Gender equality in the workforce can unlock robust economic growth. And yet, growth across myriad countries and industries continue to be stymied by failing to leverage the full potential of women in their labor forces.
Our research team, comprised of three graduate students from the Harvard Kennedy School, sought to focus on women entrepreneurs and business-owners as a means of closing gender gaps in the economy and unlocking sector-specific and country-wide growth. Globally, we knew that women entrepreneurs and business-owners face challenges that are not often observed by their male counterparts. These barriers can be unique challenges, such as socio-cultural norms, and can be cross-cutting, magnifying challenges to entrepreneurship such as access to markets, capital, and networks.
In partnership with the Ananda Group, a Mexico-based investment organization focused on the plant-based (or vegan) sector, and with support and funding from Women Forward International, our team is working to identify specific programs and services that can support entrepreneurs in Mexico’s plant-based sector – a sector that, in Mexico, is uniquely dominated by women. This partnership falls in line with Women Forward International’s mandate to create and implement projects that achieve through action-oriented research the Sustainable Development Goals. These Goals include zero hunger, good health and well-being, no poverty, gender equality, decent growth and economic growth, and climate action. Our research builds on a Johns Hopkins University SAIS student project launched by Dr. Kent Davis-Packard, President of Women Forward International, which, in 2019, focused more broadly on how to empower women entrepreneurs in Mexico’s plant-based sector.
In January, the three of us traveled to Mexico City, Mexico and Queretaro, Mexico, to interview players in Mexico’s plant-based entrepreneurial ecosystem, including entrepreneurs, investors, accelerators and incubators. Our conversations around gender surfaced challenges reflective of global trends, as well as some that were specific to Mexico.
Several entrepreneurs spoke about the challenges women face in navigating male-dominated supply chains, having business acumen or seriousness called into question, or outright discrimination due to gender or feminist beliefs. Across our interviews, we heard repeatedly that women had a harder time than men with accessing capital and investment, and that women also had difficulty accessing mentorship, particularly female mentorship.
Machismo was explicitly referenced several times as a barrier. Our team uses machismo to refer to a culture of male dominance, prominent across Mexico (although importantly, this culture is not exclusive to Mexico). Machismo promotes traditional gender norms, in which women are expected to stay at home and manage the household, often prevent women from even trying to start a business. Those who do manage to start a business may struggle against outright sexism or to have themselves taken seriously, to access key resources (financial or otherwise), and to balance household and childcare responsibilities with running their business. One conversation also touched on Mexico’s epidemic of violence against women as a factor that almost certainly impacts women’s ability to start or run a business.
Having returned from our field research, we are left with myriad ideas to analyze and dig into. But in doing so, one thing has become abundantly clear: there is not nearly enough data, globally and in Mexico, surrounding programs and services to empower women entrepreneurs. This is concerning as often, interventions aimed at enabling entrepreneurs to grow do not account for gender-specific barriers and therefore risk exacerbating existing inequalities.
Our team is excited by the opportunity for the plant-based sector in Mexico, as an industry majority-run by women, to provide further investigation and implementation of programs and services that can reduce gender-barriers to women entrepreneurs and business owners. We hope that our research will shine light on areas in which stronger data collection on women’s empowerment and gender barriers can be conducted.
Ultimately, our goal is to help create an ecosystem that empowers women entrepreneurs, enabling them not only to improve their livelihoods, but also to boost a sector with untapped potential to grow the Mexican economy. This research is just the start.
We look forward to continuing to share our insights and recommendations, as well as other angles of our research!