• sandravedeld

Education and working women in Cambodia and Mexico

Originally written for Black Marketing, Singapore

Gender issues can be a difficult subject to address, especially in the workplace. Cambodia and Mexico both display strong inequality in the workplace, although in different ways - highlighting a variety of types of gender discrimination. While Cambodia had a 75% female labour force participation rate in 2018, Mexico only had 44% (World Bank). The high proportion of working women in Cambodia is however a legacy of prevalent conflicts in the 1970s giving women more responsibility in society as a whole, rather than changing mores. Just like Mexican women, Cambodian women are traditionally seen as housewives and mothers rather than career-focused individuals. Today however, both countries are experiencing interesting developments for women in the workplace, largely related to changing education systems.


Female breadwinners in Cambodia


Cambodian women are traditionally expected to be homemakers and to oversee their family’s finances once the paycheck gets home. The 1970s however revolutionalised women's role in society. Often referred to as “a country of widows”, Cambodia has a tragic legacy of years of war through the Khmer Rouge regime. Between 1975 and 1979, it has been estimated that 1,7 to 2 million Cambodians – or one quarter of the local population – died. More targeted by mass executions, men were the main victims of the conflict. The great number of casualties caused the proportion of men to shrink to dramatic levels: by the end of the conflict, women made up as much as two thirds of the Cambodian population, and were at the head of one in three households. The destruction was so significant that the country’s sex ratio has only recently relatively recovered.


The lack of working men brought about a more multifaceted role for women who had to get increasingly involved outside the household. Because of a lack of males to perform traditional duties such as providing for the family, many women turned to doing trade. Since the 1980s, it has become more and more normal for women to be the main breadwinners in the family, and today it is still frequent that in households where both husbands and wives work, the family subsists primarily on the woman’s income. However, despite women being important economic actors and influential within some business spheres, there is fear that women will be forced back into their traditional roles as the sex ratio goes back to normal.


Women increasingly at the head of households in Mexico


In Mexico, only a small proportion of high executive positions are held by women. Whether through social constraints or personal preferences, many women are pressured into or choose to take on the traditionally expected role of housemaker rather than climbing the corporate ladder.


Mexican culture values family as one of the most important things in a society, and women are seen as the unifying element within the household. In fact, female identity is closely linked to childbearing capacities as they play the essential role of caregiver and socialisation agent in the family. Mexican society has often been portrayed as typical examples of patriarchy where women hold relatively little power in the public sphere. Within the boundaries of the household however, they have an undeniably important and leading status within the boundaries.


Although there is a continuing problem of women not being promoted into executive positions, the number of households headed by women in Mexico has significantly increased over the last decades. These households typically consisted of women raising children without the support of fathers due to relationship instability. However, increasingly many women today - both single and married - refer to themselves as heads of households. In fact, female headship has changed from the traditional pattern of the single mother to women in all kinds of partnership situations. Although there are significant gender gaps within the labour force participation and earnings in Mexico, attitudes towards women in the public sphere are changing.


Education to boost women’s empowerment in the workplace


Equal access to basic education is not a given in many countries, but more girls than ever now go to school. Women increasingly learn to read and write, and each year that they remain in class following primary school reduces the probability of getting married at a very young age. Studies reveal that education overall increases women’s well being, employment prospects and health. A highly educated labour force is an essential factor in a country’s economic growth, and a low level of education has a distinct correlation with poverty.


Education in Cambodia is still limited. Both international and governmental efforts have worked to increase the number of schools, school enrolment and gender equality and parity; but due to a rooted hierarchical and patriarchal system, women have remained relegated behind men in education, as well as in formal employment and status. In fact, even though women are generally expected to manage household finances and have gained some ground as breadwinners; cultural norms prevent women from moving ahead in school.

The top-down approach to solve inequality has not been successful so far. There is nevertheless hope that changes will incur through a younger generation that lets go of some of the rooted ideas of gender roles and promotes education for all. Women might thus be able to increase their visibility in the public sphere.


In Mexico’s case, a different development can be observed. The gender gap in education has decreased substantially in later years, and girls and boys under 20 years do not display any major differences in education attainment. Increased access to family planning has improved women’s reproductive health, and a growing percentage of women finishing primary school has been associated with a decrease in fertility; giving more alternatives for women than being a traditional “wife and mother”. By reaching higher levels of education, women are gradually taking on greater economic responsibility for their families.


Despite progress in education for women around the world, as many as 48,1% of girls remain out of school globally, and things change differently in different countries. In fact, while women in Cambodia seem to have more influence than Mexican women in the labour force, things are changing, and not necessarily for the better. Reforms are not being made quickly enough for women in Cambodia, and with the sex ratio evening out, women are being pushed back into their traditional roles. In Mexico however, there is a constant progress in education, which will possibly help the country towards more equality as well as increased presence and power for women in the workplace.