Andréa Novais

Andréa Novais

The Brazil Business


Women and business in Brazil

Andréa Novais

Andréa Novais

The Brazil Business


It is no secret that Brazilian women (or maybe I should say Latin American women), even though representing the majority of college graduates, still earn less than men and still have a hard time occupying management positions. This behavior towards businesswomen is historical and in this article I will try to explain where it comes from.

Women and factories

If we analyze the history of the United States, we will see that women went to work in the factories to supply the lack of male workforce caused by the two world wars. Once the husbands were back from war, they went back to their work in the factories and women were expected to return to the place society has imposed to them: the kitchen.

Of course it would not be so easy to send back to total submission these women who had now experienced financial independency, so consumerism came along and tried to make domestic life more attractive and sophisticated through the massive offer of appliances. This might have distracted women during a decade (in the 50’s), but was not enough to keep them numbed for life and the direct result of it was the Women’s Movement from the 60’s.

This is a very brief explanation of why women left their homes and went to the factories in the United States and how this change was crucial to their independence and recognition as American citizens. However, the same did not happen in Brazil: Brazil’s participation in both World Wars was minor and has caused no effective difference in the everyday life of its citizens. So what exactly has led Brazilian women to enter the market and increase the workforce?

Two different Histories

In Brazilian history, in general, the issue of race cannot be left aside as it has created two Brazilian histories going on at the same time: the history of the black and the history of the white. The history of the black permeates the traditional and consecrated history of Brazil and the same applies to the history of women. Before becoming an issue of gender, in which black and white women would claim the same rights, the paths that have led the two groups to claim the same rights are different.

I guess it is reasonable to say that black women’s work in Brazil was born in the informality. Peasants and former slaves who were trying to find their place in a new, urban society started to work as street vendors, selling food on the streets, especially candy and typically African foods.

It is, for example, the case of foods typically from Bahia state, such as bobó, acarajé, vatapá and caruru. In Bahia, all these items from the African culinary are sold by baianas, women who dress up as Candomblé followers (and in many cases they actually follow this religion). This type of work can be seen as a transition from the household (the food was prepared at home) to the labor environment.

In the beginning of the 20th century, a significant part of the workforce in Brazil was constituted by women and children. While black women started to work in the informality, white women, mostly immigrants, composed the workforce in the Brazilian factories.

Women + children = cheap workforce

From the decline of slavery to its extinction in 1888, the Brazilian government concentrated its efforts into bringing European immigrants to work in Brazil. At the beginning they came to solve the workforce shortage caused by the end of slavery and later on, to work in the factories that were arising in the cities.

The industrialization of Brazil started in the Northeast between 1840 and 1860 and started to move progressively towards Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo states. Women and children composed a cheap workforce that was mostly present in the spinning and weaving industry, while men were present in metallurgy, shoes and furniture industries. By the end of the 19th century, while in the industries in which men were predominant women corresponded to 16,74% of the workforce; in the spinning and weaving industry they were 67,62%.

In general, women would take the activities that required less instruction, but that were also low-paid. Any management position was exclusive to men. Women have suffered constant sexual harassment and many were forced to prostitute themselves in exchange for their jobs.

In 1912, women and children represented together 75% of the spinning and weaving industry in São Paulo state. The low wage led women to complement their incomes by working extra hours at home and those who did not have this option would prostitute themselves on the streets.

"Offenders of the moral and family values"

Even though women have played a crucial role in the consolidation of an industrial model in Brazil, when industrialization started to take over, women were expelled from the factories in order to leave the job positions available for men.

Women who went to the factories were seen as offenders of the moral and the factories were seen as brothels. This vision was associated to the desire of sending women back to the family life. Using as arguments the idea that a mother should never leave her kids alone at home as this supposedly causes severe damages to the children, society tried to push women back to the family environment and keep them there.

The past that prevails in the present

As industrialization grew stronger, changing the dynamics of the urban centers and the cultural and social relation of its citizens, women started to ascend and to pursuit the possibility of a career. However, even those who were now doctors, teachers, secretaries or lawyers were still seen as less rational than men and those who occupied “lower” job positions such as seamstresses, florists, maids, nannies and those who worked in the factories were seen as completely ignorant, who were inferior to the other group of women. It is no surprise that this last group was mostly composed by black women.

Now switching from the 20th century to nowadays, despite the several advances that resulted from women’s fight for equality and ignoring the fact that the 2010 census has pointed out that 56% of the college students are women, men still earn 28% more than women when performing the same jobs, according to IBGE.

In the words of journalist Ana Paula Padrão, this happens because corporations were created by men and for men. There has never been any formal concern about the work of women (apart from women themselves) as there is a hidden belief that the mere opportunity of having a job is already enough for them to be thankful to their employers. Women are clearly underpaid in many countries in the world and even though there are laws to try to regulate this unconformity, as Ana Paula Padrão says, “I have never heard of anyone being arrested for underpaying women”.

Even though women represented 42,7% of the workforce in 2011 and even though they are often more educated than men, they still have their images associated to household and motherhood. If a Brazilian woman claims that she does not wish to have kids, most people will start to question her character and morality; if a woman works as much as a man and even though she can afford a maid and a nanny, she is still expected to coordinate the house chores and her love for her kids is put to the test as she is leaving them to be taken care of by another person. The same commitment is not expected from men.

Despite the double journey (work and family), Brazilian women keep on working, studying and fighting for their independence. More and more Brazilian women have taken the position of head of family and reached outstanding position in sciences and politics (take as an example our female president Dilma Rousseff).