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Breaking gender barriers: A young woman’s quest in a male-dominated profession

One billion people will reach working age within the next decade – the best educated and best trained generation of young men and especially young women ever. But despite great efforts carried out by governments and social partners, the youth unemployment crisis is growing, and the gender barriers have yet to be overcome. Young people, particularly women in developing countries, need equal access to training and jobs. Then, as the story of Paula shows, all it often takes is determination.

Article | 11 August 2008

BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil (ILO Online) – Like many children in Latin America, Paula Correa did not have an easy childhood. Her father – an alcoholic – left the family when she was seven and never came back. A few years later she lost her grandfather, her family’s main financial supporter.

“My mother had a full-time job selling shoes, so I was left home in charge of taking care of my brother and responsible for the house-hold chores”, says Paula. “From time to time, I also did small jobs to earn extra money”.

The years went by and Paula saw her chances of acquiring a formal education wither away. Her brother at first attended school but later dropped out and got two jobs to contribute to the family’s income.

Paula dreamt of helping her mother and brother, but she simply did not know how.

One day, at the age of fifteen, she was walking down the streets of her native Belo Horizonte, in south-eastern Brazil, when she happened to see a poster offering free training courses on automotive mechanics. She never imagined that seeing this poster would change her life.

The poster belonged to the National Service for Industrial Learning (SENAI), Latin America’s biggest vocational training centre and a member of the International Labour Organization’s Inter-American Centre for Knowledge Development in Vocational Training (ILO/CINTERFOR).

SENAI and ILO/CINTERFOR have joined forces in Belo Horizonte and other Brazilian cities to promote youth employment and help people like Paula who dream of helping their families while improving their own lives.

But Paula quickly discovered that finding a course she enjoyed was only the beginning of an uphill struggle. She had to sign up without telling her mother, who wanted her to remain at home, and had to walk three kilometres every day to go to classes, a trek she made many times on an empty stomach.

“It was a lot of hard work. I took five courses during a period of five months and was finally chosen to become a trainee. It was only then that I realized it was all worthwhile”, she says.

Finding a job as an automotive mechanic – an industry dominated by men – was not simple either. “I was discriminated against for being a woman. I even lost a boyfriend because of my profession”, recalls Paula, highlighting the difficulties of gender stereotyping – one of the many problems faced by working women.

“An important employment challenge is to tackle the occupational segregation of traditionally accepted ‘male’ and ‘female’ jobs and to break the gender barriers in opening up professions to both sexes”, says Ernesto Abdala, an ILO expert on youth employment training in Latin America. “Young women like Paula, particularly in developing countries, are often unable to take advantage of training and employment opportunities due to obstacles to entry, discrimination in selection and gender stereotyping”, he adds.

Youth employment is listed high on the international community’s agenda and has generated a global response through the ILO/United Nations/World Bank Youth Employment Network and the ILO’s own Youth Employment Programme. The ILO’s Bureau for Gender Equality has also launched a one-year campaign to highlight the importance of gender equality in the world of work.

However, much remains to be done.

“Approximately one billion people will reach working age within the next decade. Despite all of our efforts, young women and men are still two to three times more likely to be unemployed than adults, and this is particularly pronounced for young women. Youth employment programmes such as those implemented by the ILO and the SENAI are the right way forward”, says José Manuel Salazar-Xirinachs, Executive Director of the ILO Employment Sector.

“I have no doubt education is the most precious gift of all. It acts as an instrument of social transformation. We must advance education, because it is an investment that yields great benefits”, says Alexandre Magno Leão dos Santos, director of the SENAI branch in Mina Gerais.

Paula can attest to this. After working as a mechanic for different companies, she returned to the SENAI, now as a full-time instructor and a winner of two gold medals in the Knowledge Olympics. She is now married and has a one-year-old baby. “The only thing missing”, she says, “is my own house”. But she now has the skills to pursue that dream.