Meet the new Ticas

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — In Costa Rica, one woman will soon be president. Another is training to summit Mt. Everest.

Meet the new Ticas.

They are increasingly taking jobs out of the home and putting their careers first. Many are opting out of motherhood altogether. They are slowly rising up the corporate ladder and climbing the echelons of government.

The new Ticas are cracking the glass ceiling in a developing nation that had been a faithful Catholic, agricultural society that mostly kept women at home. In many areas, such as education levels and politics, they are reaching beyond other Latinas and even their counterparts in the rich north.

Gineth Soto almost became the first Costa Rican — male or female — to scale Everest. She already has five of the coveted “Seven Summits” — the highest peaks of each continent — under her belt. She just needs to scale Everest and Antarctica’s Vinson Massif and she’ll join the ranks of 34 international female "summiteers" who have made it.

"The new Ticas of today are women who are very enterprising, and they’ve demonstrated they can lead a country, a company, a house; they can do whatever they want," said Soto, who had to turn back during her first attempt at Everest in 2008. Now she's training for a second try.

A female go-getter like Soto, married with no children, was a rare breed a couple of generations ago. “My grandmother had 14 children and was the typical mama of those days,” said the 36-year-old climber. Soto's mother had three daughters and worked hard in a restaurant to raise them by herself.

When asked about kids of her own, Soto said, “To be honest, that’s not a priority right now. The plan, the dream, is Everest. I have to finish my project of seven summits.”

The country is undergoing a “second reproductive revolution," said Luis Rosero, a leading demographer at the Central American Population Center at University of Costa Rica. The first big rebellion took root in the 1960s, when families began planning to have two or three children instead of seven.

Now the fertility rate has fallen to 1.9 children per woman, according to 2008 statistics. A study by the National Statistics and Census Institute predicts it will hit 1.7 in the next five years — well below the 2.1 "replacement rate" needed to replenish the population. The United States population is right on the replacement rate.

The average fertility rate for Latin America and the Caribbean is 2.3 children per woman. In the last half decade, Guatemala has averaged 4.2 children per woman, the highest rate in Latin America, according to the U.N.'s 2009 Statistical Yearbook for Latin America and the Caribbean. At the opposite end of the scale, Cuba's rate is the lowest in the region, at about 1.5, according to the U.N. 

In Costa Rica, the second reproductive revolution is seeing women wait longer than ever to have their first baby, which will slow the fertility rate further still.

"Women are questioning when to have their first child. There are women in their 20s and 30s who say they don't want children at all. This was unheard of 20 years ago," Rosero said. The trend is too fresh to predict how long women will prolong pregnancy, he said, and it remains to be seen if Costa Rica will end up with extremely low fertility rates as happened in Spain and Italy.

As Costa Rica's fertility rates began to fall, health and education standards rose. Now gains are being made in improving the representation of women in business and politics.

Women grew from 30 percent of the workforce in the 1990s to 42 percent in 2008, and more than a quarter are their home's main breadwinner, according to studies by the United Nations Development Program's Costa Rica office and the official statistics bureau. Employed women have on average one more year of college education than men.

However, "women are still trying to reconcile production with reproduction," said Raquel Herrera, programs specialist at the U.N. office. Women work multiple "shifts," changing roles from breadwinner at the office, to cleaner, cook and caretaker at home, unless they have the means to delegate the housework. Ticas are still trying to change that custom, said Herrera.

And increased employment isn't translating to equal pay. A gender-based salary gap persists and, recent studies suggest, has even widened. Thirteen years ago men earned 15 percent more than women in the same jobs, according to a report in La Nacion newspaper. That number has jumped to 26 percent.

"Women tend to accept the position and the salary they are given; they don't renegotiate. That's different from men," said  Ligia Olvera, a Mexican-Costa Rican economist who has researched gender issues.

The political sphere has carved a path of its own. Women gained the right to vote in 1949. Today, by law, at least one woman must appear on ballots, either as one of two vice presidents or the president, and women must make up at least 40 percent of a political party's electable posts. The government plans to make it a 50-50 split by the next elections in 2014.

A Georgetown-educated politician, Laura Chinchilla will take office on May 8 as the country's first female president. She has served as a legislator, public security minister, justice minister and vice president to the current president, Oscar Arias. She has already filled nearly half of her ministry posts, including key positions like economy minister and foreign trade chief, with women, the most female representation in a cabinet in Costa Rican history.

Soto, the climber, couldn't vote in the election because she was training in California. But she still revels in the big moment Chinchilla ascended her Everest. "The glass is broken," she said. "From now on, any girl who’s born, if she wants to be president one day, she can."