Across the world, COVID-19 has caused irreparable damage to communities, affecting economic growth and unemployment, while enhancing excruciating gaps in states’ ability to provide health care and prevent greater losses. For a new organization like the Observatorio y Promoción de la Economía Violeta® – OPEV®– in Ecuador, the pandemic arrived to halt their efforts, while also providing an incredible opportunity for the nation as a whole by highlighting the importance of empowering Ecuadorian women.
OPEV® seeks practical alternatives to reduce the barriers preventing access to equal conditions for women in terms of economic participation. The organization has partnered with the national government to continue identifying gender gaps and develop an action plan to incorporate Ecuadorian women into the economy at a critical time for the country.
Latina Republic spoke with Ana María Pesantes, executive director of the Observatorio y Promoción de la Economía Violeta®, who tells the story of OPEV’s origins, describes some of the obstacles women face in the workplace and education, and their plans for the future.
Latina Republic: What initially motivated you to create OPEV® and how long have you been working on its creation?
Ana María Pesantes: My name is Ana María Pesantes and I just turned forty years old. When I was thirty-eight, I had a very bad experience with a man that changed my life. It was the first time I felt discriminated against and I wondered why I had to go through this. The truth is I fell into a horrible depression and for some time I thought I would never be anything but a failure. I had a business that went bankrupt due to operative reasons, among a thousand other issues. That year, the Women Economic Forum wrote to me, inviting me to be speaker in Cartagena.
This was the first time the Women Economic Forum was coming to Latin America. I wondered what I would present on since I no longer had a business. They sent me an email inviting me to present on a session called “Marketing and Gender.” I have an undergraduate degree in Marketing and a Master’s in Business Administration and another in Marketing Direction, but nothing related to studying gender. In order to attend the Women Economic Forum, I had to research to prepare my presentation. When I began my research, I didn’t even have a team so I went to a university, called UEES, that I had worked with before and they welcomed me with open arms, providing me with whatever I needed.
After that, I met many powerful women that made my life so comfortable, one of them was María Jose Zambrano, who is the President and Co-Founder of OPEV®. When our team started researching, a few facts stuck out to us: first, that of all the unemployed people in Ecuador, 52% are women (before the pandemic) and of this 52%, a 34% of these women have resigned voluntarily.
If you look closely at these statistics, you realize 33% of women are professionals, with university degrees, and are unemployed. This alarmed us a lot because there is no data even today, and due to the pandemic we’ve had to wait. There is no data that tells us, for example; in Spain, concrete data tells you 6 out of 10 women leave their corporate lives to take care of their children, while in Ecuador this data still doesn’t exist.
So, I started to get into the topic of gender and I became very passionate about it. There’s still much work to do in terms of gender equality in Ecuador, but the pathways to equality do not exist yet. María Jose and I asked, “How will we do this in a patriarchal country like Ecuador and not reference or impose feminism?”
If we propose a strong feminist idea, many institutions and companies are going to tell us “No.” We began to work and designed an ecosystem with stakeholders like, government, public and private companies, members of the academy, NGOs. Civil society then saw us as an entity-supporting society, rather than a group staking a claim.
In Cartagena, I presented a lot of hard data that was collected from research at the Women Economic Forum in front of many women and it went very well. So when I returned to Ecuador, I spoke to María Jose and she told me this had to be an organization. Above all, it had to be very well done.
As we investigated, we realized there is a women’s economy to be manifested in Ecuador. For example, in Argentina and in Chile, the female economy is very developed, In fact, imagine here in Ecuador there isn’t even a Ministry of Gender. Fortunately, in 2019 the local government formed the first and only Women’s Direction in my city and country. Then, we decided to found this organization by first doing the research.
Latina Republic: What are the orange and violet economies exactly?
Ana María Pesantes: I studied the orange economy three years ago when I developed a very important congress on the orange economy, which featured 18 speakers, including the vice president of Alibaba, the founder of Shazam, and the father of the orange economy, John Hopkins. There, I began to like the idea of explaining the economy by color because people identify it more easily.
The orange economy is the collaborative economy; for example Uber and Cabify represent a collaborative economy. As you know, Uber has cars that do not belong to the private company, rather they belong to individual people. This is called the creative, collaborative, or service economy. Based on the research we completed, we decided a color is the best way to identify an economy where women can enter, therefore the Violet Economy® is a strategy to reduce the gender gaps in our country.
We go by the indexes identified by the World Economic Forum, which has four dimensions: Economic Participation and Opportunity, Educational Attainment, Health and Survival, and Political Empowerment. That’s how the story of the Violet Economy® began.
Aside from having a theory, we are now writing a book on the Violet Economy® and as an NGO, we have a research laboratory. There, we develop our research and we have a network that coordinates with the academic sphere, private companies, civil society, local and state governments, and with foundations who want to join us.
For example, in the first investigation we addressed why women are resigning from their work, because we know the resignations are voluntary, but we don’t know why. Another issue with COVID-19 are the problems women have during the pandemic. Every time there’s a crisis, women are at higher risk of losing everything in terms of work or salary, they lower your wages or fire you, which is accompanied by a higher workload at home and violence against the women and girls.
Basically, we developed this laboratory that generates research and from these investigations we started to create actions and propose public policy. This is the basis of all we do.
Latina Republic: Why do you think there was so little data before to base public policy on?
Ana María Pesantes: As I told you, there are many laws in Ecuador that favor women, such as the requirement for businesses to have a lactation room. However, many companies do not follow them and there is no continuous control. Also, there is no Ministry of Gender or an established budget by the government to help generate public policy because it’s not on their radar.
For this reason, OPEV® managed to present a project to the vice president and the Ministry of Economy and Finance that was accepted and we achieved that the Violet Economy® is now a national project, forming part of the agenda of the Ecuadorian government. In a few months, we will sign the national pact for the Violet Economy®, which brings us so much joy and satisfaction, given that we have captured the government’s interest in our project and our NGO in such little time.
Latina Republic: I wanted to ask if this year more was revealed about the reasons why women with higher education decide to stop working?
Ana María Pesantes: Of the 33% of women who have resigned, 66% of these women resign from their positions in private companies. It is an alarming issue. For example, this is a point we want to review in the research we’re conducting with the Superintendency of Companies, which is the institution that regulates companies in Ecuador.
Apart from knowing why they resign is whether they are given flexible schedules so they can work or if they have lactation rooms, which are legally required, but many companies do not have them.
Another issue is to somehow give small businesses some benefit, such as a monetary bonus, as incentive to develop policies for their female employees. So these kinds of things don’t exist in private companies. Just a few months ago, the law was passed to have half the list of presidents as half female candidates and half as male candidates.
Before September of last year, it was not like this. It’s a step, but at the same time there are many other areas in which equal opportunity does not exist.
Latina Republic: Can you tell me a bit about the field of education and its gaps?
Ana María Pesantes: The topic of education is super interesting because in Ecuador the majority of people who graduate from the university are women, actually 52% of graduates are women. Of this 52%, a 33% of these females do not continue working. There’s also an important stat that 55% of women at a national level only reach high school and do not go to university.
There’s the large issue, not only in Ecuador, but in many countries across the world, that there are few women in careers oriented towards the future and very few girls choose to study careers in STEM.
For this reason, OPEV® is in search of companies or international initiatives that can help us to create programs that empower girls and women in careers in the sciences, technology, math, art and engineering.
Latina Republic: What types of proposals have been generated to reduce the obstacles that stop women from accessing employment, business and leadership opportunities?
Ana María Pesantes: On February 12th, we launched OPEV® and in March the pandemic started but we didn’t stop working. For example, one of two major milestones, for us as OPEV®, is that the Violet Economy® already counts as part of the state’s agenda of the Ecuadorian government.
During these three months, we haven’t sat still, rather we tried to develop as quickly as possible and talked to the vice president, the Secretary of Human Rights and the Ministry of Economy and Finance to generate the program called the Violet Economy®, this program will have an entire process for economic recovery focused on women. It’s essentially an economic revival of all these women who were left unemployed or are entrepreneurs.
Physically, we can’t be in the field, but we are also developing a mentorship program based on the model of a pyramid. The women who own very large companies are in the top tier and want to contribute to society by teaching. We’ve called them so they train the second, or middle level of the pyramid. Then we’ve generated workshops where the women start to talk about their companies’ cases.
It’s like those conferences where you sit with opinion and business leaders to talk about real business cases. We want the middle part of the pyramid to also give back to the third and largest group of the pyramid. It’s not that OPEV® will hire teachers, instead these same business women will lead communities to train less privileged women as a way to give back to society.
For example, we are developing a project called Project Venus where we will create a STEAM academy for women, youth and girls. The idea is more women will be able to enter into careers that are typically masculine, like mathematics, economics, mechanics and engineering.
What we try to do is push these women to not stay within the careers that are female-dominated. Imagine what it would be like to send 20 girls to a program at the NASA Space Center so they could learn to be astronauts one day. With this program, we want girls to be convinced from a young age that the sky is the limit.
A study in Ecuador conducted by Deloitte in 2019 revealed that 27% of women pursue careers in human resources, 16% in marketing, sales and 12% in accounting, but there aren’t female engineers or scientists. Basically, this is what we’d like to push.
Latina Republic: Of course, you can organize everything, but can’t investigate yet. How is the organization working with the national government? Do you want to create a ministry or department?
Ana María Pesantes: No, we’ve talked with the vice president, with the secretary of Human Rights to create the program called the Violet Economy®. Then, it will reactivate Ecuador’s economy by taking these women who can also work to restart the economy after COVID-19. We still haven’t created a department, but we want to move towards that.
Why not? Obviously it’s still very soon, so we continue generating these topics so people and the government understand the importance of our work, such as the demand for employing women, issues in workplace environments, that women have more participation in the workplace, so we don’t see 52% of women as unemployed.
Imagine if we took a small part of that percentage, and we re-integrate them into the economy and marketplace. Imagine how much we could grow Ecuador’s GDP. That’s where we want to be. So, with both the government and with the secretary of Human Rights, we will create the program Violet Economy®, that is also called the Motion of Economic Empowerment for women during and post-COVID-19.
Latina Republic: Tell me more about your career. How did you enter into this field and what did you do before?
Ana María Pesantes: I had a marketing agency, which went bankrupt after I had a bad experience with a man. I had absolutely nothing. However, this experience helped me to be the woman I am today, because it gave me the strength to be resilient and stand up again in spite of adversity.
This taught me you can fall many times, but you are the only one who can pick yourself up again. Now I want to help many women who have similar experiences and aren’t capable of using their voice and show them through my story that they can, and that life gives us a world of opportunities if you find your true life purpose.
I love studying so I immediately fell in love with all of these gender issues when the Women Economic Forum invited me to be a speaker in the 2019 conference in Cartagena. Really, this pushed me to do the job well, to deeply study these issues that were not on my radar before, and I loved all of it.
The United Nations and the Inter-American Development Bank are involved in this field, but I relate more to the IDB because they tell you more about the women’s economy. There is where I began to study gender, as I didn’t have my own business, I had a year and half to structure everything we wanted to do.
It was an investigation that grew into an NGO. It was marvelous. The truth is the path we had was beautiful. In some ways, there were days when I told myself this would never be anything and we could never help. I had never studied social issues, but worked my entire life in private companies. You realize how many women are suffering from violence and how many women are unemployed.
I had started to fall in love with this path, and now, with OPEV®, it’s much more than love. You realize how much you can do from your position or your home to help these women. This is what I am most passionate about. I’ve worked my whole life in the private sector and there’s so much outside that I didn’t realize existed.
Women and children, for example, who are killed or dismembered, like the girl who was found dismembered by her mother’s boyfriend last week. There you begin to ask yourself, to what point am I going to be blind to all these problems that exist? That is where I became passionate about these all issues.
Featured Image: Photo Courtesy, OPEV. Susana González, prefect of Guayas; Cintia Viteri, mayor of Guayaquil; and Vivian Almeida, director of La Dirección de La Mujer of Guayaquil.
Ciara Sotomayor | Wake Forest University
Now in her last year at Wake Forest University, Ciara is completing her studies in Politics & International Affairs, as well as Spanish. Her interest in international politics stems from her experiences living in different cultures as a military dependent and her family’s connection to Puerto Rico. While on campus, she involved herself in the surrounding community as a member of Alpha Phi Omega, a coeducational community service fraternity and as a staff writer for the student newspaper, The Old Gold & Black. In 2019, she received the Richter Scholarship to investigate the effects of Hurricane María in Puerto Rico and studied the Spanish language and politics in Salamanca, Spain. Always a lover of storytelling, she is excited to be a Latin American Correspondent to develop understanding of human rights in Latin America and participate in journalistic advocacy to highlight the efforts being made to protect them. After graduation, she hopes to continue supporting community efforts towards development by broadening the types of narratives told about Latin America in the rest of the world.