in Puerto Rico are led by women.

Education is certainly a key factor in women's progress, as more and more Puerto Rico women have college degrees versus their male counterparts. Since 2000, data from the Puerto Rico Higher Council of Education show that female college students have far outnumbered men. In the 2011-2012 academic year, 59% of the island's public and private university students were women; this has been a consistent pattern in Puerto Rico's colleges and universities since at least the 2001- 2002 academic year.

Gone are the days when female needle workers in the 1920s earned less than $1 a day. In fact, La Democracia newspaper reported in 1934 that women needle workers in Ponce went on strike to protest fixed salaries that were set at a minimum of $1.50 a day and a maximum of $3.50 a day.

Today, the average full-time working woman in Puerto Rico has outpaced men in earnings growth, with median earnings of $20,563, compared with $19,906 for her male counterpart, according to 2010 Census data. However, Puerto Rico's working women and men still trailed far behind their counterparts in all 50 states in terms of median income. The national earnings average for all working women in the States was $35,549 a year, compared with $45,485 for men.

Despite having a higher level of education as a whole, Puerto Rico women still occupy a lower percentage of executive and administrative positions compared with their male counterparts (53% male versus 47% female). Looked at in a longitudinal context, however, clear progress has been made by women on the professional front as only 14.4% held educated, professional positions in 1970 compared with 29.3% in 2010, according to statistics from the Puerto Rico Labor Department. Similarly, 5.6% of management positions were held by women in 1970, compared with 11.2% in 2010.


"A woman could be a great worker, and that is fine," said Retention Strategies Managing Principal Bettye Baldwin, a human resources expert who established herself on the island in the early 1980s. "But to become la jefa, la dueña, es otra cosa [the boss, the owner, that's another thing]. If you look at Puerto Rico now, you will find women in key positions in business. The head of the Insurance Commission [Insurance Commissioner's Office] is a woman, the head of the Puerto Rico Manufacturers Association is a woman and the head of the Treasury Department is a woman. If you looked at the 1980s, look at the women in those positions who weren't there. I know that we aren't near where we should be. I think that what's happening now is a trend. I think we are breaking through what is called the glass ceiling, and moving up."

Baldwin knows it isn't easy to break the ceiling and reach the top management positions, but education and "focus" make a big difference in business, whether it is in finance, manufacturing, technology or the law, she said. "Originally that glass ceiling was five inches thick, but today, it's an inch thick. It's still very difficult, but not as difficult as it used to be."

Marina Díaz, CEO & president of Salus Wellness Clinic in Bayamón and the first local administrator of the First Panamerican Hospital, said many women have chosen professions in the healthcare industry, but historically in supporting roles, such as nursing. During the past 30 years, however, more women have played key roles, such as administrators and doctors, she said. "The [healthcare] industry has made space for women to assume leadership positions, but it's not easy. It requires a great deal of focus and a lot of mental health. We are always on watch to do things three times better," she said. "As women executives, we have to stand out and demonstrate our capacities."

In the business world, the idea that men are more effective and "available" than women is still prevalent, Díaz said. "Men don't have as many tasks at home as women do, so that notion still exists," but it is women's multiple roles that give them strength and make them good leaders, she argued. "We are making progress in these areas. Some men are free from those ideas. These men are well-centered, focused on efficiency and understand the value that women contribute to the workplace," she said.

Baldwin said another important factor is that men primarily still have the power to hire and decide who receives promotions. That is why, she said, female executives have a responsibility to help other women who are qualified and have a proven track record. "As a female executive and female businessowner, it's my job to bring along women if I can. I would never promote a woman over a man if a man is more qualified, but I will if she has better qualifications," she said.

The human resources expert illustrates her point with a personal story. "When I opened my first business in Puerto Rico, in partnership with a U.S company, the U.S. firm wanted to find a local accounting firm, a major firm. When I met the manager of a major firm here, I told him, 'I need an accountant, but I can't afford your fees because your firm is too big and I have a baby business.' He told me, 'Well, some people left their phone numbers,' and when he showed me, all three were men. I told him, 'I really appreciate this, but as a female businessperson, I want to give business to women. I won't hire a woman who isn't qualified, but if you happen to know a woman who is equally qualified as these three men, I would love to have the name.' So he goes out to his secretary and they come with a name, a woman. This female accountant became my CPA for the next 20 years. So the issue is that if it wasn't a woman looking for a woman, this would never have happened," Baldwin pointed out.


Terence Ryan, president of Ryan Executive Search & Outplacement, said there is no doubt about women's contribution to the workforce. "Never underestimate the power of a woman. When you need a man to do a job, hire a woman," he said. "Nowadays you see more and more women in the workforce. The new general manager at Google is a woman and Hewlett-Packard's new president is a woman. The list goes on. Here in Puerto Rico, the one who has run Sprint International for 15 years is a woman, Patricia Eaves."

When asked to describe working women, the headhunter was quick to point out that most are hard workers. "Women generally don't take social Fridays. Women are more punctual, more responsible. They don't like to take memos; they don't like to be reprimanded. They know they have to give their best, they have to work more and have the same or more capabilities as men," Ryan said.

Many women multitask, as their work doesn't stop when they are home, he pointed out. "If you think about it, you realize women have to work more than men because when they get home, they have to cook, take care of the children, help them to study and clean the house. They have to be professionals, they have to be mothers, they have to be babysitters and they have to be the disciplinarian," he said.

Ryan believes women work better in certain positions than men do. "Look at telemarketing and banking, you can see how much better they work in those fields. There is also a growing number of female mechanical engineers, electrical engineers and civil engineers working in the construction sector," Ryan said.

And that's not all. "One day, soon, we will have a woman president, it wouldn't take me by surprise. Look at the president of Brazil [Dilma Rousseff], who is a woman, Argentina's president [Cristina Fernández], the former Chilean president [Michelle Bachellet]; you see, even the Latinos have changed that sexist macho mentality.

Recent Gallup Polls in nine South American countries indicate that the growing presence of women in the workforce is fostering a shift in gender- role attitudes beyond machismo. The surveys found that on average, 69% of men and 84% of women agreed that it is easier for women than men to juggle the demands of work and family, and that women should manage a household's finances. An average of 78% working men and 80% of working women were also confident that their opinions mattered at work. While Gallup said "strict gender roles" persist in many South American countries, such as the problem of domestic violence and big gender-wage gaps, more and more people "appear accepting of women in positions of power."

Ryan said his experience is that women study more and are more assertive than men. "I was searching for a logistics manager. From 10 candidates I interviewed, seven were women and three were men. The seven women were more assertive and outspoken, while the three men were so shy, none of them had the education level and communication skills of the women," he said. Ryan hired a woman for the position.

Ryan said he is an example of someone who grew up in a home where his mother was the main breadwinner. "My mother [Evelyn Ryan, founder of Ryan Executive Search] earned more than my father. Mom was the president and owner of the business. Dad helped, but the one who ruled was my mother. That's why I had a good lesson. Mom built this place and I became her associate. Now, this doesn't mean that my mother was better than my father was. However, she was more ambitious, more courageous, more driven and had more perspectives. We were seven children, and she wanted all of us to study at private school. She really worked hard," he proudly said.


Statistics from the local Labor Department show that most working women in Puerto Rico occupy educated, white-collar positions. Of the 508,000 working women in 2010, about 149,000 worked as "professionals," representing 29.3%, while another 146,000 women were "office workers," representing 28.7%. About 38,000 women, representing 6.8%, were self-employed as entrepreneurs.

In terms of administrator and management positions, 57,000 women occupied these posts in 2010, representing 11.2%.

Moreover, an estimated 74.4% of working women today have at least a high-school diploma and one year of college.

Most working women are employed full time, but 38% work part time, clocking in less than 35 hours a week.

By comparison, in 1970, of the 215,000 working women on the island, 31,000 were professionals, representing 14.4%; 46,000 were office workers, representing 21.4%; and only 12,000 were management positions, representing 5.6%. Forty years ago, only 21.4% of working women in Puerto Rico had a high-school degree and at least one year of college.

In terms of industries, the top three that employed women in 2010 were services, with 173,000 workers, representing 34%; followed by public administration, with 143,000 positions, representing 28.1%; and commerce, with 108,000 women, representing 21.2%.

In 1970, most working women in Puerto Rico were employed in manufacturing (28.4%), services (26%) and public administration (22.8%).

Today, about 50% of all working women on the island have annual incomes of $10,000 to $20,000, while 42% of working men fall within that range, according to Census figures. While the median salary for women is now higher than that of men's, for those earning more than $30,000 a year, the difference is quite evident. About 24% of working men belong in this category, compared with 15% of women.

For high earners of more than $75,000 a year, 4.1% of men are top earners, compared with 1.6% of women.

Baldwin doesn't believe salaries are gender-based, but rather, the positions. "Higher salaried positions are more male-dominated than the lower ones," she said, referring to partners in law firms, as well as company presidents, CEOs and top management. "When you work for a major company, they don't look at your gender and decide your pay. It's more that women are at the lower echelons in the business. So, if a woman is a CEO, a head of a business, she will make as much as a male CEO. The problem is when you go down the organization, and there you will find more women than men in the lower levels," she said.

Using a manufacturing plant as an example, Baldwin said that when going out on the floor, or piso, one would see women all around. "Those women are making probably a little bit more than minimum wage. So you see, the average salaries for women in that plant would involve 200 women on the factory fl oor, making low wages, versus the average salaries for men involving 100 who are in higher positions and making higher wages."


Baldwin is optimistic that women today are more aware of what it takes to succeed. "If you look at the tendencies, women understand what they need to do to be integrated into the workforce, to be a success and to lead a business. In the past it was, 'I sell baby dresses, and all I'm going to do is sell baby dresses.' Women today are different. Now they ask, 'How much does that baby dress sell for? How much do we make an hour? How many workers do I need? Where's my market? Where can I sell them?'" she said.

Women today aren't just focused on doing their jobs, they are also expanding their business horizons and understanding that their jobs contribute to a business' growth, Baldwin added. "Now women have a vision, and all this is based on having the right mind, the right education and being at the right place at the right time."

As part of that greater self-awareness, women are also more aware of their value as workers and becoming more assertive in the workplace, she noted. "We must ask for things, as when a businesswoman says, 'I am worth this and if you aren't going to pay, I am going somewhere else.' Women don't tend to do that…when a woman graduates from college, she starts at a lower rate than a man, and to close that gap during the next 25 to 30 years isn't easy," Baldwin said.

As a result, she believes women must let their voices be heard in the workplace and "lean in," as the recent book by Sheryl Sandberg, advises. "Most women don't understand their own value; they don't ask and they don't dare say, 'I think we should do this, I think we should move in this direction,'" Baldwin affirmed.

In the end, women uniting in the workplace is the key to success and breaking the glass ceiling, she said. In other words, it's more than just leaning in—it's also about leaning on each other, Baldwin said. "Women must work together as a group, networking, communicating their problems and looking for female mentors who are willing to spend time and help other women grow," she said.

Díaz recalled that when she first attended a meeting as an executive, she was the only woman present and was expected to take notes. No longer. "I learned I had to participate in a more proactive way. A title doesn't give you authority, it's your ability to bring ideas that work. We have to work every day to gain the credibility granted to a man. As a hospital administrator, I had to be very assertive and contribute to the decision-making process," she said.

It was a man who gave Díaz the opportunity to prove herself. "I was applying for a position in the marketing department and frankly, I wanted something light. He gave me the opportunity to be the administrator of the Panamerican Hospital.… Not even I would have given that opportunity to a young woman who had just graduated [from college]…. Everyone told him he was nuts, but he believed a woman has the right touch to go with the hospital's vision," she said.

Certainly, the healthcare industry today isn't what it was 30 years ago. "We are living in interesting times where women have more leadership positions. There are more women administrators and women doctors. Gone are the days when it was a male doctor surrounded by female nurses. It's not like that anymore," Díaz said.

Weaving a legacy

The beginnings of a female working class in Puerto Rico can be traced to the birth of the garment industry in the first decades of the 20th century.

The needle-thread industry began to grow after World War I, with the 1920 U.S. Census reporting 16,000 cotton-garment workers in Puerto Rico. This number grew to 40,000 workers in the 1930 Census, and eventually reached its peak of about 100,000 workers in the late 1930s.

The great majority of these female workers didn't ply their trade in factories, but rather in their own homes. Census data indicate that more than 75% of them worked from home, where they received commissions of less than $1 a day.

Most Puerto Ricans at that time were also illiterate, and documents from Puerto Rico's Education commissioner indicated that 70% of the island's rural population in 1934 didn't have any schooling at all; lived in extreme poverty, without sewers, hygiene controls or health services; and the majority were very young mothers.

According to research conducted by feminist scholars Lydia Milagros González and María del Carmen Baerga-Santini, the garment industry's first incarnation meant a history of excessive workloads, insufficient salaries, shortages, subhuman conditions and hardship.

Baerga-Santini said needlework was part of the curriculum in public schools and that between 1909 and 1926, about 26,277 girls learned the trade in the classroom. The skills were then passed on informally to the students' female friends and relatives.

From these trained and skilled fingers, high-quality products were made that could compete internationally. According to U.S. National Recovery Administration records, in the 1930s, the products fashioned by the local needlework industry were commonly sold to East Coast department stores, and were favorably compared with other countries better known for the craft, such as France.

Nonetheless, along with these accomplishments, there also was a price to pay. Few women in the needle trade had their own sewing machines, so many had to borrow one or work with a selling agent. The tools of the trade also weren't designed with ergonomics in mind, and the long hours added to workers' pains.

Documents from the 1930s revealed how a woman from Aguadilla delivered three-dozen units for a payment of $1.05. Each unit had special embroidery and included "three small fl owers, 18 small leaves and three stitches." The work took 36 hours to complete.

Even with all their skills, the work of these women wasn't considered skilled, which the garment industry perpetuated to pay lower salaries and benefits to their women employees.


The needle trade at the time was described as a "free home industry" or an "artistic gift." As a result, when women in the 1930s started to organize for a minimum wage, the judicial system and the executive office decided the needle trade wasn't salaried work and therefore not protected by the local Time & Wages Act.

The authorities believed that since women could work where they wanted, set their own schedules, receive assistance from other members of the family and perform their jobs without interrupting other household chores, as needle-trade workers, they didn't require a skilled worker's pay.

But the women weren't powerless. La Democracia newspaper reported in 1934 that women needle workers in Ponce went on strike to protest fixed salaries that were set at a minimum of $1.50 a day and a maximum of $3.50 a day.

Women's roles in the workforce started expanding when Puerto Rico began to industrialize through Operation Bootstrap in the 1950s.

Up to then, aside from needlework, there were few other options for working women. Among the jobs open, women could work as schoolteachers, store clerks, telephone operators and tobacco workers. In the latter line of work, male tobacco laborers originally opposed women's entrance into the profession.

When Puerto Rican workers migrated in large number to New York in the 1940s and 1950s, many workers in that state's garment industry were from the island.


Anthropologist Helen Icken Safa said Operation Bootstrap went through three stages: modernization of existing industries; creation of local capital; and development of industry through technology.

This development benefited women in the garment industry— they began to work under better conditions and were recognized as skilled laborers. This niche for working women lasted until the early 1980s. Industrialization not only led to improvements of the needle trade, but also opened more choices to women.

Industrialization grew from 10.9% in the early 1950s to 31% of the economy by the mid-1950s. At the same time, agriculture was in decline, dropping from 44% of the able-bodied population to 5.2%. At the same time, the island experienced a migratory wave of 605,550 who moved to the U.S. mainland over a 20-year period (or 27.4% of the 1950 population). Women who remained took on more roles in the local economy; many were absorbed by the food-processing industry, manufactured products for export, and later worked in commerce and public administration.

According to statistics from the Puerto Rico Labor & Human Resources Department, women's labor participation initially dropped from 30.1% to 20% from 1950 to 1960 (due to the migratory wave), but continued to grow thereafter, reaching 38% by the 2000s.

From the 1960s to the present, women's participation in the labor force came into full force. They also started to become more competitive through education. In the 1970s, 22% of women had an elementaryschool education, 15% junior high, 39% high school and 39% had one or more years of college. Two decades later, 56% of women had some higher education. By 2009, 73% of female workers had at least one year of college education, 22% went to high school and just 4% had an elementary or junior-high school education. Meanwhile, 45% of the men received some college education during the same period.

In those years, women as head of households grew from 17% of the population in the 1970s to 40% today. In occupational terms, by 1970, 36% of female employees were in professional and office jobs, 27% worked in factories, and 6% were employed in management and administrative positions. By the first decade of the 21st century, women in professional and office jobs reached 58%, while those in management comprised 5.6%.

Researcher Blane McLane contributed to this report.

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