When the young woman was preparing to open a business in Jamaica selling pipes, vaporizers and other smoking paraphernalia, some acquaintances suggested she would have difficulty succeeding in a niche trade dominated by men.
Now, about a year-and-a-half after its launch at a hotel complex in Jamaica's capital, Ravn Rae's smoking supplies store is growing and she's proving doubters wrong in a Caribbean country where women have made such big advances in professions once dominated by men that a new U.N. study says it has the world's highest proportion of female bosses.
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"Women are the ones who are the main breadwinners. We push harder to earn," says Rae at her smoke shop, which she hopes to soon expand into a medical marijuana dispensary if lawmakers pass a decriminalization bill and allow a regulated cannabis industry. For now, she manages one saleswoman.
According to data analyzed by the International Labor Organization, nearly 60 percent of managers in Jamaica are women, including those who work for large companies and those, like Rae, who own their own businesses. That's the globe's highest percentage and way ahead of developed countries. Colombia, at 53 percent, and St. Lucia, at 52 percent, are the only other nations in the world where women are more likely than men to be the boss, according to the ILO's ranking of 108 countries. The highest ranking first world nation is the United States, with almost 43 percent, and the lowest is Japan, at 11 percent.
Overall, women in the Caribbean and parts of Latin America make up the managerial ranks to a greater extent than in the developed world. Experts say the gain is due in part to improvements in the level of female education, but also because men have failed to keep pace and have in some cases gone backward.
The Caribbean and Latin America have seen such big improvements in the economic and social status of women that gender gaps in education, labor force participation, access to health systems and political engagement "have narrowed, closed and sometimes even reversed direction," according to a World Bank study that analyzed women's economic empowerment in the region. More women are receiving advanced degrees even as a number also juggle household and child-rearing responsibilities.
But while government officials and educators celebrate that fact they also have serious worries about stagnating men, who have lower levels of academic achievement and are at increased risk of falling into criminality, trends that undermine the gains by females.
Wayne Campbell, a Jamaican high school teacher who blogs about the problem of male underachievement, believes "toxic" notions about masculinity permeate entire communities, reinforced by a popular music culture that often celebrates law-breaking. Boys who display school smarts are often ridiculed as effeminate by peers and even adults in areas where academic excellence by males is typically devalued, he says.
"It's almost as if manhood and masculinity have been hijacked by a thug culture far removed from education," he said.
From the southern country of Trinidad & Tobago to the northern archipelago of the Bahamas, Caribbean education ministries have focused attention for years trying to solve the worrying reality of male underachievement and the social problems it leaves in its wake. Grace McLean, Jamaica's chief education officer, says "it is evident that boys' underachievement in the education system is weighing heavily on national socio-economic development."
Regional educators say the scale of academic underachievement by boys, a trend which is mirrored in other parts of the world including the U.S., points to the need for systemic changes in the way that lessons are planned and delivered. Many schools in the Caribbean have experimented with approaches large and small to better engage boys, but results have typically been mixed when they haven't been considered outright failures.
In 2010, Trinidad and Tobago transformed about a fifth of its co-educational secondary schools into single-sex institutions to address underperformance. But the pilot program was scrapped after officials found students did not improve in single-sex classrooms.
But educators in Jamaica say the research they have conducted has shown that boys in single-sex schools do better than those in co-educational ones. In one co-ed Kingston primary school, the principal is now experimenting with single-sex classrooms and she says the results are promising.
"We're finding that reading levels are improving and the boys are more focused and engaged when they learn by themselves," said principal Candi Lee Crooks-Smith at Allman Town Primary, where exuberant 8-year-old boys in one classroom learned math lessons on a recent morning by taking turns juggling a soccer ball with a male trainee teacher.
Not everyone is convinced regional women are close to pulling ahead of men in Caribbean societies. Camille Hernandez-Ramdwar, an associate professor of sociology at Canada's Ryerson University who researches Caribbean cultures, said the majority of top positions are still dominated by men, even if countries like Jamaica and Trinidad have female heads of state. She says women in the Caribbean still "have to contend with old boy networks, male privilege, and males dominating in the justice, social, political and religious systems."
But with far more women pursuing higher education compared to men, the gender gap could grow lopsided. For years, there's been a steady 70-30 ratio in favor of women at the University of the West Indies, a public university system serving 18 Caribbean countries and territories.
"Caribbean culture has a laid-back, slow-paced vibe. But generally, Caribbean men are a lot more relaxed than the women," Rae says, checking inventory at her smoke shop.
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