Cuban Strategies for Women’s Employment in the 1990s: A Case Study of Professional Women1

Núñez Sarmineto

This article summarizes the results of a case study I recently concluded with women professionals and technicians in Cuba during the crisis of the 1990s; it is part of a larger study on Cuban women and employment. I intend to argue that the process of women’s incorporation and retention in the labor force in Cuba did not stop during the crisis years of the 90s, nor did all the changes in gender ideology that women’s employment has promoted during the last forty years come to an end. The article is a contribution to the analysis of certain aspects of the alternative project to neoliberalism that the Cuban government developed during these crisis years in order to maintain basic socialist achievements.

I have also used my findings from several case studies with Cuban working women in traditional and non-traditional women’s jobs, as well as from wider research on women and employment in Cuba that I carried out from 1985 to 1998. I decided to use these findings in order to explain the high participation of women among Cuban professionals and technicians for more than 20 years, and the high proportion of this category in the total number of employed women, a trend that began around 1978.

I have grouped my arguments in two parts. The first deals with “macro information.” As this aspect is fairly well known, I have presented it quite briefly. I devote more attention to the second part, which is based on a case study I did at the end of 1999 and the beginning of 2000 among 18 women professionals and technicians living in Havana. Since my purpose in doing this research was to define certain aspects of these women’s gender ideology, I posed the following questions to them:

  1. What strategies did you work out during the 90s to keep your jobs and maintain the everyday lives of your families?
  2. How has your professional status influenced your abilities in decision-making? Do you feel capable of working as a manager? Have you ever occupied such a position? Do you wish to work as a manager?
  3. Do you believe that the way women’s employment has developed in Cuba, especially among women professionals and technicians, has affected men’s attitudes?
  4. What has your status as a professional or technician meant for you in your personal lives? How has it influenced your relations with your husband or companion, with your parents and children, and with your colleagues at work?

Sample and methods

The 18 women professionals and technicians in my sample ranged from 28 to 66 years of age. All of them studied for their careers or graduated from their programs after 1959, and started working during the Revolution. Fifteen are professionals in medicine, dentistry, economics, architecture, computer sciences, pedagogy, languages, scientific and technological information, sociology, civil engineering, and music. Among the three technicians, one works in dentistry, another manages a laundry, and the the third is an executive secretary. Nine are white, five black, and four “mulatas.” Ten are divorcées, separated or widows, six are married, and two are single. Fourteen have children. They averaged 27 years of age when they had their first child. Their average salary is 328 pesos, higher than Cuban workers’ average salary (as of 1999): 207 pesos.

During the 90s, all fourteen women with children had to take care of their aging parents and other elderly members of their families. Eleven had working mothers, while the mothers of the other seven were housewives.

I do not know how all Cuban women professionals and technicians are (*see the list of my publications and other sources at the end of this essay) distributed among social and demographic categories. Nor can I say how representative they are in relation to their colleagues in Havana or in all of Cuba.Therefore I am unable at this point to generalize on the basis of my findings. Another limiting factor is that I selected these 18 women because they know me. This removed the problem of gaining their confidence as we embarked on lengthy interviews.

I used two methods in this study: in-depth interviews and analysis of statistical data, and other documentary information culled from statistical yearbooks, laws and resolutions related to Cuban social policies concerning women, documents elaborated by the Federation of Cuban Women, and studies dealing with gender relations in Cuba written by Cuban researchers and by colleagues from other countries.

Some useful statistics            

The proportion of women in the total Cuban labor force increased in a stable manner from 1959 (13%) to 1970 (19%). Between 1970 and 1989 this index kept increasing steadily, and was more accentuated than in the previous eleven years: from 19% in 1970 it rose to 38.7% in 1989. It also increased in absolute figures. From 1989 to 1996 this trend stopped: the rates of women’s participation in the labor force oscillated, and they were relatively lower in other estimates. In 1989 the representation was 35.5%, while in 1995 and 1996 it was 35.1%. The indexes that showed a slight increase were those of women in the state civil sector, 41.3% in 1989 and 42.3% in 1997.

During the 1990s Cuban society underwent the “special period” that resulted from severe economic shortages due to the crumbling of the socialist countries and the reinforcement of the US blackade against Cuba. There was a decline in all spheres of society, which necessitated structural readjustments that continue to this day. Women were compelled to readapt to new forms of employment. At the outset of the “special period,” almost the entire female labor force belonged to the state civil sector. Many women changed their job orientation after the economic restructuring that began in earnest around 1995, which, among other things, either opened or widened other non-state sectors. Thus, in the private sector, women’s participation in the labor force increased from 15.1% in 1989 to 22.9% in 1997. According to data from the Ministry of Labor, of all women workers in 1989, 89% worked in the State sector, while In 1997 the figure decreased to 81.3%. In 1989, 0.8% of women workers were employed in the cooperative sector, in 1997 it was 5.2%. The so-called joint venture sector did not exist in 1989; in 1997 2.5% of women workers were employed in this new sector.

These statistics justify a positive understanding of women’s adaptation to the process of redimensioning of employment in the sense that they flexibly repositioned themselves in the job structure. But we still have to determine whether, by acting in this manner, women moved into less skilled areas of work, or whether there have been signs of discrimination against them in the private sector, especially among the self-employed, in joint ventures, and in cooperatives.

Since 1977 women represent more than half of Cuban professionals and technicians, a trend that rose to 66% in 1999. Beginning in 1978, the category of professionals and technicians included the majority of women workers, a trend that did not cease during the crisis years of the 1990s. Let me try to explain the reasons for this.

There has been a process of feminization in the field of education, especially at the high school and university levels. The Statistical Profile of Cuban Women on the Threshold of the 21st Century, published by the National Office of Statistics, states that “at the junior high and high school levels, more and more girls per 100 boys are enrolling, up to a point where, at the latter level, they doubled the boys... Boys are interested in enrolling mainly in technically and professionally oriented courses, in order to rapidly enter the labor market when they graduate from 12th grade... Beginning in the eighties, a large increase in the number of women in higher education took place: In 1996-1997 women represented 60% of total enrollment at this level.”

Women have attained higher educational levels than men. For example, in 1978 4.9% of women graduated from universities, compared to 3.5% of men. In 1996 44.95% of all women workers had graduated from high school, compared to 32.2% of men workers.

Women are employed in all economic spheres, in both traditional and non-traditional jobs. In 1996 71% of women workers were highly concentrated in education, industry, public health, sports, tourism and trade. The rest were in construction, agriculture, transportation, communications and several others. Women’s participation is higher in education (61.5%), in public health, sports and tourism (62.1%), and in finance and insurance (60.7%). In fields traditionally associated with men, women represent 19% of workers in the sugar industry, and 21% in agriculture. We should note as well that in 1994, 55.4% of district attorneys were women, as were 47% of members of the Supreme Court, 51% of Cuban physicians, and 45% of scientists.

Cuban legislation affecting women

In order to understand these trends in women’s employment, we have to consider the social policies aimed at eliminating all forms of discrimination against women, and also the legal framework and specific measures resulting from these policies. They have been enacted since the 60s, and have been subject to constant modification in accordance with the unfolding conditions and needs of Cuban women and of Cuban society as a whole. I have characterized this trend as a process taking place “from the top” and “from the bottom.” Although all institutions have participated in this process at various levels, the Federation of Cuban Women has acted as a sort of “consciousness-raising” agency in favor of women since it was founded in 1960.

I will mention eleven different “actions” during the past 40 years that have benefited women, including professionals and technicians. During the 90s none was abolished, but some were readjusted to fit the new circumstances.

  1. The Maternity Law of 1974, included in the Labor Code, regulates maternity leaves for working women. It was modified in 1993 in order to extend the length of time given to mothers to look after their newly born children.
  2. The Family Code of 1975.
  3. Since 1961, free education from kindergarten to postgraduate levels.
  4. Since 1961, daycare centers for newborn children from 45 days old up to five years of age.
  5. Lunches at primary schools for the children of working women.
  6. Scholarships for students needing them at all levels of education.
  7. Assignment of jobs by the State for all those graduating from university as well as from professional and technical high schools.
  8. Divorced parents must pay their children’s alimony.
  9. Social security ensures pensions to those retiring from the active labor force.
  10. The right of all those working for the State to a paid month’s vacation every year.
  11. A variety of public health services: breast and uterine cancer tests; vaccinations; access to institutions at all levels of public health (family doctors, policlinics, hospitals, specialized research centers).

Before the crisis began in 1989-1990, women workers had benefited from the above-mentioned measures. Like the Cuban population as a whole, they had experienced decades of sustained economic growth. Everyone, men and women alike, had access to a relatively equal distribution of income and to decent levels of human development. Therefore, at the beginning of the crisis several indexes related to the quality of Cuban human resources were higher than those of other Third World countries.

Four points explain why Cuban working women stayed at their jobs throughout the years of crisis and readjustment:

  1. Approximately one third of Cuban women wage-earners head their household; either they are the sole “bread winners” in their homes or theirs is the higher income. This figure increases if we include all working women who either remarry or establish other types of unions.
  2. At present, women account for two-thirds of all Cuban professionals and technical workers. Thus Cuban women represent the majority of a highly skilled labor force which is needed in a country whose development strategy is based on promoting economic activities requiring sophistictaed technology and efficiency.
  3. Since 1970, women wage-earners have dramatically increased their participation in the Cuban labor force.
  4. Cuban legal and political regulations promoting women’s permanence in the work world remained in force during the crisis years and were adapted to the different changes taking place.

In 1997 the Cuban State Council passed the “Beijing Conference National Action Plan,” which is the legal document that summarizes all proposals examined by the 1995 United Nations World Conference on Women. This document expresses the political will of the Cuban government concerning women’s advancement. Measures contained in this “Action Plan” are mandates for all Cuban state institutions, and are regularly monitored in study groups organized by the Federation of Cuban Women, with the participation of representatives from these institutions.

Having noted the above, it is also necessary to point out that women professional and technical workers, like all women workers, suffer inequalities in their everyday lives that affect them physically and psychologically. I will mention three.  First, a survey conducted by the National Office of Statistics in 1996 reported that women workers dedicated an average of 34 hours a week to household chores, compared to only 12 hours a week for men. Second, women earn from 80% to 85% of the salaries earned by men. The Cuban Constitution mandates equal pay for equal work. So the reason for this problem is that men are the absolute majority in economic sectors that pay higher salaries, such as mining and construction. Third, women hold 31% of managerial posts, which is relatively low considering that women represent two thirds of all professional and technical workers. It should also be remembered that these women have attained higher educational levels than men.

I would like now to move to the basic aim of this article, which is to shed light on how women professional and technical workers represent themselves as women whose actions and ideological orientations have changed and, in doing so, have changed the way society acts and thinks.

Strategies of Cuban women during the 90s to cope with the crisis of the “Special Period”

I asked the women of my study to describe the strategies they worked out concerning employment and care for the elderly members of their families. I also asked them how much their life styles changed because of the shortages they endured during the “special period.”

All the women in the sample continued to work for a salary while at the same time holding other jobs in order to earn additional income. Sixteen of them kept their jobs as professionals and technical workers (among them, fifteen worked in the so-called State civil sector, and one became a freelancer). The other two changed professions: a teacher decided to work in a hard currency shop, and a lawyer became a secretary at a joint venture enterprise.

Why did the majority of these women continue to work as professionals or technicians? Among the answers I received to this question was “My profession meant everything to me.” Another said, “Keeping our jobs as professionals meant struggling for a dream, a goal that has cost us so much.” A third response was, “If you want to find answers to this question, you have to divide your arguments into two parts: one concerning the salary and another concerning the profession itself. The latter was more important than the salary. In the 90s, salaries practically lost their meaning as a stimulus. Meanwhile my profession made me feel worthy. It was like a shield that protected me from all the anguish of the crisis.” Two other answers were “For years I had cultivated my brains, my life style, my looks, and I did not want to lose them,” and “Working as a professional liberated me from the dullness of domestic chores.”

Women in the sample thought that the crisis had to end, and they wanted to maintain their professional posts up to the moment when money would regain its value and/or salaries would be raised. Furthermore, they believed they would disqualify themselves if they stopped practicing their professions.

A partial list of the alternative activities they pursued to earn a second income includes: renting rooms; selling personal belongings; giving private lessons; typing theses for students graduating from universities and from professional and technical high schools; renting their cars or driving taxies; cooking food and selling it to other families or to self-employed owners of small cafeterias; sewing; traveling as part of their job responsibilities and saving their per diem; raising chickens and selling eggs.

Throughout the 90s, when they developed strategies to take care of the elderly members of their families, Cubans over 65 represented almost 10 percent of the population. Moreover, the few nursing homes existing in Cuba basically took care of elderly people without families. Cuban tradition condemns those who “give away” their elderly to these institutions. The widely accepted rule is that elderly relatives must stay with their children or grandchildren. Cuban women over forty-five years of age are usually responsible for taking care of the “senior adults” in their families. During the 90s all eighteen women in the sample had to look after their elderly without quitting their jobs.

Prior to the crisis, Cuba had benefited from social policies, programs, and institutions aimed at providing decent living standards for “third age” citizens. These included social security programs, geriatric services at polyclinics and hospitals, the services of family doctors (one for every 120 families, who live in the same neighborhood as their patients), grandparents’ clubs and the so-called “day-care facilities” for third age citizens (elderly people use these facilities from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.). TV and radio stations ran spot advertisements designed to promote an attitude of respect and understanding towards the elderly. If these services had been able to keep functionig during the 90s, and had been able to adapt themselves to the real needs of elderly people, they would have supported working women over 45 years of age. But the crisis adversely affected these services: food and medicines were scarce; most grandparents’ clubs closed, and no new “day-care facilities” for the elderly were opened. Geriatric services and family doctors continued to function, but amidst enormous material shortages.

All the women in my sample decided to remain wage earners because they could not afford to lose their incomes. At the same time, none of them consigned elderly members of their families to nursing homes. Thirteen women involved almost all members of their immediate and extended families in sharing the tasks of looking after the elderly. This meant enlisting the help of their children, cousins, aunts and uncles, and available friends. Occasionally they hired non-family members when their incomes allowed them to do so. They devoted the largest part of their budget to feeding their children and the elderly. Most of the money spent for food came from the alternative economic activities listed above. This affected their nutrition during the first years of the “special period”: severe weight loss was a common problem.

Without exception the women in the sample relied on family doctors and nurses to provide for the health care of the elderly. They took them to hospitals only when they needed specialists. The medicines they used came from donations distributed through the drugstore system or were sent by relatives or friends living permanently or temporaily outside of Cuba. They also began to use “green medicine.” One of the interviewed women said, “It was almost a miracle how these old relatives survived the crisis years with so few resources. Women have to be thanked for this.”

Women’s life styles changed considerably. In terms of public and private transportation, because of huge fuel shortages and lack of spare parts for buses, cars, and trucks made in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, five of them rode bicycles, one was able to keep her car running and linked to her work place (meaning that she received a gasoline quota), while the rest walked, hitch-hiked, or rode on “camels” (two huge humped cabins dragged by trucks). Two women said that they usually walked seven miles two or three times a week.

One woman who is a very keen observer said, “In the ‘special period’ it was almost impossible to ‘show off.’ People behaved as they were. As we all lacked so many things, we stopped feeling ashamed about lacking what others had.” Thirteen of the eighteen women in the sample opened savings accounts. Before the crisis they lived in an “up to date” manner, because their salaries covered their expenses. Those who accumulated bank savings spent the money during their yearly vacations or used it to repair their homes. Now they save for any possible illness that might keep them from working, or that might affect other family members who would require additional care and expense.

Other responses to the “Special Period”

These women lived through four phases during the crisis of the 90s. The first was a moment of surprise at the collapse of the socialist countries and the decrease in their personal standards of living, all of which happened in less than a year. They were taken by surprise even though, in 1990, at the Congress of the Federation of Cuban Women, Fidel had warned the country that conditions would become worse. The second was depression, anguish, and bewilderment, because living standards kept deteriorating in all spheres: food, medicines, transportation, domestic fuel, electricity. Furthermore, many workplaces closed. People compared this dramatic situation with the relatively high living standards fostered by the Revolution since the 1960s, which had been marked by rising levels of social mobility. This was the moment when no one saw “the light at the end of the tunnel.”

The third phase took place when these women decided to emerge from their depression by ways unsuspected up to then. At this moment they made personal decisions: they changed jobs or took an additional one; they sold everything that could be sold; they decided to emigrate or to stay; they moved from their homes, their provinces or the towns where they lived; they divorced or stayed with their husbands. They did everything needed to pay for basic food for their children and elderly, and to buy clothing and shoes for the younger members of their families. Accustomed for many years to living under the protection of the State, they now had to learn to define or redefine their life projects by themselves, with very little help from the State. They started looking more to their communities and neighborhoods for support.

The fourth moment, the one they are living through now, and that has been enriched by the experiences of the previous three, involves a determination not to go back to the calamities of the first crisis years. Throughout these four phases, women in the sample prepared their children to confront any kind of obstacle. They have insisted on the need to keep studying. They have taken charge of their personal health, especially the illnesses that resulted from lack of adequate nutrition and the emotional stress they had to endure in their everydaty lives for almost seven years.

The following factors explain why these women’s survival strategies were successful during the crisis years.

First of all, social policies, legal frameworks and subsequent measures aimed at incorporating women into work life were not abolished. As I explained in the first part of this article, these policies were adjusted and new ones were enacted. New economic measures were enacted according to changes in domestic conditions and external relationships. Seven of these were as follows:

  1. In 1992 the government approved the creation of self-financed enterprises operating with hard currency. These were enterprises and state agencies that were already selling their products and services in hard currency; thanks to this authorization, they started using their incomes to cover the operational costs as well as to stimulate their workers.
  2. Decree #140 of 1993 allowed Cubans to use hard currency inside Cuba. It permitted Cubans to receive remittances in hard currrencies from abroad, opened exchange offices all over the country, and extended the chains of shops in dollars.
  3. In 1993 self-employment expanded. Beginning in 1997 citizens were allowed to rent rooms in hard currency.
  4. Central state agencies were restructured in 1994, based on decree #147. For example, fifteen state ministries, institutes, and committees were abolished.
  5. Agricultural goods and handicraft markets opened in 1994.
  6. Law # 77 concerning foreign investments was enacted in September 1995, replacing decree #50 of 1982. Its aim was to promote joint ventures with foreign capital, in order to ensure markets and obtain top technology and financial resources that would complement the Cuban side.
  7. A new enterprise system was enacted in 1998.

Third, living in the neighborhood and the community has become more relevant in people’s everyday life. Women in the sample acknowledged that now they spend more time in their neighboorhoods either because they are working near their homes, or because they look for more help among their neighbors, or because they have worked out part of their strategies to seek a second income with the help of neighbors; and finally because they have grown accustomed to consulting their family doctor and the nearby clinic instead of relying on hospitals.

Fourth, in the 60s, 70s and 80s Cuba achieved high rates of social mobility. This trend was not concentrated in the national capital, nor in the provincial ones, and thus it allowed practically all Cubans to attain higher levels of education, health, nutrition, and social security than the levels existing during the 1950s in Cuba, and far more equitable living standards than those prevailing in other Third World countries. This became a positive characteristic for women in the sample, in the sense that it created certain “reserves” with which these women professionals and technical workers were able to face the crisis. But it had a negative side as well, since these women strongly felt and understood how much they had lost when living standards fell.

Fifth, the actions and ideas aimed at struggling against all forms of discrimination did not stop during the 90s. Cuban women played an essential role in the survival of their families and of Cuba’s economy, and this helped increase their self-esteem. The crisis made inequalities between women and men even more visible. It also underlined Cuban women’s potentialities, strengths, and ability to overcome the crisis at the individual level, as well as at the levels of the family, the community, and the nation. Women have come out of the crisis stronger, as Colette Harris predicted in 1995, as did Luisa Campuzano in 1996.

Sixth, certain characteristics of Cuban social psychology contributed to women’s creativity, among which are flexibility, a non-dogmatic approach to life, and the ability to assimilate and promote necessary changes in life style.

It should be noted that women in the sample had to construct their strategies while living in a still patriarchal society, where they are burdened with the “double shift,” where men predominate among managers, and where women earn 80% of men’s salaries, although law establishes equal pay for equal work.

Decision-making and managerial roles performed by women

All the women in the sample became professionals and technicians after a long and fairly complex learning process in educational and work experiences. They became accustomed to making decisions at their jobs. In effect, they made decisions when they “built” their working specialties. One of the women wanted to become an excellent piano accompanist and teacher instead of being a mediocre soloist. Another decided to become a professional in computer sciences instead of becoming a pure mathematician. A third left her job as professor of philosophy to become a sociologist. These examples show that all these women had to study hard to improve their skills and/or redefine their specialties. All said they continue studying to maintain their proficiency levels.

Those who reoriented their jobs during the “special period” also made hard decisions: from teacher to saleswoman; from lawyer to secretary; from state employee to freelancer. They make decisions at work; for example, when they plan their work chores annually, monthly, and daily. Many have trained themselves to say “no” to extra plan activities, or simply to those they consider uninteresting. Women in the sample unable to say “no” in their work lives are compelled to carry out boring tasks.

Nine out of eighteen of the interviewed women chose to change their work activities during the “special period,” always seeking ways to improve their living conditions. They consider that they constantly make decisions in matters related to their specialties, basically those dealing with the jobs they perform. For example, they choose when to propose research topics, when to modify the programs they teach, or when to select new materials to substitute for others that have become scarce.

The way women in the sample reflected on their access to managerial posts and on their capacities in matters of decision-making fit the abilities that I believe Cuban women professionals and technicians already have in terms of empowerment. They also correspond to the conditions created in Cuban society.

I believe that there are five conditions for Cuban women to hold power more visibly. The first is that once women acquire the knowledge previously denied them as part of the patriarchal subordinating strategy, they become bearers of a sine qua non condition of holding power. Second, Cuban working women have been trained in problem-solving and decision-making. Third, Cuban women wage-earners are promoted at work because they are present in all occupational categories and because they perform complex tasks and have attained higher educational levels than men. Fourth, during the last forty years discriminatory actions against women have become more publicly visible, which heightens the need to struggle against any form of discrimination. Fifth, while professional and technical working women in the sample acknowledge that they have the abilities to make decisions and do indeed make them, the majority does not want to bear “formal” power.

Cuban men’s attitudes toward women’s employment            

Women in the sample feel generally that Cuban men have learned to respect women. This “respect” has always been one of the intrinsic values of Cuban social psychology. Its meaning derives in part from a type of chivalry that has a high quotient of patriarchal content in the sense that women are respected because they are mothers, wives, and “weak beings that must be protected.” But the interviewed women said that the phrase men “respect women more” incorporates new meanings: that is, men respect women more because they work and earn salaries; because they are more independent; because they are trained to practice their professions, like men; because there are women managers to whom men are subordinate; because there are men who accept that their wives earn more than they; and because women do not tolerate violent acts by men, and men know it. 

Women’s employment has made men perform chores publicly that before were only done by women. This means, for example, standing in lines to buy food, and carrying shopping bags in their hands. One of the women said that there are men who even buy sanitary napkins at drug stories for their wives and daughters, and sometimes carry them unwrapped on the streets.            

The pianist in my survey helped me understand what is happening in the world of music in terms of gender relations. She explained that there is a desire to restore a high quality of lyrics and melodies for popular music. “Salseros” have been criticized for the low artistic quality of their compositions, considering that most of them have graduated from Cuban art schools. They are also criticized for the ways in which they humiliate women in their lyrics. One song discriminates against mature women, depicting them as “old hens who must be cooked over high heat.” Another expresses dislike for women, calling them “witches.”  There are also songs that make men’s contradictory attitudes toward independent women quite visible. There is a song called “The Black Man is Cooking” that tells how a divorced man, who is living alone, is compelled to “cook,” alluding to the sexual act, and has to stop his women neighbors who want to “taste his cooking.”            

The pianist noted that Cuban musicians have a high potential ability to rise above these discriminatory attitudes. They are capable of improvising both lyrics and music, but need to be guided to perform non-sexist songs. She added that women are successfully occupying spaces in the music world that formerly were considered “for men only.” She referred to the “explosion” of women’s musical groups in Cuba who play Afro-Cuban religious instruments historically forbidden to women.            

I continued asking them about changes in Cuban men regarding relations inside the lives of married couples. Women in the sample said that there are still men incapable of sharing their lives with working women. This phenomenon had caused divorces for two of the women I interviewed. Nevertheless, their ex-husbands remarried working women. In any event, they expressed their belief that Cuban men have changed in one way or the other, having been influenced by “the women’s revolution.” Changes varied in degree, according to the men’s ages: older men had prejudices that resisted change, while younger men accept it more naturally. But all women in the sample agreed that “we still live in a machista society.”

I have worked out several hypotheses concerning new values that have appeared in Cuban men’s gender ideology, and that are related to women’s employment. Working women are social figures who have arrived on the labor scene to stay. Men accept them as co-workers, bosses, wives, and daughters, but with paradoxical feelings. Cuban men are publicly performing roles that used to be exclusively women’s domestic chores. Men acknowledge that women workers depend less on them economically.  Men want their daughters to study for a career as skilled workers or professionals. They accept working under women managers, agree to share their lives with women who may earn more than they do, and they know that women workers will not tolerate violence against them, whether domestic or at work.

Relations of professional women with spouses, parents, children, and colleagues

Women in the sample considered that working as professionals and technicians helped them decide what kind of person they wanted to live with. All eighteen women consciously selected their mates at different stages of their lives, and, in doing so, experienced conflicts.

Professional and technical work demands time as well as physical and intellectual efforts that can have a damaging effect on relationships. The obligations of their jobs force women to make necessary adjustments in terms of family responsibilities. Women usually feel that taking away something from their children, especially if they are small, hurts too much. They prefer to take this “something” away from their partners or from themselves. This can erode emotional ties, and, basically, it is the women who endure the pain.

Marital relations can be damaged by professional competitiveness among husbands and wives, especially if it is the woman who excels. For example, husbands complain that wives return late from their jobs; that they are always tired; that they dress and make up to go to work, and disregard their husbands’ views when they are home; or that their wives have little time to look after their children.

This mixture of professional competitiveness and machismo gave rise to several types of conflict in the families of the women I interviewed. At times they turned for advice to their mothers, who reacted generally in accordance with their age. The older women’s mothers advised their daughters to “understand their husbands” and to “keep their marriages under any circumstances.” The younger women’s mothers, on the other hand, told their daughters that they “must not tolerate abuse from anyone,” that they had studied too hard to endure humiliation of any kind.

Women in the sample who experienced divorce, separation, or widowhood used their professional work “to emerge from their hiding places.” Their jobs became “refuges” from which to surmount the period of mourning. Work made them feel useful, since they recognized that they were able to provide for themselves and their children.

Relations with children

My subjects agreed that working as professionals or technicians helped them guide their children in their studies. It helped them to organize their children’s homework schedules after school; to pay for extra private classes; and to support their children throughout their school years. They also understand that it is important to do recreational things with their children and to have open talks with them. Women who lived together with parents or other relatives acknowledged that they benefited from their help. In many cases parents and relatives were able to look after their children while they worked or studied.

All of the women with children who have been divorced see themselves as the basic bread-winners for them. This was the same point of view I observed while interviewing women “blue collar” workers. During the “special period,” women with full-time jobs often looked for a second source of income. Of the four women with no children, only one wanted a child but she learned unfortunately that she was sterile. The other three decided not to have children; motherhood was not part of their life plans. Two of them said that they did not want to have children without fathers, because in Cuba the father plays a very important role. They added that children must be wanted by both parents. The other woman without children is married, but does not want a child because her health is not good and she lacks the economic supports to have a baby. Her husband has children from previous marriages, and she is happy to have them visit at her home.

Relations with parents

I grouped the women’s views of their parents’ roles in three parts. These views reflect the concept of family that is operative in present-day Cuban society. They are also influenced by the fact that, due to housing shortages, most of these women have had to live under the same roof with relatives from three generations, and sometimes even four.

First, they recognized the way their parents, grandparents and other relatives helped them throughout their studies and their initial professional practice. Ten out of eighteen acknowledged that their working  mothers influenced their decision to become professionals. They also felt they had been influenced by their fathers and other male relatives in their attitude toward work and professional performance.

Second, they appreciated the help given them by their parents and close relatives in raising their children, from nursery school up to the university level. They likewise appreciated their mothers’ assistance with the double shift, while pointing out the paradox that their mothers were critical of them for returning late from work.

Third, they described the strategies they used to take care of “third age” parents and other family members living with them under the same roof or as part of their extended families and living in other residences.

Relations with co-workers 

The women I interviewed feel that, when they began working, they had to demonstrate their professional abilities much more than their male co-workers who began their jobs at the same time.

Only two of the eighteen women reported that they had experienced discrimination at work. They said that men did not value their professional knowledge, their decision-making ability, and their capacity to endure the “special period” while keeping their jobs. However, they all feel that their fellow workers respect them.

All but one like their jobs, and feel fulfilled at work. They noted that their “headaches and pains” disappear when they are working, that they “forget their domestic problems,” and that “conversations at work” are interesting.

One of the women does not like school teaching, although she likes the subject she teaches. However, she enjoys hearing her daughter speak proudly of her as a “professional” mother, and she likes to show that she is a cultured person. She likes working outside the home because “you lag behind when you remain a housewife.”

Some of their answers helped me to discredit the myth that women do not like to work with other women. The quality of the so-called “working atmosphere” does not depend on the sexes of the working group. Workers build relations based on their levels of professionalism, their ability to develop friendships, and managerial efficiency. There are women managers in all of the workplaces where women in my sample work, and they do not promote conflicts among workers. On the contrary, their managerial styles are consensual; they promote participation; they are open to change and tend to unite staff members. Furthermore, women managers are capable of understanding other women, especially when they have lived through similar experiences such as child-rearing and taking care of the sick and the elderly.

More on gender ideology

I asked the women in the sample to comment on three popular Cuban expressions related to women. Here is a summary of their reflections:

“I don’t admit intruders into my kitchen.”            

The main reaction can be summarized as “those words belong to women of other generations; today not even housewives think that way.”            

Only two of my interviewees said they enjoy cooking, while the rest consider it an obligation. They explained that they grew up under the conditions of a rationing system and lived through the acute shortages of the “special period.” This meant that they have long been cooking with “very little,”  “just what is necessary,” or “the goods we have to fight for, because what we can buy through the rationing system is not enough.” Therefore, they and their mothers had to develop creative ways of feeding their families. Women in the sample feel that most men are not adept at this kind of creativity, whether in preparing meals or in finding ways to ease the task of household chores. They and the older women are responsible for cooking and washing dishes in the multi-generational families in which they live. Men are assigned other chores of the so-called “private sphere,” such as some food shopping and taking kids to nurseries and primary schools. Some women were critical of how men shopped for food, because sometimes “they are unaware that they have been cheated by vendors.”            

“First you have to be a mother; the roles of wife and worker come after.”            

All eighteen women believe that one can and must perform these three roles simultaneously. Among their comments were: “There is time for everything.” “Men prefer women who are able to play these roles simultaneously.” “Husbands respect their wives more if they perform all of these roles.”

A highly “machista” Cuban saying asserts that “women should be housewives at home, ladies on the street, and whores in bed.” Surely this “proverb” was coined in times when women were not gainfully employed. Therefore, at present the words “and a wage earner, who contributes to the family budget” could be added.

Women in the sample think that both Cuban women’s and men’s mentalities have changed in terms of gender relations and women’s role in society. But at the same time they also think that it is women who accomplish “marvels and miracles,” women who “struggle hardest” to fulfill their roles as mothers, wives and workers.

I infer that men have played passive roles in the process of gender ideology transformation, acting and thinking according to norms dictated by the “machista” notion of what constitutes an ideal woman. On the other hand, because of the new dynamics that women incorporated into society when they became wage earners, women have begun sharing responsibilities with men; they inform themselves about sexuality; and are active and acknowledged workers in society, carrying out jobs that require specialized knowledge, generate relatively high incomes, and demand decision-making.

One of the women said it this way: “In an underdeveloped country such as Cuba, it is very difficult to be mothers, housewives and workers at the same time. I think this must be easier for women in developed countries.” I wondered to myself how women social scientists such as Mary Garcia Castro, Helen Safa, Yolanda Prieto, Susan Faludi, Elizabeth Jelin, Judith Astelarra and Ann Ferguson, who have studied women and employment in developed countries, would react to these words.

Another of the women in my sample keenly summarized my hypothesis related to the Cuban model of women’s employment, which is that this process was generated “from the top” and “from the bottom.” She claimed that “Cuban women, and basically professionals, changed so much not because they wanted to change. They were able to transform themselves because of their individual efforts and because of the Revolution they were living in, and in this way became engaged in women’s advancement.”            

“Women need men beside them, men who are able to ‘represent’ them.”            

All the women in the sample believed that this is false, because women are capable of representing themselves, at least in Cuba. “Maybe this is true of other societies, as it used to be in Cuba. But nowadays no one believes in this saying.”            

They consider that women need a man to share their lives, if he is worth it, and to have someone at their side. Concepts like “husband,” “couple,” and ”partner” must imply “love,” “understanding,” and “respect.” One thinks that “There are occasions when I would like to have a man beside me, especially at public places, so that he could deal with anyone who offended me.” In Cuba women say to men: “If I were a man, you would not dare insult me.” This happens because men symbolize power.            

Many women in Cuba head their households. They account for approximately one third of working women, according to studies I have consulted. The National Office of Statistics concluded that in 1995, 47% of all women heading their households were employed. High divorce rates and economic independence attained by women through jobs partly explain this trend.            

Women living alone (divorced, separated, widowed or those who never had a stable relationship with a man) have long been stigmatized. They still are, for many Cuban men. I intend to study more deeply the relational perception among Cuban women and men concerning “women’s loneliness,” basically among women workers. This is my present hypothesis: women living on their own have been compelled to reconstruct their marital status with different means. Their main hope, I believe, is to find a new partner to share their lives. Among professional women, I am quite sure that most want to live with a man, but their standards of selection are very high. They are afraid of a new failure. And as time goes by, older men prefer younger women, and men start confronting problems such as impotence and other symptoms of aging.            

Is it possible that Cuban men tend to look for a stable partner more than women do, because they are unable to live alone? Maybe we should ask them to comment on the saying: “I need a woman to look after me, so that I can represent myself.”


The history of women’s employment in Cuba since the Revolution includes the high proportion of women professionals and technicians in the work force; indeed, the majority of Cuban working women are grouped in this category. The reasons for this must be sought in changes undergone by Cuban society since 1959, in terms of economy, politics, and ideology. Cuba’s revolutionary project aims at eliminating all kinds of discrimination, including gender discrimination. It has been a hard and highly contradictory process but also one that has yielded many satisfactions; a process that has transformed the gender ideology of most Cubans.            

This process of change and gradual transformation did not stop during the years of crisis and readjustments of the 1990s; there were no substantial backlashes. However, the critical awareness of policies affecting women that has prevailed over the past forty years must be maintained. Cuba is emerging from a crisis of almost ten years by using its own methods that were conceived and applied in short periods. These methods had practically no analogies in the Eastern European countries after the crumbling of socialism. Cuba has strongly promoted higher standards of efficiency and the use of high technology as ways of surmounting the crisis. Development strategies derived from this conception cannoit ignore women, especially as women have attained higher educational levels than men in the work force and constitute two thirds of all Cuban professionals and technicians.            

Cuban social scientists have seriously and creatively studied gender relations, emphasizing women. The same intensive effort must be made to understand scientifically what has happened to Cuban men during the last forty years.

Sources Works by Marta Núñez Sarmiento  (in chronological order)

"Estudio de las trabajadoras textiles: balance preliminar en la empresa Ariguanabo,” written with Helen Safa, Rosa M. Cartaya, Margarita Flores, Rita Pereira y Raúl Ramos, 1987 (mimeograph)

“Informe de la investigación realizada en el combinado textil Celia Sánchez Manduley del 27 de enero al 13 de febrero de 1987” (mimeograph)             “Estudio de caso de Cuba: dos programas de seguridad y asistencia social dirigidos a la familia y a su impacto sobre la mujer.” Joint INSZTRAW/UNFPA Training Seminar on Women, Population and Development. Santo Domingo, May 22-26, 1988.

“Case Study of Cuba: Women and the Economic Crisis.” SWEC/1988/CS 2, September 9, 1988.

“La mujer cubana y el empleo en la Revolución cubana,” Equipo internacional de investigaciones sobra la mujer (Havana: Ed. de la mujer), October 1988.

“Las trabajadoras en una fábrica textil. Resultados de una investigación,” en Debate sobre la sociedad cubana, published by the Seminario Etnológico de la Universidad de Zurich y la Universidad de Bern, 1988.

United Nations Interregional Seminar on Women and the Economic Crisis. Vienna, October 3-7, 1988.

“ Mujeres en empleos no tradicionales.”  (Havana: Ciencias Sociales, 1991)

“La mujer en el periodo especial.” revista América Latina (Moscow: Academia de Ciencias de Rusia, November 12, 1993 (in Russian).

“Las mujeres de la carreta.” (Moscow, December 1993; unpublished).

“Proposiciones metodológicas para investigar con enfoque de género.” en Jornadas sobre Políticas Sociales en el Marco del Mercosur, Presidencia de la Honorable Cámara de Diputados de la Provincia de Buenos Aires, Centro Integral de la Mujer (La Plata,1999).

“El ajuste económico en los noventa en Cuba y la mujer: realidades y políticas para evitar la pobreza,” and “Necessidades y valores nuevos en la identidad de género en Cuba,” both in the process of publication.

Other Sources (in chronological order)

“Mujer, economía y desarrollo sostenibile.” Documento de la delegación cubana al Encuentro Internacional de Solidaridad entre Mujeres, Havana, April 1988

Harris, Colette. “Socialist Societies and the Emancipation  of Women: The Case of Cuba.” Socialism and Democracy, no. 18 (vol. 9, no. 1), Spring 1995.

Campuzano, Luisa. “Ser cubanas y no morir en el intento.” Temas, no. 5, 1995.

“La mujer cubana en cifras.” Documento de Cuba a la Conferencia de Beijing (Havana: Ed. de la Mujer, 1995).

Annuario Estadístico de Cuba 1996, tabla V. 11, p. 116.

Las mujeres de la carreta cinco años después (1992-1997), ponencia presentada al encuentro La mujer en los umbrales del siglo XXI, Universidad de La Habana, November 1997.

“Investigación sobre el Desarrollo Humano en Cuba.” Centro de Investigaciones de la Economía Mundial (CIEM), Programa de Naciones Unidas para el Desarrollo (PN UD) (Havana: Editorial Caguayo S.A., 1997), p. 108.

La mujer cubana y el empleo: datos y subjectividades (1985-1998).” en Jornadas sobre Políticas Sociales en el Marco del Mercosur (op. cit.) y en la revista El Economista (Havana: 1998): 1, 5.

Oficina Nacional de Estadísticas, Annuario Demográfico de Cuba, 1998, tabla 11, p. 55.

Perfíl estadístico de la mujer cubana en el umbral del siglo XXI, published by the Oficina Nacional de Estadísticas, February 1999, p. 50.

Mary García Castro y Sherryl Lutjens. “La política desde el género: la contribución feminista latinoamericana a alternativa al neoliberalismo.” Ponencia al Seminario internacional: Mondialización, desarrollo sostenible y alternativas al neoliberalismo en América Latina. Havana, June 1998.

Lapidus, Batia y otros, “Factores de la transformación espacial y impacto de agentes económicos seleccionados en el Consejo Popular Vedado-Malecón.” (Havana, 1999). Instituto de Geografía Tropical, Ministero de ciencia, Technología y Medio Ambiente, 1999.

Graciela González. “Las mujeres en la dirección de las empresas industriales. Un estudio de caso en cuatro empresas de Ciudad de la Habana.” Thesis for doctorate in sociology. Havana, February, 2000. 


1. This is a revised version of a paper I presented at the meeting of the Latin American Studies Association in Miami, in March, 2000.