Portuguese women — poorly rewarded for good education

In a single generation, Portuguese women cleared away obstacles impeding their ability to receive a genuine education. But they must still break through the glass ceiling in the public and private sector workplaces where men are over represented in upper management.

Published on 5 October 2012 at 10:33
Lisbon, Portugal

A mere ten years ago, only 22 % of Portuguese women left school before finishing their primary education. Today, thanks to a generation of women who were convinced that their daughters had a right to a future outside the home, domestic workers see their daughters obtaining bachelor's degrees or even doctorates.

This revolution is not entirely female, but it is more spectacular among women. While men usually finished the fourth grade [nine years old, the end of the first cycle of primary education], many women failed to complete any educational cycle. It is from this low base that they set off to conquer literacy and gain their independence. Forty years ago, to provide an education for one's children in Portugal one had to be convinced that knowledge was an investment in the future. Only those with that unshakable faith reached their goals.

There was no lack of discouraging excuses, remembers 73-year old Maria Teresa Correia. "In my day, few children finished the fourth grade, or any grade, because life was tough. And in school, any excuse was good to give a swat with the ruler. With our daughter, we wanted things to be different. We made many sacrifices. One entire salary was devoted to her, to cover her room, board and books," she says. Today, nobody questions that this was a good idea. Maria da Graça, 49, exceeded all expectations. After obtaining a degree in psychology, she now has a successful career in business.

A trap door ejecting women exclusively

Bringing in a wage led to independence, all of it fed by the certitude that building a better life depends on obtaining an education. "Portugal is the country in which the generational divide is the greatest in terms of education. Today's women have six times more diplomas than their mothers. A 29-year old Portuguese woman has, on average, gone to school seven years more than a 69-year old Portuguese woman. No other European country has known such change. As a general rule, the gap is of two years," stresses sociologist Anália Torres.

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Nonetheless, inequalities persist. The average salary for a man with a doctorate is around 2,400 euros compared with only 1,600 euros for a woman. Doing equal work, a woman earns, on average, 30% less. Until 2000, salary disparities could be justified by less schooling on the women's side. Now that the situation is reversed, these arguments are difficult to defend, adds Torres, who is responsible for creating a Portuguese chair in the sociology of gender. "I remember we used to say that the inequalities between men and women would disappear once the problem of the level of studies was solved. Education has not solved the problem of inequality," she says.

In the science and technology laboratories of the Universidade Nova [New University] in Lisbon on the south bank of the Tagus River, test tubes are scrutinised and chemical reactions tested. Most of these experiments are done by women but in the offices, it is still men making the decisions. "In Portugal, 65% of the academics are women. But among those, only 20% have a university chair. They disappear, as if there were a trap door ejecting women exclusively, " she adds. In other words, the conquest of higher education by women did not lead to an equivalent representation within the power structure.

Side-lined in the decision-making process

A team from the Centre for Research on the Media and Journalism surveyed photographs and comments published about MPs addressing parliament. The goal, explains researcher Teresa Flores, was to analyse the media's representation of women in parliament. "The voice of the women is reduced to nothing, in both image and speech. They are sometimes at the centre of attention but not at the centre of political action. The women are presented in ways that make them either invisible or devalues them," she says.

Public institutions are the same as the universities, sums up Ana Cabrera, another researcher on the same team. "More than 70% of women MPs have a bachelor's degree and 8% have an even higher degree. This reflects Portuguese society: women have made a leap forward in terms of education, without benefiting from an equivalent advance in terms of power," she adds.

Another fact of life also explains why women are side-lined in the decision-making process. While Portugal reports one of the highest proportion of women in academic circles and in the labour market in general, it ranks among the lowest when it comes to sharing of housework. "Women have made room for themselves in the men's world but the men have made no movement in the opposite direction," says Anália Torres, adding, "Without a better division of labour, the problem will remain unresolved."


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