By Courtney McBay
LIBERIA, Costa Rica — A city of silos sits covered in rice dust. Men in helmets, steel-toed boots and safety eyewear dominate the dusty city’s population.
Here, Erick Villalobos helps lead Arroz Sabanero’s 105 processing plant employees as they prepare rice to feed Costa Rica.
Villalobos began working as a manager at the plant after he graduated from El Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica with an agricultural engineering degree.
“With that degree, you get to pick where you want to go,” he said. “Forest, rice — whatever you want to do.”
Both men and women go to school for agricultural engineering degrees, but “there are certain places in Costa Rica where they want men engineers,” Villalobos said.
Costa Rica’s “machista” culture from the past makes women less present in agriculture, Villalobos said.
Costa Rica has traditionally been a “machista” culture — one in which men are considered dominant and act as the heads of their households. Although progress has been made in recent years, men still dominate industries such as agriculture and tourism.
As tourism has gained popularity in Monteverde, so have jobs in tourism. The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, the area’s most popular attraction, staffs four full-time tour guides and 41 freelance guides. Of the 45 guides, just three are female.
Marcos Mendez, a tour guide at the reserve, said he doesn’t know of many women who are even interested in jobs like his.
“In general, the women feel that guiding is more for guys and [the women] are more for reception or supervision positions,” he said. “They’re more in the office than in the field.”
“It’s a male culture, so it’s hard for women to break into [tour guiding],” added Susu Gray, Mendez’s wife. “It’s the boys’ club.”
It’s not just that the culture expects women to hold office jobs; women often seek those jobs themselves.
“A lot of women come out here hoping for office jobs,” Villalobos said. “But that’s not the case.”
Villalobos said he does not believe in keeping women in reception jobs just because they are women — he said he sends them into the field alongside the men.
“It doesn’t matter if male or female — as long as they can do the job and do it well,” Villalobos said.
Mendez also said he and his male coworkers are accepting of women as tour guides.
“I do believe male guides are welcoming and don’t feel weird about having girl guides,” he said. “We treat them like any other person.”
Change for women in Costa Rica has happened quickly in recent years. Women gained the right to vote in 1949, and in 2010, Laura Chinchilla became the country’s first female president.
“In the last 20 years there has been a bit of a transformation,” Mendez said. “Women have been able to step up, so it’ll be interesting to see the next level of changes.”
Reporter Daniela Vidal contributed to this article.