In this blog, we share our journey from research, to research on women´s empowerment, to action at institutional level, and finally to an institutional commitment to work towards empowering Salvadoran women. 

[Editor’s Note: This post was written by Lissette Calderón and Margarita Beneke de Sanfeliú. They are researchers at the Center of Research and Statistics (CIE) at the Salvadoran Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUSADES). It is the fourth in a blog series on think tanks and gender equality, edited by Shannon Sutton and Natalia Yang.]

Despite progress, women continue to lag behind men in terms of wages, their position in the labour market, and participation in private and public decision-making. There is a virtuous relationship between female labor force participation and women´s economic empowerment. But there is also growing recognition around a second virtuous effect: women´s empowerment leads to enhanced economic growth. 

At FUSADES, we are proud to say that we have made women´s empowerment one of our “causes”. But, did we always pay attention to differences between opportunities and outcomes of men and women? Historically we have disaggregated according to sex in our surveys and studies. However, there has not always been a conscious effort to explore the root causes that might lead to these gender gaps, and in turn to take action to help close them.

In recent years several of us have participated, with Think Tank Initiative support, in various international conferences where we learned, among other things, about the field of feminist economics. This has taught us that better public policy recommendations are possible when we understand how an issue, problem or economic phenomenon may affect men and women differently, and that this in turn can help to close gender gaps.  This has also helped us to realize that it is possible to go beyond disaggregated data to focus on addressing the causes behind gender inequalities.

How did we adapt our research approach?

We are now focusing on learning what it takes to empower women, and to allow them to participate fully in the labor market, in politics and in society more broadly. To do this, we initiated a line of research on women's economic empowerment, and we began by addressing gender differences in a conscious way.  In one project, on labor market participation for men and women, we used panel data to explore labor transitions; we found that women tend to move in and out of the labor market much more than men. As such, we were able to explore factors that enable favourable labor transitions. Then, other regional projects emerged that allowed us to continue working on women's participation in the labour market. As a result we looked more deeply at the factors that enable women to attain better jobs and examined the public policies that contribute to further women´s economic empowerment.

In addition, when taking on new research, we started looking at both how issues affect men and how they affect women. We then consciously sought out gender gaps and worked to try to understand how to help close them. As a result, when researching public transport crime in El Salvador, a topic for which there is absolutely no data, we were able to produce new evidence showing how the same chaotic situation affected men and women differently, identifying women as the most vulnerable group of users.

And what about the rest of FUSADES?

Starting in 2011, the number of female members in our Board of Directors has gradually increased.   FUSADES experienced an institutional turning point two years ago when women reached 35% of Board members and, for the first time, a woman was elected Vice President. “These events showed that the institution valued having women in leadership and research positions", explains Marjorie de Trigueros, a researcher from the Legal Studies Department-.

Claudia Umaña, FUSADES Vice President also told us:  “I was the first female Director of Legal Studies Department at FUSADES, and held this role for seven years, and I realized that a masculine vision prevailed for many years. But I´ve also noted that FUSADES, following a global trend, was providing important and influential spaces for women´s voices”.

Once Ms. Umaña assumed the Vice Presidency, she and other female colleagues from the Board and senior staff decided to promote women with FUSADES, by supporting and mentoring them in their different roles and empowering them in their personal growth. We also worked to raise awareness of the balance between family and work within the institution. We soon realized that we did not want it to be just for women at FUSADES, but for all women in the country. So we worked to create the Initiative for Salvadoran Women to “promote women´s economic empowerment and influence the national agenda”, as Ms. Umaña puts it.  “The central objective was to have a positive impact on the lives of so many Salvadoran women who are hardworking and often face obstacles and lack of opportunities”, declares Ms. Trigueros who leads the Initiative for Salvadoran Women.

When the Initiative began, studies by FUSADES about women´s economic empowerment and transport crime were being published, which created some interesting opportunities.  “The moment was auspicious, and presenting these studies with evidence that did not exist in the country helped engage with key actors with interest in closing gender gaps. They now consider FUSADES a natural ally”, explains Ms. Trigueros.  “The Initiative allowed us to gain visibility. It is a platform that helped disseminate our findings to stakeholders that were new to us, such as women leaders in the private and public sector, organizations working to promote women led business and women´s empowerment. It has expanded our network”, she explains. 

“We are walking this journey gradually. Real changes start from inside out, and this has motivated strategic decisions internally.  For example, incorporating more women in our Board of Directors - now 50% of the newly elected Board members are women”, Ms. Trigueros says.     

But we are not taking actions in research only. As in other Latin American countries, there is a strong female underrepresentation in politics, academia, and in leadership roles in business, and in public and private institutions.  This is not just a problem of social equality; this is also a problem of efficiency. Our Political Studies Department is purposely including more female professors in its Central American School of Government and Democracy, and in order to increase future participation of women in politics, priority is given to female qualified applicants. In addition, a class on “Democracy and Gender” has been included as well.

What challenges lie ahead?

One of the biggest challenges is to move from research to action, and to “make this a sustainable effort”, declared Ms. Trigueros. “The Initiative faces the challenge to consolidate and strengthen alliances with other institutions to promote inclusive public policies that are based on evidence”, says Ms. Umaña. Implementing this Initiative involves challenges at institutional levels; for example, it is taking time to convince our male colleagues that it is not an issue of ‘up with women- down with men’.  However, just this past week, our Executive Committee passed a mandate to make researching and promoting women´s empowerment a cross-cutting agenda (officially!) in all departments at FUSADES.   

FUSADES is fostering female participation in decision-making as well as stronger media visibility and recognition; but we want to go beyond this. The challenges of female participation are not unique to FUSADES nor El Salvador; informed by TTI-supported Grupo Sofia efforts in Peru, FUSADES will try to enhance the local ecosystem to enable the stronger participation of women.

Better public policy recommendations require analysis that unpacks and addresses the causes of gender inequality, and for this more disaggregated data is required. We (the CIE at FUSADES) have the mandate to make sure that if we can find it we collect it, and if not, we work to find a way to generate it.  It is a big challenge, but one we are ready to embrace.

Please note: These are the authors’ personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of the Think Tank Initiative.