Puerto Rico is unique among the states and territories of the U.S. in that the average income for women is higher than that of men: women’s median income is 103% of men’s. Women make up 45% of the workforce in Puerto Rico, according to a report in Caribbean Business. Women in the U.S. as a whole comprise 47.5% of the workforce. But women’s wages in the States average just about 80% of men’s.
Men and Women’s work history in Puerto Rico
When Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States at the end of the 19th century, Puerto Rican women’s position as workers was quite different from that of women on the mainland. The 1899 census showed that women on the mainland tended to work after they left school, until they married, at which time they often stayed home and cared for their families. Puerto Rican working women, who were generally employed as domestic servants, were more likely to work throughout their lives. Puerto Rican men at that time were usually employed in agriculture, especially in the coffee and sugar industries.
At the beginning of the 20th century, women in Puerto Rico worked primarily in agriculture and needlework, earning a few dollars a day at most. Needleworkers generally worked from their homes at that time, earning very little. Even when the minimum wage laws were enacted in the United States, the needlewomen of Puerto Rico were identified as an exception. Women sewing at home were guaranteed just $3.00 per day, according to Puerto Rican Women and Work: Bridges in Transnational Labor By Altagracia Ortiz. Ortoz characterizes the working women of Puerto Rico as a “colonial migrant labor force” for U.S. companies.
When the U.S. government decided to industrialize Puerto Rico through Operation Bootstrap, women were in high demand as factory workers, and the textile industry moved out of the homes of the needleworkers and into the factories. Felix O. Muniz-Mas claimed in Puerto Rican Women’s History: New Perspectives (edited by Felix V. Matos-Rodriguez et al) that the Puerto Rican government encouraged home-working needlewomen to go into factories as a form of empowerment. Other researchers claim that women were in greater demand than men because they could be paid less; whether or not this is the case, it is clear that women were more likely to work in the factories and more men still worked in agriculture. As Puerto Rico moved from agriculture to industry as the basis of its economy, employment among men fell and employment among women increased. In recent years, workforce participation among both men and women has decreased.
Both men and women earn less in Puerto Rico
Now the average Puerto Rican working woman earns $24,486 a year, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, while the median wage for men is only $23,711.This three percent difference was present in 2009, as well, when the U.S. Census Bureau produced a special report on the subject.
Compared with the mainland, the Puerto Rican woman’s income is still low; women in Florida, for example, earn an average of $36,936. However, men in Florida earn $42,309.
The picture changes when the upper echelons are considered. Women tend to work in white collar positions, but are much less likely to be in the C-suite in Puerto Rico. The gender power gap in Puerto Rico is visible in everything from the government to athletics. Even in fields in which Puerto Rican women outnumber men, such as journalism, they are significantly under-represented in senior level positions of power.
DataUSA found, in specific common jobs such as teaching and janitorial work, that men earned more than women in Puerto Rico, even though women are ahead overall.
Is it, then, that Puerto Rican working women are closer to pay equity than women on the mainland, or merely that Puerto Rican men are especially badly underpaid? A comparison of Puerto Rican men and women at the online labor marketplace UpWork.com, where workers set their own wages, showed that men and women did not differ in their hourly rates; average rates for both sexes ranged from about $9.00 to $17.00 depending on skill and education levels. The average hourly wage in Puerto Rico, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is $14.78 per hour — squarely in the middle of the wage range these information workers set for themselves.
We may not be in a position to explain why women in Puerto Rico are better paid than men, but the fact remains that the average hourly wage for the United States as a whole is $30.17, more than double that in Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans living on the mainland have much higher incomes than those living in Puerto Rico. Combine that with Puerto Rico’s low workforce participation rate, and it’s no surprise that educated workers have been leaving Puerto Rico at a startling rate. The slow rebuilding progress following Hurricane Maria is adding to the problem.