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Forbes: Women in Jamaica

By Marcia Forbes, PhD
CJ Contributor

International Women’s Day was celebrated on March 8. Many will argue that every day is women’s day, especially in a country like Jamaica, where women make up at least 70 percent of university graduates and occupy many middle and top-level jobs. Some, like The Independent, a UK newspaper, will even argue that a country like Jamaica is in one respect the “best place for women,” since, according to them, women occupy a very large percentage of “high-skilled jobs” – 60 percent.  But before we get ahead of ourselves, let us pause for a reality check.

First, let us examine the rather sensational story out of the UK that had talk shows and local newspapers in Jamaica repeating the statistic and some even believing it to be true. I was not alone in writing to The Independent for clarification. What did they define as “high-skilled jobs?” How many such jobs were included in their sample? Was that sample representative of the jobs in that category? With which countries did they compare Jamaica? There are many, many more questions regarding that story. Since posting my questions, I have been unable to access the comments section at the end of the story. Before that though, I noticed questions from people in many other parts of the world challenging The Independent’s report.

All of us in Jamaica would like to believe that our country is the best place for women who want high-skilled jobs to live. However, our day-to-day realities reveal the lie of the report. We know Jamaica to be like an iceberg when it comes to women and jobs. The highly visible tiny tip, beautiful to behold in sunlight, is comprised of a few women with “good jobs.” The remainder of the visible iceberg represents women in jobs that allow them to eke out an existence.

The bulk of the iceberg lies beneath, invisible and in icy cold water, like the bulk of Jamaican women – hidden and without jobs. Female unemployment levels continue to be significantly higher than males, despite the much-touted university education that women “enjoy.” Poverty stalks females like the shadow of death. Domestic and sexual violence against women continue unabated. Still, there is no gainsaying the fact that women have made strides in some areas. The challenge is really one of balance.

Women’s strides are used to decry arguments for further progress. “Look how much women have, why they want more?” is a constant charge, moreso than a question. Let us get back to the reality check. Women make up 51 percent of the population of Jamaica, more than half, yet when we examine where the real seat of power lies and how women fare, we see a skewed representation of men, not only in boardrooms, but in government.

Recently, a Jamaican newspaper reported that women comprise only 17 percent of the boardroom directors of publicly-listed companies, that is, those on the Stock Market. This represents a mere 1 percent growth over about five years. Women make up 24 percent, less than a quarter, of the 25 Government boards recently announced. We await the naming of the remaining more than 100 boards; but 24 percent is an inauspicious start.

In Jamaica, women are a miniscule 13 percent of elected parliamentarians. Yes, there is a female Prime Minister, but 87 percent of her parliamentary colleagues are men. Yes, 21 percent of the present cabinet are women, but let us examine the portfolio responsibilities.

Many of those held by female ministers are not only described by some as “soft” but have also been split up in a way that some will argue is little more than “window-dressing’”being displayed as gender balance. What many see as the big and important Cabinet portfolios are still held by men. Patriarchy is deeply entrenched and difficult to uproot. Even women pay homage to it. Yet still, Prime Minister Simpson Miller is to be commended for pushing the inclusion of women in her Cabinet and for moving it to a level never before seen.  Symbolism is important. And who is to say that this might not just be the thin edge of the wedge.

Let’s not fool ourselves though; Jamaica is not alone in its denial of women’s basis human rights for equal participation at critical decision-making levels. Only days ago, the European Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, Viviane Reding, expressed grave disappointment at the lack of progress in self-regulatory measures by companies in the European Union to increase the number of women on their boards. She is now contemplating quotas, since, as she says, based on the pace at which things are moving, it will take 40 years for gender equity in boardrooms across the European Union.

The smart economics of having women on boards and in key decision-making positions has been recognized and publicized by several different organizations worldwide. The World Bank’s 2012 Report notes that countries that fail to empower women “will suffer lower productivity, slower economic growth and weaker development outcomes.” The McKinsey Study (2010) coming out of the work done by former Minister of Trade, Investment and Small Business in the UK, Lord Davies, found that companies with the most women on their boards significantly and consistently outperformed those with no female representation. Here are two key findings regarding companies with more women on their boards. They have:

1)     66 percent  higher return on invested capital

2)     56 percent higher operating profit.

Not only is it their basic human right, but it also makes good business sense to include women in key decision-making positions. The 51 Percent Coalition – Development and Empowerment through Equity, recently trained a group of 50 women who are willing and competent to sit in boardrooms across Jamaica. This adds to the cadre of about 100 women who were previously trained by the Women Resource Outreach Centre. The Private Sector Organization of Jamaica and the Women Business Owners of Jamaica have also trained women for these responsibilities. Arguments that women are unwilling or incapable of holding their own at any table, whether in the Cabinet, board room or elsewhere cannot be substantiated. Without gender equity, there always be the need for a Women’s Day.

Dr Marcia Forbes is a media specialist, the co-owner of multimedia production company Phase 3 Productions Ltd and former Permanent Secretary in Jamaica’s Ministry of Mining and Telecommunications and later the Ministry of Energy and Mining. She is the author of Music, Media & Adolescent Sexuality in Jamaica and the upcoming Streaming: Social Media, Mobile Lifestyles.

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