Talking Gender


A blog about gender, culture and organizational change

By Gender at Work Media / November 14, 2014 / Loading Disqus...

This is a video (in Portuguese) of the Gender Action Learning process we conducted inMozambique with 26 people of the Union of Rural Workers of Cabo Delgado with support from Oxfam Solidarité Belgium e Oxfam Canada. The process ran for 18 months and was facilitated by Solange Rocha. 


By Gender at Work Media / November 7, 2014 / Loading Disqus...

How do you trace the impact of an intervention that took place 20 years ago?  It's a bit like a retiring teacher trying to trace her influence on the lives and work of students she taught a generation ago. Even when you're looking at only one organization, if it's as complex as BRAC, with 50,000 staff and a half billion dollar annual budget, the exercise risks taking too much credit (or blame) or too little. And based on whose perception? The teacher's? The students'? Their spouses? Their colleagues? 

That's what it feels like for Aruna Rao and Rieky Stuart, being invited back to BRAC to document the action-learning process we led with David Kelleher, Sheepa Hafiza and her BRAC team. We have been asked to put on paper what GQAL did, its contributions, and what lessons there may be for where BRAC is now, in the current Bangladeshi context.

Certainly the colleagues and GQAL participants we have talked to welcome the opportunity to reflect — with some nostalgia, sharing pictures and stories of what happened in field offices.  

And there are pieces of documentation — reports, policies, evaluations of field-based GQAL programmes, and a rich history of spin-offs — from BRAC's gender policy to changes in working conditions for staff, as well in organizational culture. "There was less shouting", one participant told us at a workshop today.

So far, our impression is that a lot of this work goes in cycles. BRAC is currently making a major effort to create a positive organizational culture, and all programmes have been asked to develop gender equality goals with Board agreement for a budget allocation for this work.  So perhaps the lessons of the past, both successes and shortcomings, can feed into the future.  

By Gender at Work Media / October 31, 2014 / Loading Disqus...

By Bongani Dlamini

Last night the rain spoke to me slowly saying:
“Oh yes construction is for women.
Through pain, harassment and discrimination—these our members.
They are marginalised in the workplace, community, society but they are our members who are loyal, honest and obedient.

O, yes construction is for women
Did they join the trade union to find fun?
They are a powerful resource to liberate other women
Yes, this can bring some change and new life
Yes construction is for women

Sometime in November 2013 something interesting happened in the office. Two strong women shop stewards checked with the senior officials where the gender coordinator was. They wanted information on the reasons why work to advance gender equality was not happening in the union. These two shop stewards are from an Eskom Power project of 5000 workers in Kusile, outside Witbank. They had attended the Gender at Work/ LRS peer learning workshops with a team of about 10 women.

Our union’s involvement in the Gender at Work peer learning process was through the LRS, and involved interaction with other trade unions, NGOs and CBOs. After attending the peer learning workshops, the level of consciousness of these shop stewards from Kusile seemed to immediately shift. Their understanding increased and that they managed to make some changes in Kusile. They realised that some of the standard workplace practices that should be implemented in a workplace were not being practiced in their workplace. For example women were stuck in cleaning jobs and making tea. Casual workers, many of whom are women, were not given protective clothing. They used the space created in the peer learning workshops very well. They used the knowledge they got from these workshops to raise their voices, their issues and to demand better jobs and higher wage levels. Among the changes they were able to make was the election of more women shop stewards in the different departments. This meant that these women now have a voice, they are asking relevant questions like why women are not doing jobs like fork lift driving and why the branch executive of the union is made up only of males. These women showed character in a rough male dominated industry. They are now representing the voice of women, the voiceless members.

What happened in these workshops?

When the women started discussing that jobs done by men can also be done by women there seemed to be a light and their consciousness was raised. They discussed the rights of women at work and the problem that some women workers did not have formal employment contracts. From the workshop they decided to approach management, but management had no answers for them. The workers together with the union organisers then took the process forward. When a dispute was declared at the CCMA, management realised that they had to save face by addressing the problems they had created. This further encouraged women members and the newly elected women shop stewards to think of themselves as making a difference. They realised they have the power but that they are not aware of how to use it. Another example of the shift in consciousness was when a leading shop steward from the Johannesburg central district came to see me for information about being an entrepreneur. This leading shop steward noticed that the contractors coming in and out of her workplace were black owned small businesses. She knocked at my office to investigate how she could set up a business. I suggested a cooperative business. I got business forms and we filled them in and all the necessary documentation was submitted to the authorities. I provided guidance but the shop steward was responsible for filling in the forms. She registered her own cooperative with her daughters. Her thinking was that there were no jobs for young people, and that she needed to create employment for her daughters and for other young people. An initiative such as this was not in our plan but we realised people can stretch their minds when there consciousness has been raised.

(to be cont...)

Bongani Dlamini is a participant in our Gender Action Learning process in South Africa. This is part 2 of a two-part blog post. Read part 1 here.

By Gender at Work Media / October 21, 2014 / Loading Disqus...

Gender-based violence at work is a pernicious and global human and labor rights violation. It is a manifestation of unequal power and serves to perpetuate social and economic inequality. 35% of women have experienced violence, and 40-50% of women experience unwanted sexual advances, physical contact or other forms of sexual harassment at work.

This global problem demands a global response.

Support the ILO convention to advocate action for women workers' rights and an end to gender-based violence at work!


  • Physical abuse, including assault, battery, attempted murder and murder
  • Sexual violence including rape and sexual assault
  • Verbal abuse and threats of violence
  • Bullying
  • Psychological abuse and intimidation
  • Sexual harassment
  • Threats of violence
  • Economic and financial abuse
  • Stalking

Trade unions are calling for a new international Convention on gender-based violence at the workplace, and are using their voice at the International Labour Organization’s Governing Body (ILO GB) to put the topic on the agenda of the International Labour Conference (ILC). The ILC is where international labour standards get negotiated and agreed upon by employers, governments and workers. A proposal is currently pending before the Governing Body of the International Labour Organization (ILO) to develop an international standard to guide governments and businesses on developing strong laws and policies to prevent and remedy the problem. Developing an international standard will promote global equality and foster safer workplaces.

Support the call by signing here.

Click here for campaign overview.


By Gender at Work Media / October 16, 2014 / Loading Disqus...

Feminists in Development Organizations: Change from the margins
Edited by Rosalind Eyben and Laura Turquet

The book launch is on 20 October, 2014 | 2 - 3 pm | George Washington University | Marvin Center, Room 403, 800, 21st St NW

Feminist Bureaucrats - Contradiction, Co-optation or Political Strategy?
You are warmly invited to participate in debating this question with a panel of speakers to launch the book. Join us to discuss the hidden lives and strategic dilemmas of feminists working in bureaucracies to effect transformational change. Buy the book here.

Panelists: Editors / Contributors Professor Rosalind Eyben, University of Sussex; Laura Turquet, UN Women; and Aruna Rao, Gender at Work
Lucia Hanmer, World Bank
Mohini Malhotra
Chaired by Dr Mary Ellsberg, Director, Global Women's Institute


More about the book from the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) website:

Feminists in Development Organizations arises from a collaborative project between 2007 and 2012 in which a group of feminists working inside the head offices of multilateral organizations, government aid agencies and international non-governmental organizations came together to critically reflect on their work.

The personal stories in this book show that these feminists are ‘tempered radicals’ positioned on the border of the development agencies that employ them. It is a place where they are neither fully one thing nor another: neither fully paid-up, pen-pushing bureaucrats, nor full-blown feminist activists on the barricades. Nevertheless, feminist bureaucrats see their work as urgent, essential and a necessary contribution to global efforts to achieve women’s rights.

This book reflects on the progress of gender mainstreaming. It shows how feminists can build effective strategies to influence development organizations to foster greater understanding and forge more effective alliances for social change. This book is aimed at staff of development organizations - who want their organizations to become an instrument in helping transforming the lives of women – and at students and researchers concerned with the politics of gender mainstreaming.

By Gender at Work Media / October 6, 2014 / Loading Disqus...

By Ayanda Masina

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill of things unknown,
And yet on and on and on it sings
for it is not just any bird
the caged bird wants nothing more than to be heard from that distance
into that distance it sings
for not only is it caged for its being
but it is also caged for the fear of its songs
The songs it sings tearfully for the outcomes of it are known
for the response of those who from that distance hear the songs unknown
and yet on and on and on it sings
With the fearful trill of things unknown to those who hear, who have heard and who will hear

~ Maya Angelou

"Hai Suka!awbheke lama Ntombazne azenza abafana” they are a disgrace to the community. One of these days siszo shisa lezinto” 

In a crowd of people, that hoarse and loud voice pierced my ears from a distance. He appeared in his Rastafarian ensemble, with a face that expressed hatred and disgust. He stood looking at me and my four friends. A lot was going on in my mind. I did not know what to do or say. We were making our way to a community dialogue at the Tsakane Park so we were rushing to get refreshments for the day. Tons of people stood there in the mall looking at us. A lot was written on their faces. In their hearts and minds, words were forming into lines and sentences, sentences were forming into paragraphs. Paragraphs filled with hate…love…pity...shame and the need to express themselves. 

“But my brother what’s wrong with you?” asked Mpo my friend. ”People like you are the people we need for today’s session, please be kind enough to join us at the park at 2 pm because what you just said shows that we as lesbians are failing to reach our goal in educating and equipping the community with knowledge and so we will face this kind of behavior every day.” 

I was amazed at how calmly and respectfully he addressed the guy who had just insulted us in front of a ton of people. Slowly I turned around, my pretty smile worn on my beautiful face, and I asked, “Will you join us Bhuti?” He just looked at us with eyes of disbelief and then walked away.

For this excellent behavior I really have to say that a huge catalyst was the Gender Action Learning (GAL) process. Sitting with people and sharing ideas at the action learning process on how to deal with issues that came up: “You cannot end violence or abuse with violence or abuse.” 

So we did what we came to do at the mall and we headed for the park where we found a group of people already there. The atmosphere was very chilled and welcoming. People had gathered in a circle on their camping chairs, some on the grass, some even standing. 

We had invited people from the community—mothers, fathers, sisters, daughters and every community member. The expressions on their faces said a lot, but most importantly the day we had all been waiting for had come. Friendly faces relaxed us a bit and we used the facilitating skills we had learned in the GAL workshops. 

We were ready to stand in front of a crowd with different opinions, views and beliefs. We were ready to start the work in breaking cultural and societal norms. We were ready to accept positive and negative criticism, but through our learning with GAL, we knew we were equipped. In our hearts we knew we had to listen and keep the crowd engaged. 

After the greetings we asked: “Which problems are our communities faced with? Unemployment, teenage pregnancy, crime?” The community members expressed everything but left out hate crimes, gender-based violence (GBV), HIV and stereotypical behavior. It could be that they did not pay attention or that they did not know. The truth of the matter is we also did not pay much attention to GBV and HIV, yet we knew that women were being abused. 

What surprised us most was when a pretty, bubbly, tall and slender black girl stood up and said “as much as abuse is there in heterosexual relationships, it exists in homosexual relationships too. You find a girl beating up another girl she is in a relationship with because she is butch and claims to be the husband of the femme. (A butch is a masculine dressing lesbian and a femme is a feminine dressing lesbian).This is not only in relationships. Even in society or in the workplace there is abuse. Abuse is not only beating up someone but also denying to do what they desire because you feel it is against your culture or religion. That is also a violation of your rights.” Silence and shame was written on almost everyone’s face. But also written was discovery. 

Many issues were tackled—from HIV and xenophobia to GBV and for us facilitators, it was easy to give answers to everyone. They also shared bits and pieces of knowledge with us and we learned from each other as well. 

We realised that we were growing and becoming more polished through the GAL because really a lot has changed since the process begun. Everyone is now eager and more determined even though we don’t have a structure and a leader, we still keep on. 

We are stronger than before. The GAL process taught us that even without a leader, through determination, ambition and hard work, a lot can be done. Having been through the process, we were equipped with information. We have learned how to trust ourselves and we have learned a different and inclusive style of facilitation where everyone can be a teacher and everyone can learn. We learned a kind of facilitation that breaks the wall between audience and facilitator. This kind of facilitation says “we are all teachers as well as learners in this place”. 

Through the GAL, we could look at problems not at eye level only. We learned to remove the lens and we were guided to look deeply into matters such as societal norms as things people believe in. People believe that this is how it has always been, and in so doing people forget that we are groomed like this. The Gender Action Learning process created spaces where we could voice our views and opinions. We could tackle issues without being judged. 

During the dialogues we tried to get to know the norms community members hold on to. This was important to understand in order to deal with issues like gender-based violence, homophobia and xenophobia, HIV and more. The knowledge and guidance we received helped us with these discussions. 

A lot has changed since the process began or rather since we became a part of it. The people who attend the study circles and especially the coordinators have changed their approach to addressing cadres and community people. There is more energy and clarity. Now we can hear and see passion and dedication when they talk. People have more drive and their spirit has changed. 

I recall an incident in the study circle where we were discussing dialogues and for the first time, people were complaining about the reading material. One of our coordinators, Sweeto, suggested that people read at home but bring their information and have an open discussion in the groups. This resulted in people being more active in the study circles. 

After all is said and done, after the marches, the study circles and dialogues, we hope that the acceptance, equality and respect we long for will eventually come. One day, someday, the hard work will pay off and people will see with the same eyes. The struggle shall continue. 

Ayanda Masina is a participant in the Gender Action Learning process that we faciliated in South Africa in 2012-13. At the end of the year, we had a short writing workshop with some of the participants. This is the first in a series of blog posts featuring the stories that emerged. 


By Gender at Work Media / September 30, 2014 / Loading Disqus...

We had a great time at The TMI Project workshop last month. Here's one of the moments!


By Gender at Work Media / September 18, 2014 / Loading Disqus...

Freedom Traveller is a project that encourages women's mobility in countries where their freedom  is limited or curtailed. It was one of the winners of our End Gender Discrimination Now! Contest which invited ideas and stories on gender innovation and change from around the world. We have great reason to bring this up now—Momal Mushtaq, the person behind this great idea, has been featured by TEDx and we're thrilled to share her talk with you.

A women's rights activist and aspiring social entrepreneur from Pakistan, Momal speaks eloquently and honestly about her relationship with freedom and equality and how traveling inspired her to launch The Freedom Traveller. 

By Gender at Work Media / September 16, 2014 / Loading Disqus...

By Ireen Dubel 

Twelve feminists from all over the world meet in upstate New York, September 2014. They meet to pilot the methodology of The TMI Project for Gender at Work. They have come to dig up stories for knowledge building about their work experiences as gender experts, feminists working in development agencies in various parts of the world. What they know upon arrival is that they are expected to write. They have come to write stories about their role as intermediaries between the agendas of their organizations and their personal drives to contribute to improve the lives of marginalized women through empowerment and tackling of persistent gender inequalities. Each of them only knows a few of the fellow participants. The majority does not know what they are actually in for. 

Day one, the magic happens. Trust and confidentially are guiding principles, without having to be formally agreed upon. Facilitation is of course key. Three women, who have gone through the same TMI Project methodology, share their stories during the opening session of the workshop. They tell deep stories about their personal experiences of discrimination and marginalization, not as victims, no, as women—who and where they are, now and where they want to go to. The three-day meeting turns out to be a most creative, exciting, inspiring, reflective encounter. 

The methodology of the TMI Project is rigid. After the opening session and expectation sharing, writing, pen on paper without lifting it—no laptops or iPads—is driving the process. Stories are shared, told, enriched over the days. The end result is amazing. Twelve authentic, compelling stories about the politics of being feminist change agents and working in a variety of organisations and bureaucracies, are staged, performed. Laughter and tears fill the room. Each participant is empowered in her own personal way. Some achieve major leaps from misery, pain and the sense of being stuck. Others share experiences never told, experience the liberation of shedding and the affirmation of deeply personal experiences of pain, sorrow and loss. Competition and hierarchy are absent. Each story is validated as the personal expression and experience of deep gender inequality issues that are on the agenda, both in the work and personal domains of the participants. The stories are publishable. The methodology can be used to produce stories for gender training modules, for evidence reporting to back donors, for fundraising in the gender & development and business worlds. The methodology enables knowledge development and sharing about the deep individual, organisational and institutional dimensions of change that Gender at Work wishes to generate. This methodology deserves replication, multiplication, through training of trainers, through wider exposure, through in-house donor familiarization and many more ways. It has the potential to recognize, validate and affirm. The revelation of one of my fellow participants: “I am stepping into my power.” 

Ireen Dubel is Senior Advisor on Women's Rights at the Humanist Institute for Co-operation with Developing Countries (Hivos). She was a participant at a recent workshop organized by The TMI Project (an upstate New York-based organization that aims to “change the world, one story at a time”), and Gender at Work. The workshop took place over three days in September and invited feminists who have worked at the front line of confronting gender discrimination.

By Gender at Work Media / August 23, 2014 / Loading Disqus...

This toolkit developed by Srilatha Batliwala and Michel Friedman helps build the capacities of women in leadership positions. Based on the work done for CREA’s Feminist Leadership for Social Transformation—Clearing the Conceptual Cloud, the toolkit has been developed in collaboration with Oxfam. You can download it here. We chatted with Srilatha about what it covers—gender, power, deep structures and what it takes to create safe spaces.  

1. What are some of the most important tools you have talked about in this toolkit? 

I think each one is useful in a particular way, in a particular context and what each individual experiences with each tool is highly subjective and varied. Each exercise does something different, at a different level, or works for understanding different aspects of one’s internal life or organizational environment. But there are probably some that have a greater potential to create “AHA” moments—the deep structure mapping, for instance, or the personal histories with power, or the “I'm Okay You’re Okay” grid. 

2. Some of the exercises in this toolkit are intense and challenging such as the one which requires introspection on one’s own relationship/ experience of power. What kind of mindset or attitude is important for participants coming into it? What must they be prepared for? 

I think all the exercises require a considerable degree of openness, honesty and self awareness. But it is difficult to be totally self-aware unless one is also quite mature. People who feel easily threatened and insecure, who always need to be in control, may not get much out of them, especially the “SELF” exercises. For instance, in order to locate yourself in the “I'm okay you’re okay” quadrants, you have to be prepared to admit—even if it is only to yourself—that you’re primary position is “I'm not okay, you’re not okay”. Fortunately, a lot of the SELF exercises don’t demand that you share your insights with other people but they do expect you to act on the insights they give you, or to begin to explore how you can change negative patterns. 

3. What about the other side of it? What is important in a facilitator? What kind of attitudes or openness must the facilitator bring into this? 

Because of the sensitive issues and emotions that most of the toolkit exercises will inevitably throw up, we have emphasized the importance of the facilitator’s role and skill in managing these. The facilitator’s guide was added to the toolkit precisely for this reason. But the most important factor is the need for the facilitator to create a safe environment for the process, which means establishing and sustaining norms of respectfulness, honesty, non-judgement, dealing constructively with negative emotions or conflict that may emerge. This means the facilitator herself must be careful to keep an open mind, to remain non-judgemental even when opinions or attitudes are expressed that conflict with her own. At times, however, the facilitator will also have to have the courage and capacity to name and visibilize the dynamic that is causing problems, and manage the anger or hurt this might cause. The larger purpose of each exercise, and of the process as a whole, must remain the overriding priority for the facilitator, and individual sensitivities and reactions have to be balanced with this. THIS IS HARD WORK!! Which is why we have pointed facilitators to several resources that can help them do this, especially if they are not experienced facilitators – in situations, for instance, where a staff member may play the facilitator’s role. Nevertheless, we realise that even the most excellent facilitation may not work with leaders or organizations that are deeply threatened and resistant to change. 

4. The tookit talks about creating safe spaces for participants. What are “safe spaces” and why are they important? 

The kind of openness, honesty, and deep interrogation of the SELF, of organizational systems and practices that the toolkit demands, cannot be conducted or completed in an environment where people are afraid, tense, anxious. They may fear reprisal for speaking up, for naming the “elephant in the room”, or simply for sharing their real feelings honestly. So it is critical for the atmosphere to feel safe—meaning a space where there will not be judgement, reprisal, counter-attack, or blame—where each person is treated with respect and as an equal, where everyone is given the benefit of the doubt and the right to articulate their opinions and feelings, and who is trusted about wanting to contribute to the collective goal. It is difficult to describe a safe space in words. It is something we feel in our gut, something experienced. It is being in unsafe spaces that makes one realize the quality of a safe space. 

5. What are some of the ways in which safe spaces can be created? 

This is a complex process and cannot be described in a few words. The toolkit provides some ideas on this in the facilitator’s guide, as well as links to other resources that provide guidelines for creating safe spaces. Michel, in particular, has shared some of her practices in creating safe spaces for groups riven with conflict, anger, and even violence against each other.

6. In the toolkit, you have a section on why articulating Values and Principles (as an organization) matters. What are some of the challenges that organizations may face while doing this? 

As you know, the leadership toolkit is based on the concept paper that I wrote much earlier for CREA: Feminist Leadership for Social Transformation – Clearing the Conceptual Cloud, in which I proposed the idea of the feminist leadership “Diamond” comprising the four Ps of Power, Politics (purpose), Principles and Practice. I theorized that only when the four Ps are in alignment, when the power that leaders have is tempered by and accountable to the purpose for which they are leading (the politics of the organization or movement), and the principles and values they must uphold and promote, that their practices will reflect feminist ideology. But usually, organizations and leaders don't bother to spell out their politics / purpose or the principles and values of the organization / movement, or believe they are obvious or implicit, and so they don’t create any clear mechanisms for checking whether the organization’s internal and external practices are in sync with these values or not. So an important first step is to articulate values, and then to figure out how you are going to monitor the implementation / practice of these values. 

The main challenge in this process, though, is the temptation to put down a lot of high-sounding values and principles with no corresponding set of measures or indicators of what these will look like in practice. Which is why the toolkit offers an example of how you translate values into what we call “operating principles”, which are much more amenable to assessment. 

7. You have talked about power in different contexts and forms including ‘hidden power’ or ‘invisible power’. Can you briefly tell our readers a bit about that? Are these concepts that are recognised and acknowledged among feminist organizations or is it a challenge for organizations to look within? 

I would say that hidden and invisible power are not widely recognized or acknowledged in most organizations, leave aside feminist organizations. Most organizations—private companies, government departments, NGOs—would rather not deal with these dimensions of power, because they are uncomfortable realities. In rural districts of India, for instance, I have seen senior government civil servants send their wives to represent them at various events (like the inauguration of a women’s income generation program, for instance) and these women think nothing of introducing themselves by their husband’s designation (I am the District Magistrate, said one, I am the Superintendent of Police said another). This is a highly normalized form of hidden power in rural India. 

In feminist organizations, there is even greater resistance, sometimes, to recognizing or dealing with these forms of power because of all the myths and assumptions embedded there. For example, the belief that they should avoid all hierarchies and create “flat” organizations (often resulting in hidden or invisible hierarchies), the sense of discomfort with power and formal leadership and the mythology that is created that power is distributed equally, the delusion that women can’t behave oppressively to other women (or anyone else), the assumption that feminists will inevitably lead differently, fairly. For more information and an appreciation of the importance of hidden and invisible power—especially in organizational contexts—I would refer readers again to the Feminist Leadership for Social Transformation concept paper on which the toolkit is based, and particularly to pages 32 - 45. 

8. The toolkit talks about organizational ‘deep culture’ , the hidden sites and processes of power and influence in an organisation that construct its actual culture. It includes informal or unstated values and systems of reward and recognition like gossip, rumours or the culture of staying late or working on weekends. In some countries where these are ingrained ways of working (where there is no recognition of ‘overtime’ for example), how hard is it for organizations to break out of these systems? Have you frequently seen a commitment to do so on the part of management?

Personally I have seen very few organizations in my context in India and South Asia, willing to acknowledge the existence of a deep structure, let alone tackle the dynamics that operate within it. Even some of our most famous NGOs have revolting gender-biased or caste-based practices (like dress codes for women staff even in their offices, or subtly ensuring that people of certain castes do not handle food) that continue to this day. Part of the problem is that most people don’t challenge these unquestioned norms for fear of losing their jobs, or being penalized or stigmatized in other ways. There is a culture of silence and acceptance that gets constructed, a mirror image of the silence and acceptance of our culture as a whole. I have seen change happen only in contexts where there were leadership changes, or leaders themselves recognized the destructive power of what was happening in the deep culture, and decided to address it. But this is very, very rare. The need to tackle deep cultures is only now being recognized. And frankly, even when this happens, it’s not as though we have a vast number of people who can help organizations work on this. There are very few skilled people who can walk organizations through the process of unearthing their deep cultures and resolving some of the more problematic dynamics hidden there. So the whole area of organizational deep culture / deep structure is a huge challenge.


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