“Tie the Heifer, Loose the Bull”: Gender Inequality in the Caribbean

black woman jamaican womanFor years, the Caribbean has been plagued with the pervasive and enduring problem of gender inequality. Gender, as a social construct, became popular during the 1960’s and 70’s and refers to “a set of qualities and behaviours expected from males and females by society” (United States Agency for International Development [USAID], 2005, p.12). While ‘sex’ refers to differences between males and females which are biologically determined and constant, ‘gender’ refers to those differences which are socially constructed and subject to change.

Gender inequality means that males and females do not have “equal conditions for realizing their full potential, and for contributing to and benefiting from economic, social, cultural, and political development” (USAID, 2005, p.12). It implies that men and women are valued differently and do not have equal rights, responsibilities, resources and opportunities in the home, school and wider society. Gender inequality often stems from deeply ingrained gender stereotypes in our societies. These stereotypes, or beliefs about the general characteristics of persons belonging to each gender, are learnt primarily through gender socialization and the assignment of gender roles. [showmyads]

The first place in which such learning occurs is the family. The family is the primary agent of socialization and it is here that the seeds of gender inequality are sown. Roles within Caribbean families are often segregated  along lines of gender. The simple formula put forth by Chevannes (2001) is this: “a man minds but a woman cares” (p.222). The man “minds” his children by protecting them and supporting them financially; the woman “cares” for them by serving as housewife and caregiver.

From an early age, children are socialized into these norms and gender divisions. Their toys are usually sex-typed, for example, little girls are often given dolls and kitchen utensils while boys are given trucks and water-guns. In some countries of the Caribbean, for example on the Windward and Leeward islands, it is a common occurrence for boys to be waited upon by females resulting in their failure to assume domestic responsibilities. When they are assigned duties, these are usually outdoor tasks, whereas the females are responsible for indoor chores. In general, boys are allowed to play outside and roam the streets while the girls are left to ‘help around the house.’ Thus, according to Chevannes (2001), we come to have a division between “de yard female” and “de out a road male.” Furthermore, to show that the public space is their domain and not that of the female, males will often position themselves on a street corner and “vie with each other in the ingenuity of their comments to embarrass women going by” (Hodge, 1974, p.117).

Of course, the Caribbean is not a homogenous society and as such, there exists different family forms within it. Yet there is no denying the fact that the Caribbean is a patriarchal society in which power, status and privilege are bestowed upon men, and where masculinity is valued more than femininity. Thus, within most of the Caribbean family types, we still see evidence of gender inequality, with males often being the dominant members.

In nuclear families, for example, as well as in the common law and visiting unions, the male assumes the role of head. He makes the major decisions in the family and has greater control over the family’s resources than his partner. He wields more authority than the woman and is in most cases the disciplinarian. In female-headed households, females are responsible for the daily running of the family but it is the males, in the form of lovers, brothers or fathers of children, who often make the major decisions regarding family expenditure and children’s schooling. The only family type in which the male is not very dominant is the matrifocal family in which the woman is the focal point; males are either absent or largely marginalized. Despite the absence of the male, however, it is likely that boys and girls will still be socialized into culturally accepted gender roles by their mothers, close relatives and the media. Indo-Caribbean families tend to be more extended than Afro-Caribbean families but they are also highly patriarchal in nature. The male is viewed as the head of the family with whom all power and authority rests.

Domestic violence is further evidence of the gender inequality that exists in the home. While domestic violence can occur for a number of different reasons, men often engage in wife beating, the most common form of domestic violence, because of their belief in male supremacy (Ffolkes, 1997). A lot of Caribbean men believe that they are entitled to have power over their women and that their wives are, in effect, their property.

We also see evidence of gender inequality in the intimate relationships between men and women, and in areas relating to sexuality. There exists a double standard in most of the region’s societies whereby men are allowed to have, and even praised for having numerous women; on the other hand, women are viewed negatively and labeled as ‘whores’ and ‘sluts’ if they are known to have more than one mate. Males are also allowed to engage in sexual activity at an earlier age than females. Many parents help to foster this attitude by employing the child-rearing concept described in Guyana as “tie the heifer, loose the bull,” meaning that they closely monitor their daughters but allow their sons greater freedom and independence with regard to sexual activity (Brown, 1995). Furthermore, as Allen (1997) argues, many Caribbean women do not usually have the power to determine when and how they have sex. Due to their high unemployment rates and their generally inferior access to economic resources, they often go along with their partner’s wishes so as not to lose financial support for themselves and their children.

Gender inequalities might start in the home but they are perpetuated by other social institutions, one of which is the school. Gender segregation is first of all evident in the selection of academic courses by students. Subjects such as English Literature, home economics and the range of business subjects continue to be female dominated, while the sciences, information technology and vocational-technical subjects tend to be male-dominated. These divisions ‘are encouraged and reinforced through both explicit and implicit practices in schools” (Bailey, 1997).

The implicit practices include the expectations of teachers and parents, as well as peer pressure, all of which are based on the gender stereotypes existing in the wider society. The explicit practices are most evident in single-sex schools. The curriculum in single-sex schools usually includes only some of the possible subject areas. Many girls’ schools, for example, do not offer technical skills such as Woodwork and Welding, while boys’ schools do not usually offer subjects featuring domestic skills such as Clothing and Textiles, or commercial skills such as Office Procedures (Bailey, 1997). Although the situation is changing in some schools in the region, it is still the trend across many.

The textbooks used in Caribbean schools also perpetuate gender inequality. From a content analysis of 27 English textbooks, Drayton (1997) found, for example, that most of the characters in these books (over 70%) were male.  Furthermore, more males than females had occupations in these texts, with more males in administrative, executive and managerial positions, and most of the females engaging in unskilled work. According to Drayton (1997), these texts present women as more intelligent and inventive than women, and as the ones who should take the lead in our societies.

It is interesting to note also, that despite the fact that female teachers outnumber male teachers in most, if not all, Caribbean schools, the top management positions, for example that of principal, are usually occupied by males. Taylor (1997), who examined data from departmental reports at the University of the West Indies (UWI) St. Augustine campus, for a number of school years between 1974 and 1988, found that at this level, males are also dominant in administration. Males occupied almost all deanships and headships in most faculties and departments. In Jamaica, there is also a “higher male representation among heads, lecturers, senior lecturers and heads of faculties in the University of the West Indies and other institutions at the University level” (USAID, 2005, p. 27).

The gender divisions present within the school system translate into gender inequalities in the workforce. Thus, in Jamaica, for example, males dominate the labour force in areas such as manufacturing, construction, transport and mining, while females form the bulk of the work force in wholesale and retail, hotel and restaurant services, social and personal services and business services. In addition, although the job-seeking rate for females is higher than that that of males, more females are unemployed. That is, although more women than men look for work, more men than women find work (USAID, 2005). One of the most startling evidences of gender inequality in the country, however, is that “in almost all categories of work, men earn more than women in the private sector” (USAID, 2005, p.7). Research has also shown that in general, females require more years of schooling than males in order to compete on the same level with them. These findings are characteristic not only of Jamaica but extend to other Caribbean countries as well.

Women who desire to start their own businesses also face obstacles resulting from the gender stereotypes and biases in our society. The major barrier encountered by these aspiring entrepreneurs is lack of access to bank loans, which they often need in order to get their businesses off the ground. In Jamaica, as in many other Caribbean countries, women applying for loans will need more documentation than men and are often viewed as credit risks by bank officials even when they are as qualified as men who are granted loans (Paulin, 2003).

Even Caribbean religions give evidence of gender inequality. In the Palo Monte and Santeria religions of Cuba, for example, it is very unusual to find women occupying the highest positions. It is more common and permissible for women to participate in, rather than lead the ceremonies, to cook food and act as personal helpers to the religious leaders (Taylor, 2001). Rastafarianism, perhaps the most well-known of Caribbean religions, is also male-centered. Women are thought of as  being weak and are not allowed to be leaders in any Rastafarian ritual. In addition, females are viewed as unclean whenever they have an issue of blood and cannot approach a ritual gathering of males, for example Nyabingus, during this time.

Gender inequality is also evident in the main music forms of the region, and here I speak specifically of the Jamaican reggae/dancehall and the Trinidadian calypso/soca. In both genres of music, females are generally portrayed as dependents, housewives and sexual objects to be used, and even abused, by men. The lyrics, which are often written by males, reinforce the idea that men should be in control of their women. Unfortunately, even in instances where female artists write and record their own lyrics, they often add to the sexist  ideas and negative imagery which only serve to further denigrate women and undermine their integrity (Lake, 1998).

While the gender stereotypes within Caribbean societies often work to disadvantage females, males are sometimes negatively affected as well. Firstly, in all Caribbean societies, males are expected to be the breadwinners. Even when the female partner is working, provision of material resources is hardly ever seen as her major responsibility. Her husband or ‘baby father’ is expected to bear the economic burden of ‘minding’ his children and possibly, her as well. A male who does not provide for his family is not considered a man, but in a region like this, where unemployment is widespread, this can be especially difficult. Many Caribbean males therefore face serious threats to their masculinity and self-esteem.

To be a ‘real man,’ by the standards of Caribbean society, a male must also display sexual prowess. The sooner he establishes his manhood in this respect the better. Thus, males are often pressured, directly or indirectly, to engage in sexual activity at an earlier age than females. They are also expected to have children to serve as visible proof of their manhood, but are then faced with the difficulty of providing for them.

Males in Caribbean societies are also expected to be ‘tough.’ This expectation results in males being punished more severely and more often than females, both in the home and at school. In order to keep up this tough macho image, males are also led to resist aspects of their schooling which might be viewed as ‘girlish’ but which could benefit them greatly later on in life, for example, using standard languages instead of Creole or slang (Figueroa, 2000, cited in USAID, 2005). Furthermore, the sexual identity of a boy is more likely to be challenged is he chooses a ‘feminine’ subject in school (e.g. Food and Nutrition) than if a female chooses a ‘masculine’ area of study (e.g. Technical Drawing). Since girls are expected to take their schooling more seriously, they also receive more encouragement and help with homework, and more admonition to ‘take up their books’ (Figueroa, 2000, cited in USAID, 2005).

Gender inequality is a very real and ubiquitous problem in Caribbean society. It is reflected in virtually every sphere of Caribbean life and continues to be a hindrance to the total development of the region. Recognizing that gender inequality is a problem, however, is only the first step in eradicating it. Only by acting on this knowledge and broadening our minds as individuals will our dream of a fair, just and egalitarian society ever become a reality.


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Taylor, P. (2001). Nation dance: Religion, identity and culture differences in the Caribbean. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

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