How Can We Define Womanhood in a Language That Doesn’t Have a Place for Women?

victoria perez Dec 05, 2021
woman walking in front of a wall and casting a shadow

As a woman and a Venezuelan immigrant living in Uruguay, I’m no stranger to social disparity, structural disadvantages and gender discrimination in the workplace. So when I first ran into the Healthy Rich writing contest, I was inspired by the idea of starting a debate regarding the role of professional women in Hispanic countries. 

It’s no secret that Hispanic culture is strongly influenced by Catholic tradition and machismo, which has also shaped the way we talk and express our ideas in Spanish. To write an essay about my experience, I can’t ignore my own language. Spanish is my mother tongue. It’s the communication tool I use to interact with people every day and with my colleagues at work. In other words, Spanish is how I live and think. 

I’m a professional translator, so writing this essay in English is more than just translating words in a text. The idea of this essay is to translate an entire life experience and cultural background through my perspective: a female perspective. 

So, I sat down at my desk and faced the overwhelming blank page, because I was determined to find the point of convergence between work and womanhood through my personal journey. 

How can I talk about womanhood if we don't have a word for that in Spanish?

But I hit a roadblock: How can I talk about womanhood if we don’t have a word for that in Spanish? 

Just like any translator, I’ve run into instances in which I struggled to find the right word with the correct meaning, a suitable equivalent to keep the balance of an idea. So, I did what all translators do when a semantic query comes up: check the dictionary. 

I did my research on multiple sources from different academic institutions and, sadly, I wasn’t surprised by the results: There’s no equivalent to womanhood in Spanish.

The concept of womanhood is often translated to Spanish as femineidad (femininity) or mujer adulta (adult woman). Fortunately, English dictionaries are more generous. Most of them agree to define womanhood as “the state of being a woman.” 

I didn’t encounter this issue with the male counterpart. The word manhood does have a Spanish translation: hombría. The Royal Academy of Spanish defines hombría as a “good and outstanding quality of man, especially fortitude or courage.” 

While our English-speaking neighbors are defining womanhood as a quality of the female experience, Hispanic women seem to lack such quality at a social level. This tells us that, culturally speaking, we’re being limited to nothing more than our biological condition and the social construct of femininity. Moreover, if concepts like “fortitude” or “courage” are directly linked to manhood, it comes as no surprise that Hispanic countries are lacking female leadership.

How can we translate this semantic trip to what’s happening in the workplace? The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL) shared a concerning study on the 2020 pandemic showing that women currently represent only 46% of the workforce in Latin America. That’s dropped from 52% in 2019. And, even though women are 42% of the economically active population of the region, we only own 22% of small and medium businesses, according to Connect Americas.

It doesn't take a master's degree in economics to know that being an immigrant woman is not exactly easy.

I wasn’t aware of these numbers when I first arrived in Uruguay four years ago. But it doesn’t take a master’s degree in economics to know that being an immigrant woman is not exactly easy. 

I had nothing but my college degree, a suitcase full of clothes and $100 USD in my wallet. My only aspiration was finding a job to afford a living and having a roof over my head. Luckily for me, it wasn’t hard to get a job interview, but I soon noticed that when people knew I was an immigrant, I was offered less social benefits such as unemployment insurance (companies do that to reduce taxes), or I was boldly asked to work extra hours in return for nothing. 

Caribbean women are perceived as submissive and narrow-minded just because we were born in religiously traditional countries.

After a couple months, the right job showed up and I thought it would be the end of such an experience. Little did I know the financial stability I’d just gained from my new job would also include a strong gender barrier that was founded upon a predominant Venezuelan-Caribbean stereotype. In a socially progressive country like Uruguay, where drugs and abortion are decriminalized, Caribbean women are perceived as submissive and narrow-minded just because we were born in religiously traditional countries. 

During casual conversations, my colleagues would often assume I had a traditional stand on politics or religion. The mindset that the household duties are the main role of Venezuelan women was constantly brought up in daily situations. 

One time one of my teammates even asked me to cook Venezuelan food for him so he could “test out” if I was a suitable bride. When I refused, he simply replied, “I’m sure no man would accept that in your country.” 

As an immigrant woman, I was upset but also felt intimidated to speak up against these comments. I was afraid to be perceived as ungrateful or disrespectful. I wanted them to see that I was a well-educated woman, an outstanding professional and not just the foreign girl in the office. 

So I did what I do best. I decided to translate my frustration into the language of success. 

I exceeded all expectations by becoming the top-performing agent on my team, and I led crucial projects that were a total success. The negative comments didn’t stop, but at least I felt like I was regaining ownership of my identity. That’s an empowering achievement when you’re forced to flee your country and bury your previous life to start over from scratch. That was my personal victory. 

During the 2020 crisis of layoffs, mergers and fake news, the fear of unemployment came back to haunt me. 

I took this experience as an opportunity to seek a new challenge and revindicate my position as a professional woman with a great desire to emerge and thrive. So, last year, my mother, sister and I decided to start our own enterprise. A family business owned and run by immigrant women.

Unfortunately, in South America, the Inter-American Development Bank reports women are 54% less likely than men to have their loan applications approved, and we were not the exception. On top of that, immigrant women are perceived as a credit liability to financial institutions because they’re more likely to be unemployed (or that’s what we were told at the bank). 

Due to lack of funds, we placed the project on temporary hold. But the fight is not over yet. We’re working through different means to achieve better results in 2022.

I’ve been lost in translation multiple times over the past four years, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no easy way to translate ideas into success. 

Womanhood in the workplace is the manifestation of female resilience and the intrinsic force to thrive.

Still, if I had to define womanhood in Spanish, I wouldn’t say it’s a quality or a state of being. Womanhood in the workplace is the manifestation of female resilience and the intrinsic force to thrive. 

In spite of all odds, the professional accomplishments of women who have succeeded in a male-dominated region are redefining the concept of womanhood, and we don’t need a dictionary to prove it.

About the author

Victoria Perez is a business translator, strategic negotiation professional and closer, and ecommerce and fintech enthusiast, data and reporting analyst, and an avid reader, writer and researcher.

Image by Vlada Karpovich via Pexels.com. 

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