Overcoming Barriers to Women’s Economic Participation: Successful Interventions

Women play an integral role in growing economies and building peaceful communities, but issues ranging from discriminatory laws and norms to an overall lack of access to education and skills development significantly hinder women’s economic participation. GIWPS hosted a conversation on successful interventions to women’s economic participation, with a focus on Central America, on September 21. Following remarks from the Deputy Representative of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, Ms. Christine Hsueh, esteemed panelists shared experiences and reflections on the barriers to inclusion that women face, particularly in Central America.

The event shone a spotlight on a program in Guatemala and El Salvador that helped female entrepreneurs increase their personal and economic resilience and use the success of their businesses to advance their communities, particularly in times of catastrophe. In countries vulnerable to natural disasters, including some Central American nations, it is all the more necessary that female entrepreneurs understand how to protect their businesses and communities from risk, according to Lucia España, project director for the Women’s Empowerment for Economic Development and Resilience Project, supported by Taiwan and implemented by the Pan American Development Foundation (PADF).

Gretta Schettler, COO of WEConnect International, stressed the importance of supply chains in leveling the playing field for women in business in Central America and beyond. Even in the absence of overt discrimination, women operate on a different economic playing field than men because of the additional childcare and household responsibilities which they often take on. WEConnect addresses the considerable barriers to access women face by connecting their businesses with multinational corporate buyers. Schettler noted  that at least 73% of 7,000 female-owned businesses surveyed experienced 20% growth since they joined the WEConnect network. Women are not only growing their businesses, but they are scaling impact by employing more women as they expand. To Schettler, inclusivity is a smart business move:

“Women control 80% of the consumer purchasing power. This is not just about human rights; this is smart business.”

Leadership and skills workshops can also help women take their businesses to the next level. The Inter-American Development Bank’s Andrea Saldarriaga Jiménez discussed IDB-run “bootcamps” and leadership workshops that equip women with the ability to advance in the business world and secure increased investment and funding.

Changing ingrained culture and ethos is also essential for women in business. “Norms play a fundamental role in the micro level- they affect the choices women make every day,” said Miriam Müller of the World Bank. Dr. Müller emphasized the need to give girls powerful female role models, share reproductive and familial responsibilities with male counterparts, and use education as a tool to incite long-term change. She poignantly stated:

“The whole education sector has a huge role to play in changing girls’ aspirations and having them shape life plans that may include things that go beyond being a mother and having a family but giving them the sense that they belong in other spaces of society as well.”

The panelists discussed other interventions, such as the use of religion to shape gender norms, the role of collectivization and metrics, and how to engage the grassroots level to ensure that individuals are directly benefiting from financial inclusion practices.

Sonia Gupta is a GIWPS research assistant and a member of SFS Class of 2020.