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Family and Gender Issues in Chile

Entry from: "Chile: A Country Study" published by the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress.

Family Structure and Attitudes Toward Gender Roles

Extended-family life has occupied an important place in Chilean society. Although couples are expected to set up their own households, they remain in close contact with the members of their larger families. Children generally get to know their cousins well, as much adult leisure time, generally on weekends and holidays, is spent in the company of relatives. It is also common to find children living for extended periods of time for educational or other reasons in households headed by relatives, sometimes even cousins of their parents. These extended-family ties provide a network of support in times of nuclear family crises. It is also common for close friendships among adults to lead to links that are family-like. For example, children often refer to their parents' friends as "uncle" or "aunt."

Traditional definitions of gender roles have broken down considerably as women have won access to more education and have entered the labor force in larger numbers. By 1990 about half the students in the nation's primary and secondary schools were female; the proportion of women was lower, about 44 percent of the total enrollment in all forms of higher education. The University of Chile graduated Latin America's first female lawyers and physicians in the 1880s. However, women made faster progress in traditionally female professions than in other professions. Thus, by 1910 there were 3,980 women teachers, but there were only seven physicians, ten dentists, and three lawyers. By the 1930s, female enrollments reached significant numbers in these fields. The University of Chile in 1932 had 124 female students enrolled in law (17 percent of the total), ninety-six in medicine (9.5 percent), and 108 in dentistry (38 percent), although 55 percent of all women students at the university were enrolled in education.

Attitudes regarding the proper roles of men and women in society seemingly no longer follow a fully traditional pattern. A 1984 survey conducted in Santiago by the Diagnos polling firm found widespread support among men (more than 80 percent) and women (more than 90 percent) of high, medium, and low socioeconomic status for the notion that women benefit as individuals if they work outside the home. When asked if they agreed or disagreed with the notion that "it is better for women to concentrate on the home and men on their jobs," 43 percent of the national sample in the CERC July 1991 survey agreed, even though the term "concentrate" does not imply a denial of the right of women to work outside the home. There were some differences between the genders over this question, with 49 percent of men and 38 percent of women in agreement. The percentage in favor of this notion increased with age. Only 30 percent of those under age twenty-five agreed, while 61 percent of those over age sixty-one did so.

Men and women in the same CERC study were considerably divided over whether "women should obey their husbands." This is a sentence included in family law that is supposed to be read (although it is frequently omitted) to Chileans when they take their marriage vows in the civil registry's ceremony; 55 percent of men agreed, while only 40 percent of women did so. Again, men held the more traditional views, but considering the nature of the proposition and its long-established status in civil law, the fact that only slightly more than half of them agreed can be considered a sign of changing times.

Surveys of working-class respondents can usually be counted on to capture the more traditional views of urban society toward male and female roles because such attitudes are usually associated with lower levels of educational attainment. But working-class Chileans are in general not as traditionally minded as could be expected about the issue of women working outside the home. In a 1988 survey of workers, 70 percent of the men and 85 percent of the women agreed with the notion that "even if there is no economic necessity, it is still convenient for women to work." The notion that "men should participate more actively in housework so that women are able to work" was accepted by 70 percent of men and 92 percent of women. Forty-five percent of men believed that "women who work gravely neglect their home obligations," while 21 percent of women did so. However, male support for the notion of women working outside the home varied depending on the way the question was phrased. When interviewers presented the idea that "if men were to make more money, then women should return to the home," 63 percent of men agreed, while only 33 percent of women did.

Nonetheless, popular beliefs hold very strongly to the notion that women reach full self-realization primarily through motherhood. This generates strong pressures on women to have children, although most take the necessary measures to have fewer than did their mothers and especially their grandmothers. Employed working-class women usually are able to find preschools and day care for their small children, as these programs are broadly established throughout the country. The extended family also provides a means of obtaining child care.

Middle-class to upper-class households usually hire female domestic servants to do housework and take care of children. This practice facilitates the work life of the women of such households. Women can frequently be found in the professions even outside such traditionally female-dominated areas as primary and secondary education, nursing, and social work. For example, among the nation's 14,334 physicians in 1990, there were 3,811 women, or 27 percent of the total. This percentage has been increasing in recent years. Among the 7,616 physicians less than thirty-five years of age, there were 2,778 women, or 37 percent of the total. In 1991 about 48 percent of the nation's 748 judges were women; although there were none on the Supreme Court, 24.2 percent of the appellate court judges were women. A slight majority of the roughly 4,200 journalists in the country were women.

Data as of March 1994

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