Caribbean Economy & Business Politics & Diplomacy Women

New Atlanticist

March 29, 2024

Gender equality can drive economic development in the Caribbean

By Wazim Mowla

Caribbean governments and business leaders are searching for new ways to stimulate long-term and sustainable economic growth. The Caribbean is among the world’s most vulnerable regions, affected by climate change and volatile commodity prices. Since most countries in the Caribbean have a population under a million, it takes an all-hands-on-deck effort to overcome these challenges and advance economic prosperity.

A major obstacle is that the Caribbean’s development model does not yet utilize the full extent of its human capital. Too often, women are not part of the Caribbean’s current development equation, with gender disparities limiting economic opportunities for women and thus holding back economic growth across the region. As Caribbean countries navigate the global financial landscape, governments should look at how increasing economic empowerment opportunities for women can be a new development tool for the region.

What would development in the Caribbean look like if every bit of the population’s potential was realized?

Caribbean countries face a host of economic challenges. The region houses small market and import-dependent economies that rely on tourism to drive economic growth. Strong tropical storms, global inflation, and supply chain constraints all have adverse effects on Caribbean economies. Often, as countries import goods and services at high prices, the cost is passed down to the consumer. At the same time, the region has a relatively small population compared to its neighbors in Latin America. This means that capacity is a barrier to economic growth. Simply put, there are not enough people in the region, and by extension, not enough technical expertise and businesses to carry out needed functions that stimulate growth and drive innovation.

But the Caribbean’s small populations are even smaller given that fewer women than men are in the workforce. In many Caribbean countries, female participation in the labor force is around 60 percent, and in some nations it’s closer to 40 percent, according to the World Bank. Compare this with male labor force participation, which often approaches or surpasses 80 percent. The gap is further amplified when taking into account the region’s human capital constraints. While the gap for Caribbean countries is smaller than their neighbors in Latin America, the estimated 20 percent difference has an outsized effect on the region’s economic potential. Tens of thousands of new workers in countries with populations below a million can significantly boost economic prospects. Further, since the Caribbean experiences above-average brain drain and many countries such as Guyana, Jamaica, and Barbados have trouble filling skills gaps, it begs the question: What would development in the Caribbean look like if every bit of the population’s potential was realized?

For more women to participate in the workforce, the root causes need to be addressed. First, despite high educational attainment for women—relative to men—this does not always translate into job opportunities. A new Atlantic Council report looks at educational attainment, measured as a percentage of adults who have completed at least primary education. In Belize, Guyana, Jamaica, and Saint Lucia, educational attainment ranges from just under 80 percent to about 86 percent for women, whereas for men it hovers between 74 percent and 81 percent. Yet workforce participation for women remains lower than for men. Second, when women do enter the workforce, there is a significant wage gap. In Jamaica, women earn about 83 percent of their male counterparts and 88 percent in Barbados. Finally, women are often expected to be home and child caretakers—a responsibility that is unpaid but places an inequitable burden on them relative to men. Unpaid work is a significant barrier to entry for women in the workforce, as offloading these responsibilities comes with expenses that can be covered only by women of a higher income bracket.

Fortunately, Caribbean countries have partners—such as outside nations and international institutions—that can support work on gender equality and economic empowerment. To be sure, Caribbean countries have made progress in gender equality, such as facilitating increases in political participation for women. But the structural barriers facing gender equity are partially a result of the region’s economic makeup, and they require more than just national attention to overcome.

Here, Caribbean countries and their partners should consider undertaking two policy initiatives. First, the focus should be on making it easier for women to enter the workforce while also making the workforce more equitable for them. Women aiming to start new businesses need access to finance mechanisms that are tailored to the realities they face. Many women in the Caribbean do not have a credit history, making it difficult for them to take out loans. If they can access loans, they are usually at high interest rates, meaning that businesses that take longer to return profits can put women-owned enterprises in severe debt. To address these issues, development banks should work with governments to create grant-to-loan mechanisms for women-owned start-ups. Metrics and monitoring mechanisms can be put in place where businesses that return medium-to-high profits over a certain period have their grants turned to low-interest loans. But Caribbean governments cannot afford these mechanisms if they themselves cannot access financing, meaning that a pool of resources from, for example, the World Bank and the Canadian government should help subsidize these costs. 

Second, at a regional level, Caribbean governments should work with partners to create an incubator program for women in the workforce. Success in business, particularly in the private sector, takes more than capital. Time and professional networks are important but are hard to come by for women taking most of the household and childcare burden. An incubator program can help women be part of an active peer-to-peer network that understands their realities. Such a program can help provide access to resources and institutions that ease many of the challenges women face. Many countries have existing women’s chambers or networks, but a region-wide effort would allow for members to share best practices and potentially, resources.

With Caribbean countries facing economic headwinds, governments need the active participation of all their citizens. Women and girls should be the first and immediate resource utilized. But doing so requires ensuring that their participation does not come at an adverse socioeconomic cost. Providing them the same opportunities as men and amplifying their empowerment can be the key to a new development tool in the Caribbean.

Wazim Mowla is the associate director & fellow of the Caribbean Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.

This article is part of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center’s partnership with the UN Women Multi-Country Office–Caribbean.

Further reading

Image: People walk on a street at the Half Way Tree neighborhood in Kingston, Jamaica March 22, 2023. REUTERS/Eric Cox