Nov 13, 2012 -- Wage inequality for women in Latin America has shrunk to a rate nearly equal to that of the United States.
On average, women in Latin America earn 17 percent less than their male counterparts even though they are more educated, according to a recent study by the Inter-American Development Bank. Women in the United States earn roughly 18 percent less than men.
The gap in Latin America has fallen from 22 percent in 1992, but the disparity in earnings for women is shrinking more slowly. Researchers say more needs to be done -- especially because women attain higher levels of education than men.
"If females are going to more school than men, why is it that they are still earning less?" said Hugo Ñopo, author of the report.
The salary differential between men and women varies greatly from country to country across the Americas. Brazil, along with Chile, has some of the highest levels of inequality. However, Chile has also made some of the greatest gains. In 1996, women earned 52 percent less than men. Data from 2006 show women now earn 39 percent less.
Similarly, Mexico has seen wage inequality shrink from 18 percent in the mid-1990s to 12 percent in 2004.
Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua had the lowest levels of wage inequality between genders. In 1997, women in these Central American countries earned 8.9 percent less than men on average. By 2006, women earned 1.3 percent more than men.
According to Ñopo's research, there are two reasons that women generally earn less.
First, women still have "tons of household responsibilities." Their role in the home has not changed much and they continue to be accountable for unpaid work.
Child-rearing duties continue to fall on women, explained Ñopo."When a child gets sick, it's the female who stays at home and takes care of them," he said.
Because of their role in the home, women's careers are more likely to be interrupted and they risk missing out on promotions, he said. Women are also more likely to take more flexible jobs because of these interruptions. In Latin America, 25 percent of women work part time, compared to 10 percent of men.
Women are also more likely to become psychologists or teachers – careers tied to the social sciences that are not compensated in the same way as math-oriented fields, like science or engineering.
In his research, Ñopo found that the gap between men and women starts at a young age and can be found within the educational system of a country.
On a standardized test measuring 15-year-olds' math, science and reading performance, "Latin America is the area in the world where gender disparities are the worst," he said.
Although differences in pay are shrinking, experts like Ñopo say that more needs to be done. In early education, for example, Latin America has invested in enrolling more students in classes. That is only one of many steps researchers hope will one day close the gap altogether.