Stepping Out of the Household: Life Changes for Women in Tourism in Ecuador and Mexico


Why question common perceptions regarding the role and status of female tourism entrepreneurs within a globalised and capitalist tourism industry? Where does power, creativity and social innovation truly reside in tourism-led development? 

Mathias Pécot, professor at ESPOL, shares insights gleaned from research conducted in Ecuador and Mexico.

Discussions surrounding gender equality and women’s empowerment in the context of tourism-led development often revolve around a narrow perspective, portraying women as service providers in a globalised and capitalist tourism industry. This viewpoint tends to perpetuate stereotypes of women as dependent, vulnerable and lacking agency.

But a new study by a collective of academics – myself Mathias Pécot, Carla Ricaurte-Quijano, Catheryn Khoo, Marisol Alonso Vazquez, Domenica Barahona-Canales, Elaine Chiao Ling Yang and Rosalie Tan – challenges such notions. 

Female tourism entrepreneurs taking part in an online digital competencies workshop in Santa Elena, Ecuador

With our focus on a gendered analysis as the framework for our research, we depart from prevailing stereotypes and usher in more inclusive narratives. The findings help broaden our understanding of intricate connections between female tourism entrepreneurship, progress toward gender equality, and empowerment. 

From Empowering Women to Being Empowered by Women

Gendered partnerships within the tourism sector have emerged as promising platforms for empowering women in the industry. However, it’s crucial to acknowledge the significant challenges associated with gender-focused projects and training initiatives facilitated through these partnerships. 

Often, issues related to meaning, practice and power dynamics for female tourism entrepreneurs in equality and empowerment initiatives are overlooked.

In this context, we must enhance our understanding of the risks of project failure and navigate complex social structures. These are laden with elements of violence, paternalistic attitudes, (neo)colonial legacies and masculine notions of entrepreneurial success. 

For this study, we conducted 33 in-depth interviews and facilitated five digital training workshops with inspiring women tourism entrepreneurs from Ecuador and Mexico. These were funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) under the Council of Australia Latin American Relationships (COALAR) programme.

A poster reading "Marketing digital en turismo para mujeres emprendedoras" ("Digital marketing in tourism for female entrepreneurs" in English)
Networking during a digital competencies workshop

Designed and delivered based on insights gathered through the fieldwork and interviews, the hands-on and collaborative workshops involved 111 entrepreneurs across the two countries. The experience turned into a valuable networking opportunity for participants.

Here are some key highlights from these engagements.

Navigating Rough Seas: Individual and Relational Empowerment in the Face of Structural Constraints

This research brings visibility to the nuanced processes to both individual and relational empowerment, which is when people work together in a group or organisation to create empowerment. These often occur beyond planned interventions and among structural constraints faced by female tourism entrepreneurs.

Individual Empowerment

Testimonies of female tourism entrepreneurs in Ecuador and Mexico reveal transformative journeys. They’re marked by a sense of freedom, the capacity to dream, and the inspiration to pursue endeavours beyond the ordinary. 

From ‘stepping outside the household’ to venturing overseas for business, becoming the first family member to obtain a professional title, or innovating with new materials and technologies – these entrepreneurs describe themselves with terms denoting self-reliance, awareness of their situation, and confidence in their abilities to fulfil their personal aspirations. 

Many female entrepreneurs perceive themselves as catalysts for progress, believing their actions pave the way for other women in their communities.

Relational Empowerment

This study unpacks relational empowerment as a dynamic process intertwined with female tourism entrepreneurship journeys. 

Beyond transformations ‘from within’, relational empowerment arises from interactions with various stakeholders such as family members, community leaders, peers and intermediaries engaged in tourism-led development initiatives. Additionally, interactions with younger generations and customers are pivotal in driving social change within patriarchal contexts. 

These interactions involve ongoing negotiations over values like trust, time management, storytelling, moral support, expertise and control over decision-making processes.

Structural Constraints

However, among these empowering narratives, structural constraints loom large. Female tourism entrepreneurs grapple with a myriad of challenges, including sexism, domestic violence, societal expectations and limited access to resources, education and technology. 

Moreover, punitive structures and unsupportive policies hinder their entry into the tourism economy, particularly through informal avenues of work. These constraints underscore the multidimensional and severe obstacles that transcend individual capabilities or personality traits, posing significant hurdles to entrepreneurship.

A Shift to Gendered Social Innovation and Social Change Towards Equality

Gendered social innovation emerges as a strong narrative to approach social transformation and power shifts happening in the wake of female tourism entrepreneurs’ empowerment. 

A group of female tourism entrepreneurs hold their certificates after completing a digital competency course
Participants celebrate completing their workshop

In light of this study, it’s both the disruptive process and tangible result of: 

1) acknowledging female tourism entrepreneurship as an alternative form of tourism business in diverse tourism economies; 

2) putting forward gendered partnerships as novel approaches to thinking, organising and caring for others in the face of structural constraints; 

3) situating female professional associations, cooperatives and networks as genuine forms of agency where broader societal changes are incubated.  

Altogether the findings in this study provide compelling evidence for a radical ‘repositioning’ of female tourism entrepreneurs as central stakeholders in tourism-led development policies, partnerships and training designs. 

Takeaways for Tourism-Led Development Practitioners and Policymakers

In practical terms, as noted by Professor Catheryn Khoo, “this research points towards changing the way we think about women’s roles in the tourism industry. It’s not just about providing goods and services. It’s about recognising and supporting women as innovative contributors who can shape and lead in various tourism contexts. 

“This shift in perspective aims to create real, positive changes in how women are perceived and engaged in the tourism sector.”

Read the complete study: From empowering women to being empowered by women: A gendered social innovation framework for tourism-led development initiatives

More Insights to Explore: