A man’s job?

Bolivian women in construction work are challenging the norm.

It has been suggested that the concentration of women in certain occupations reflects their own preferences, which in turn stems from the belief that these occupations are compatible with traditional gender roles and socialisation processes that predispose them towards certain types of jobs. Is this entirely true? What happens if and when women seek occupations which are predominantly “male”? In Bolivia, there has been an increase of women employed in construction work in recent years. Most of them have switched from domestic work to this higher risk and physically intensive yet better-paid type of work. However, it has not been a smooth transition as they have been faced with wage discrimination and fierce resistance from their male counterparts expressed through sexual harassment and denigration on the basis of traditional gender stereotypes.

Occupational segregation is the distribution of people, most often on the basis of gender, across and within different types of occupations. Much scholarly work has been devoted towards attempting to explain how and why it occurs, but mainly with evidence from labour markets in the Global North. In these contexts, labour markets exhibit high degrees of formality, which essentially entails the possibility of greater government intervention and, in some cases, better working conditions. In Bolivia, 75% of the labour market is informal, which makes occupational segregation more difficult to measure and analyse. In the case of the domestic and construction sectors, these are some of the most segregated along the lines of both gender and ethnicity. Domestic work in Bolivia has been traditionally overrepresented by indigenous women who, for decades, have faced poor working conditions such as long hours, low wages and generally lack access to social protection and support schemes. The same applies for construction work, a sector which for decades has concentrated underpaid and over-exploited indigenous manpower. These forms of precarious labour are some of the colonial remnants in present-day Bolivia.

Despite governmental efforts to improve working conditions for domestic workers, salaries remain low, whilst the construction sector has been booming in recent years attracting more workers through higher wages and greater flexibility as workers are paid on a daily basis and are not “tied-down” on a long-term basis, as is the case with domestic work. Thus, there has been a “tipping-in” of former “domésticas” into the construction sector as it allows for immediate returns and greater independence through the possibility to leave or switch jobs swiftly avoiding the need to wait until the end of the month for the final payment. Also, in the domestic sector, it is common for employers to both withhold and/or deduct portions of the employee’s monthly salary if she decides to quit. The new legislation provides effective complaint mechanisms whereby domestic workers can ensure their working rights and domestic worker trade unions have increased their strength with the presidency of Evo Morales. However, there is no effective implementation of these laws coupled with a general lack of awareness among domestic workers as to their rights. Construction work, on the other hand, is more impersonal, allowing for greater emotional detachment from the work itself. Domestic work is an emotionally consuming and draining occupation, its value continues to be underestimated in most societies, particularly those, like Bolivia, with a colonial history of exploitation on the basis of race and priming an ideology of white supremacy. Indigenous women have not only been discriminated on the basis of their skin colour but due to the intersection of it with their employment in “low-skilled” jobs involving cooking, cleaning and caring for others. It is interesting to analyse how these job typologies work, and a serious reconsideration of how we both view and classify such occupations, which are crucial for the reproduction and the well-being of society, is necessary.

The construction sector also has its disadvantages, of course, after all, we are talking about physically intensive and high-risk work, especially in a context like the Bolivian where worker safety is practically non-existent. Job instability is a constant. For this reason, household surveys do not adequately capture the exact percentage of the population employed in this sector. Most construction workers do not self-define as such, but rather as “cuenta propia” or independent worker. They will work on construction a couple of days or weeks, if that income is not enough they will supplement it with other small jobs here and there. These flexible arrangements exempt employers the obligation of covering social benefits, this is up to the workers themselves. It is also easier for independent workers to evade taxes, as most are informal.

The construction boom (or bubble?) in Bolivia has allowed for daily wages of between $US 20- 30. Women still earn less: around $US 14 daily, this is justified on the basis that they are mainly engaged with interior finishing rather than the structural work, however, they still earn less than their male counterparts performing the same tasks. In their attempt to earn higher wages by accessing the heavier structural work, they generally are either excluded on the grounds of their “natural” lack of physical strength, thus, if and when they are able to engage in heavier and better-paid work, they are not remunerated accordingly on the grounds that they cannot perform the tasks as quick and effectively as their male counterparts. Furthermore, women construction workers are victims of sexual harassment on the job. As these issues have become ever more widespread, women have united and founded the first union of women construction workers: “Asociación de Mujeres Constructoras” (ASOMUC), lead by Elisavet Ticona who recently has received much international attention in the international media. This small yet important initiative is paving way for many sought-after aims to dismantle occupational segregation as well as overall labour precarity. ASOMUC has managed to offer health insurance for their members, combat the issues of sexual harassment and unequal pay, and, more recently, dismantle horizontal discrimination as they seek to demand access to managerial positions.

Bolivia has a strong and longstanding tradition of unionisation; the Central Worker´s Union (“Central Obrera Boliviana”) has played a key role, throughout Bolivian history, fiercely blocking political decisions and military coups. Bolivians negotiate, perform and demand their citizenship rights collectively. This is evident, for example, in events such as the Water Wars (1999-2000), the gas conflict (2003), as well as less-known collective formats of community justice which essentially entail vigilantism. It is, therefore, no surprise that women construction workers have continued along this tradition and sought to fight the occupational segregation they face through unionisation. Whether or not they will be successful remains to be seen. At present, labour is not scarce in the construction sector and by demanding higher wages women risk losing their competitive edge. In such an informal and unstable type of work, what alternatives do they have? If they demand better legislation and governmental involvement, several of the features of this sector will lose their initial appeal. However, greater government intervention, if effective, could potentially turn this precarious labour into a safer, well-paid profession with social insurance. In this regard, women, as the underdogs, and in line with countless other examples throughout history, could pave the way towards improving working conditions for an entire sector, regardless of gender.

Is this wishful thinking? – perhaps, but even in the likely scenario where the current growth in the real-estate sector eventually slows down and women become more competitive they will have greater leverage in negotiating to improve their working conditions. One way or the other, construction work in Bolivia will never be the same. Through women´s penetration into construction work – traditionally a “man’s” job – they have challenged and destructed crucial tenets of dominant gender ideologies which, for centuries, have gender-typed occupations. Their efforts represent a valuable example to follow for both women and men around the world, employed in any type of job, that gender ideologies must not determine the types of jobs people do, how much they earn and how high up the ladder they can and wish to climb.

Maria Jose Oomen Liebers

María José is an interdisciplinary social science researcher. She holds an MPhil in Social Anthropology from the University of Cambridge and an MSc in Public Policy and Human Development with a focus in Migration Studies from the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and UNU-Merit (the Netherlands). In the past, she has worked for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), covering a range of topics such as women’s labour conditions in urban areas, south-south migration flows in the regions of Africa, the Pacific and the Caribbean, post-disaster recovery and the role of women, and strategies for upward social mobility among middle-income population strata. Currently, she holds a research position at the Institute of Criminology of the University of Cambridge, supporting the set-up of a planned multi-site longitudinal study exploring violence against children.
    2 Comments on this post.
  • Avatar
    Defying Gender Roles
    8 December 2016 at 2:59 pm
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    @EmmaWatson they are. It is one of the few countries in Lac where women work in construction. Also has 50/50 law in politics.

  • Avatar
    8 December 2016 at 7:22 pm
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    Well done. I only have one observation: also in the Neths. there is a rather strong trend where women are participating in physically more heavy work-jobs. There seems to be a link with more participants in the labour market by women from Estearn European countries like Poland, Bulgary etc., where women are used to work in the rural areas, mainly farms and agroindustry, where heavy physical work is usual.

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