Women’s Work: Why Gender Equality in Cuba Matters to US

image: Emilia Fernández

As we travel back and forth to Cuba, often with delegations of U.S. policymakers, we focus our research and reporting on issues that the broader American public can relate to, that can help us strip away mysteries surrounding Cuba, and press our case for changing Cuba policy and normalizing relations.

That’s the goal behind our report, “Women’s Work: Gender Equality in Cuba and the Role of Women Building Cuba’s Future,” that we release this week in time for International Women’s Day.

Rather than making the false choice common to narratives about Cuba –everything is either paradise or lying in ruins – our report depicts just how complicated this problem is, by being honest about the successes and failures of Cuba’s revolutionary commitment to equality for women. 

It begins with the findings of global organizations, from Save the Children to the World Economic Forum, which give Cuba high marks for making all its citizens healthier and more literate, bringing girls out of their homes and into the classroom, tripling the number of women at work, and providing the strongest protections of reproductive rights and producing the lowest incidence of HIV/AIDS in all of Latin America.

But these numbers don’t tell the whole story.  There are key objectives of equality– equality at work, equal sharing of burdens at home, and equal access to positions in which women can exercise real power –where Cuba falls short.

Women still constitute just 38.1% of Cubans who work.  Women may hold the majority of graduate degrees in the workforce, but occupy just more than one-third of executive positions.   When they get home, women work a double-shift, spending on-average 34 hours each week doing housework, compared to just twelve contributed by men.  Even more striking: despite having equal rights to paternity leave, just 18 men in all of Cuba exercised their option to be a stay-at-home dad, according to a UN report issued in 2009. 

Problems like these were brought home to us with vivid clarity during dozens of conversations with Cuban women about their lives, gripes, and aspirations for the future. 

They spoke of a Cuban reality that is not easy.  As one woman said:

“If you’re a secretary, there is no computer; you have to write by hand. If you’re a stylist, there are no supplies and you have to go searching. The bus doesn’t show up and you need to walk miles or spend your lunch money on a taxi. After a long day at work you arrive home, and sometimes there’s no electricity or you have to climb up to the roof to fix the water tank to take a shower. Many times there’s not money for food, and you have to invent some crazy combination of food. Things are difficult. Machismo still exists and many women are expected to sacrifice at work and at home. It’s an uphill battle.”

Mimi, a scholar, reminded us that sexism and machismo in contemporary Cuban life still act as brakes on women’s progress.

I’ve had the sad experience of a male boss telling me ‘Hey - don’t even think about having a baby, because you’re going to throw your career out the window. Don’t have a baby and don’t get married.’ The culture is still very machista.”

Even as women count on more progress being made, they worry about decisions being taken by Cuba’s government to repair its economy. In the past, economic crises, like the Special Period, caused rollbacks in their gains. What happens now when state jobs – which are women’s jobs – are cut and resources that fuel the engine of women’s advancement, health and education, are reallocated?

As Norma Vasallo of the University of Havana told CDA, “The current 'updating' of the economic model in the country could have repercussions on the development that women have achieved.”

What is Cuba’s choice? The research shows clearly that the same policies that create greater gender equality also produce greater economic growth and better governance.  This means the best way forward is expanding not curtailing the roles that women can play in building Cuba’s future.

Many are already at work doing it.  Listen to what Barbara said about her transition from a state job to selling clothing and shoes in Cuba’s new private sector:

"More than anything, the benefit of being a cuentapropista is the ability to manage your own decisions. I can decide how to invest, what hours to work, whether I want to offer specials and other decisions regarding how to manage the business. In other words, I'm my own boss and I suffer the consequences, but also reap the benefits of my decisions…I've been able to save a little money, invest in fixing up my house, buy my daughter what she needs and put food on the table. In the end, I'm a more independent woman."

Barbara’s words about independence and self-reliance should be music to U.S. policymakers’ ears.  These are, after all, the goals of U.S. policy.  To the contrary, the Obama administration does not offer Cuban entrepreneurs, men or women, the chance to join any of its initiatives that support women and small businesses in Latin America or globally.   It’s as if Barbara and thousands of women like her across Cuba don’t really exist.

The story need not end here.  Our report concludes with specific policy actions we believe our government should take to support gender equality and economic reform.  Engagement on this issue would be good for Cuban women, in line with the humanitarian goals of U.S. policy, and help our relationship to the region, if we’re viewed as wanting Cuban women to succeed.

You can learn more about the CDA report by visiting our website here.