Mexico research yields insights in struggle for women’s economic equality

In Mexico, as in many low- and middle-income countries, women are considerably underrepresented in the labour force — only 42 per cent of Mexican women are formally employed, compared to 75 per cent of men. The pandemic has only worsened the economic inequality affecting women across Latin America.

But a unique training and mentorship program based in the city of Guadalajara, capital of the Mexican state of Jalisco, has found a promising approach that works to help integrate marginalized women into the economy.

The Co-Meta Initiative mobilizes a network of local economic and social actors who support women’s economic empowerment. Of the women who participated in the Co-Meta Initiative 65 per cent reported an improvement in their economic situations as a result of the program.

The initiative offers marketable trades like concrete design, floral arrangement, and food preparation, combined with technical training and other skills development. Now the partners behind Co-Meta are expanding the program to reach 1,500 women across Jalisco.

This International Women’s Day, researchers from the Reach Alliance, based at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, are releasing a new study of the Co-Meta Initiative — a study that they believe can help better inform the design of other programs that seek to break down barriers to women’s economic participation globally, and that can inform efforts to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 5: Achieve Gender Equality and Empower All Women and Girls.

Collective impact brings collective challenges

Like a lot of development programs, Co-Meta is the product of collaboration between a diverse array of partners — it was founded by the Guadalajara-based sustainable development agency ProSociedad, is implemented by partners from the government, business, and NGO sectors in Jalisco, and recently received a significant injection of funding from the UN Women Second Chance Education Initiative, which is allowing it to scale up.

From the outset, ProSociedad designed Co-Meta according to the principles of Collective Impact, an approach in which different actors join together to pursue a common goal via structured collaboration, instead of through top-down management. Until now, there had been no external evaluation of Co-Meta to look at how it was implementing the Collective Impact framework. That’s where the Reach Alliance team came in.

Under the mentorship of Prof. Erica Di Ruggiero, Associate Professor of Global Health & Director of the Centre for Global Health at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, the Reach Alliance’s student researchers dug deep into the Co-Meta Initiative’s approach to collaboration with a network of actors. They interviewed past and present partner organizations, as well as the instructors and mentors responsible for directly serving program participants.

“What interested me most about the research process,” said undergraduate researcher Nora Moidu, “was hearing from a wide array of stakeholders — from government and UN representatives, to small business owners and nonprofit organizers.”

“Not only did we learn about the Collective Impact approach, but also about gender inequities, the realities of COVID-19 in Mexico, and success stories of program participants.”

“Our participatory approach to evaluating the initiative was critical to the research process through ongoing engagement of ProSociedad and ITESO,” said Prof. Di Ruggiero. “Our team identified key strategies, including the important role of ProSociedad as a backbone organization that facilitates collaboration and linkages among a network of actors.”

The conclusions the researchers delivered to Co-Meta are detailed in the recently released case study, and they can be instructive for similar kinds of broad partnerships that seek to achieve bold social objectives using Collective Impact.

The Reach Alliance study hones in on ways that Co-Meta can improve the communication between actors in the partnership, to make sure that everyone understands how they fit into the broader program framework. It also advises streamlining baseline training to ensure that the implementing partners can all work effectively with the program participants. To glean insights for program development, the study recommends an offboarding survey for former partners, and a centralized monitoring and evaluation system based on shared metrics.

“These insights will be of interest to other organizations implementing similar community-based initiatives to improve economic opportunities for women and help reduce gender inequities,” said Prof. Di Ruggiero.

It’s this innovative approach to multidisciplinary research — broadly-applicable, solutions-focused — that the Reach Alliance is scaling to six more top universities by 2022.