Talking Gender


A blog about gender, culture and organizational change

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

Last year, we began a Gender Action Learning (GAL) process in Mozambique with 34 people from CARE. The process started in October 2013 and it will run until October 2015. It is being facilitated by our Associate Solange Rocha and Sylvie Desautels. This blog post talks about the process and here is a glimpse into it. The montage has been put together by Solange.    

By Gender at Work Media / August 8, 2014 / Loading Disqus...

How can international aid professionals manage to deal with the daily dilemmas of working for the wellbeing of people in countries other than their own? This is the question scholar and activist Rosalind Eyben takes on in her new book titled International Aid and the Making of a Better World (Routledge). A lifelong development practitioner, Eyben has looked at her experiences with aid-recipient countries, head office and global policy spaces, to critically examine her own behaviour, and in so doing, encourages us all to do the same. Packed with vignettes, stories and dialogue, this book urges anyone working in development to adopt the habit of reflexivity when helping to make a better world.

We chatted with Eyben about the book and her writing process:

Tell us about the writing process. What triggered the idea of the book? How long did it take to write? Was some of it already written earlier, in different forms perhaps?

The book had a long gestation! The idea first came to me when working for the UK Government’s aid programme in Bolivia and Peru from 2000 to 2002. I got no further than a page of jottings and a possible title. When I moved to the Institute of Development Studies, I wrote a couple of papers on the gift and power theme. One of them jointly written with Rosario León, a Bolivian development professional, is a narrative in two voices. We separately reflect on our experience in a shared enterprise and this approach to a chapter in an academic book encouraged me to continue experimenting. Though it is academically grounded, I hope that the stories, conversations and photographs in this book make it an easy read. As a colleague, Rosario helped me recognize how power works in relationships. It was not just a matter of being self-aware of my own power as a senior official. There is also invisible power exercised through the internalisation of norms and beliefs about how the world should be, which limits the possibilities of relationships.

In 2006, for a paper at a conference on ‘Development People: Professional Identities and Social Lives’, I decided to use my own life as a case study. I turned to Andrea Cornwall for advice. She helped me think about ‘stepping stones’ or nodal moments when I became aware of some significant change in my understanding of myself and the society in which I found myself. These helped make sense of my life as I recovered memories and spun them into a narrative.

I am passionately interested in how each of us is shaped by the historical moment into which we are born and how we contribute to shaping the history that the next generation is born into. I asked four women friends of similar age and professional experience--‘fellow travellers’—to reflect with me on their life experience. All five of us—and many others of our age working in development—were shaped by and contributed to two great emancipatory moments—the end of colonialism and the second wave of feminism. Otherwise privileged by class and race collective, our relative marginalisation as women professionals helped us recognize there was more than one way to seeing the world. By 2009 I was ready to invite critical feedback on my first draft from friends and colleagues who asked ‘who is the book for?’ And ‘what is its purpose?’ I wrote a note to myself:

I aim for my book to be good read, it should attend to the “nodal moments” of my life in relation to international aid and aid practice and thereby enable the reader insight or understanding both into myself as aid practitioner and make the link between biography and history that Mills described as the sociological imagination. The book should reveal a lively and critical self-awareness; it should tell a recognizable story and portray character development in the face of serious issues within a complex setting and should offer a new perspective on trying to make a better world. On this basis, in 2010, I made a new outline and started afresh.

What were some of the emotional processes and challenges you faced while writing the book? Were there memories that surfaced, experiences you relived again?

Much of the impetus for the book derives from an emotional need to come to grips with what I saw as my parents’ betrayal of the truth when in pursuit of social justice. Their state of denial about this resonated strongly with respect to my own international aid practice. Not owning up to what I know—and therefore failing to ask myself what I should do with that knowledge—has blocked my efforts to help make a better world. My fellow travellers gave me back some of the funnier memories. Catherine reminded me of absurd dinner parties in Khartoum where there was little choice of food and ‘we had to wipe the sand off our nice china plates’. I also had to confront some things I hadn’t forgotten but didn’t want to remember.

In 1972, three months before submitting my doctoral thesis based on fieldwork in a community in Burundi, I learnt that many of the people I had got to know there had been murdered by the government as part of a nation-wide repressive response to an attempted coup. My thesis felt pointless. I did not know how to process this horror and like an undigested meal it has remained a hard lump within me. I found it impossible to write about it in the first draft of the book so two years ago I asked my daughter Karin to accompany me on a visit to Burundi as an Action Aid trustee. (Karin has worked for twenty years in Northern Ireland helping local communities work across sectarian divides). In Burundi we met an amazing woman, Maggy Barankitse. In her work to sustain the fragile peace the country has recently achieved, Maggy insists that the terrible memories everyone in the country carries with them should be openly discussed and confronted. Having killed each other, she says, we the living, have a duty to stop such terror happening again in the future. Maggy taught me that reflexive practice for a better future means being responsible for talking with each other about the pain and difficulties of the past we would rather sweep under the carpet. Remembering and forgetting are inter-linked processes.

In Chapter Three, I describe how I took advantage of my whiteness to barge my way to the head of a queue in a Kinshasa hospital to give my child’s life priority over the lives of other women’s children. It seemed then a perfectly normal thing to do. Almost, but not quite normal, otherwise I would not have remembered it. It was however difficult to write about it.

Also painful to remember are professional dilemmas. Chapter Eight includes an account of how I failed a young woman in northern Ghana when she asked me to help her escape from a forced marriage. Did I make the wrong decision? I use this and other incidences to encourage my readers to remember and then debate with themselves or with their friends the difficult dilemmas they also have experienced.

This is a book that calls for reflexivity and self-criticality. How much of that do you think is currently practiced? How hard will it be for people to pick up the book and put these concepts into practice—will it take a considerable degree of personal transformation on their parts?

Coming late to reflexive practice, I have written this book because I wish something like it could have been available when I first became involved in development. I understand reflexivity as a practice that both identifies the tacit assumptions I make about the world and then turns the lens back upon myself, enquiring into what is it about me—the interplay of history and my life story—that has generated such assumptions and what is it I am hiding from myself. This book is the story of how I learned, to the degree that I did. Reflexive practice is always work in progress. I have particularly benefited from the mutual learning with the reflexive practitioners whose research I had the privilege of supervising during their studies for a Master’s degree on participation, power and social change. The book includes some of their reflections.

One student wrote about how tiring the process of self-scrutiny was. She felt ’naked’. But she gradually realised the positive effect it was having on her professional work and relationships. She also found that sharing her stories of change deepened her reflexive enquiry. And sharing may encourage others in learning to navigate a path through the contradictions of making a better world.

Rosalind Eyben has recently retired as Professorial Fellow in the Participation, Power at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) where her interest focused on power and relations in the international aid system; where she convened the global policy programme of the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment Consortium 2011; and afterwards developed a new area of work on why and how unpaid care remains invisible in the world of development policy. She was founder and co-convenor of the Big Push Forward, an international initiative that unpacks the international aid system’s politics of results and evidence. She previously worked as a development practitioner in Africa and Asia. Among her other books is Feminists in Development Organizations (2013) co- edited with Laura Turquet, and Relationships for Aid (2006).

Aruna Rao, Gender at Work Executive Director, moderated a vibrant panel on Laws, Policies and State Practices at the meeting Beyond 2015: Pathways to a Gender Just World. The meeting was held from 29 to 30 May at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, UK. It brought together feminist scholars, activists and media and communications professionals to interrogate learning from the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment Consortium (Pathways) since 2005 and consider how Pathways research could shape the Post-2015 development agenda. 


Andrea Cornwall, Director of Pathways and a Gender at Work Board Member, was a leading convenor of the meeting. Opening the meeting, Cornwall reminded participants that the purpose of Pathways was to bring about a radical shift in policy and practice relating to women’s empowerment. The consortium—with regional hubs in Bangladesh, Brazil, Egypt, Ghana and a global hub in the UK—focused on: informal norms and sexuality; media practice and its role in forming critical analysis; laws, policies and state practices; women’s collective organising for change; securing resources and decent livelihoods and understanding the conditions that enable work to be empowering. 

Summarizing some of the major findings of the 7-year research initiative, Cornwall highlighted: 

  • There are many pathways of empowerment. Empowerment is not always progressive or positive. Pathways can be meandering and double back on themselves. Context matters: what can be seen as a potential route of empowerment in one context may be something for granted in other settings. 
  • Women don’t travel the road of empowerment alone. Women may be accompanied and supported on their journey.  
  • The POWER in empowerment is important. Initiatives aimed at empowering individual women may change these women, but do little to change the underlying structures that keep other women disempowered and shift power relations. Efforts to promote women’s empowerment need to tackle deeper-rooted structural constraints that perpetuate inequalities.  
  • Collective action and consciousness are at the heart of empowerment. Changing attitudes and values is as important as changing women’s material circumstances and political opportunities.  
  • Women’s movements are key. Where change happens you often find it is facilitated by women’s organisations holding state and non-state actors to account, fostering leadership, and providing voice. 

The panel that Aruna moderated included Mulki Al-Sharmani (University of Helsinki and American University of Cairo), Rosalind Eyben (Associate Faculty, University of Sussex), Takyiwaa Manuh (UN-ECA), Sohela Nazneen (BRAC University). Panel members presented a diversity of experiences of securing legal change to advance women’s empowerment. Amongst debates about how much emphasis to place on these efforts at national and global levels—particularly in light of the upcoming post-2015 agenda—panellists agreed that we need to find an active way of reconstructing citizenship to become something real and connected to people’s experiences. Citizenship needs to be a concept and idea which is lived, not just what is stated in the constitution.

See: Feminist Activism, Women's Rights, and Legal Reform   

Senior Associate Joanne Sandler also facilitated a panel on Creating Critical Consciousness, which showcased example of creative media produced by Pathways as a key route for building understanding of gender norms and stereotypes. Films on women in politics in Sierra Leone and on sex workers in India, and an overview of the innovative Pathways learning platform were presented and discussed.

Check out the excellent and abundant resources produced by Pathways at: 

We're happy to introduce our new partner! The Women’s Center for Legal Assistance and Counseling (WCLAC) in Palestine is a 20-year-old women’s rights organization which has pioneered the provision of legal aid and counselling to women. We've developed a partnership with them to frame a strategic learning agenda to prevent and end gender-based violence. 


Joanne Sandler and Aruna Rao kicked off the first workshop last month at their office in Ramallah. This is the first in a planned series of three. In designing this process along with Tanya Beer, we tested the Gender at Work analytical framework as a ‘lens’ that can strengthen feminist learning and evaluation strategies and used the emergent learning approach to drill down on key learning questions. We located both within a broader contextual analysis of women’s rights in Palestine and the history of the Occupation. 

We got enthusiastic and thoughtful responses from our WCLAC colleagues. They used different ways of learning to shape and re-shape their strategies and interventions and this process added a depth that they valued. WCLAC will continue to work on some of the ideas that emerged during this workshop to strengthen learning. As a next step, we will support WCLAC to do an internal/rapid assessment of its current strategic plan and revise its Theory of Change. We have planned a second workshop but given the current volatile political situation, we may have to remain flexible.


By Ray Gordezky
Click for a larger image.

This graphic was designed by Liisa Sorsa of thinklinkgraphics to illustrate the key points that G@W Associate Jeremy Holland made in a densely written research paper on measuring gender equality. Graphic recording is visual thinking. Since most of us process information visually, giving visual form to papers, presentations, and workshop proceedings increases clarity of ideas, deepens engagement, and inspires linking of disparate ideas. When people see their words take visual shape they feel heard and validated. A number of years ago, while facilitating a workshop in Jersualem with Palestinians and Israelis on ending religiously motivated violence, we decided to have a colleague visually record the proceedings. As the graphic took shape, the tension in the room subsided as conflicting ideas came together side by side to make a whole. The arguing between Israelis and Palestinians subsided and they used their energy to engage with the ideas they generated which were on a twenty foot banner in front of them. 

The graphic above performed magic. Just to give you a background, this was part of a Measuring Gender Equality Initiative launched in collaboration with the Participation, Power and Social Change (PPSC) Team in the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, and funded by NORAD, the Global Fund for Women and UN Women. It took place in May 2011 and brought together 26 participants from 12 countries. These participants represented organizations working at all levels of international cooperation for social change from women’s organizations, university settings and donor agencies. At the heart of the initiative was a desire to initiate a ‘community of learning’ by bringing together donors and activists at all levels of the system. 

Jeremy Holland presented the prepared background paper Measuring Gender Equality in Organisational Learning: A Background Paper (Holland and Sheppard, Gender at Work, 2011), underscoring how measuring, understanding and communicating social change in gender relations plays a critical yet elusive part in tackling gender equality. 

A better understanding of the processes at play is essential for both internal organizational change and for development interventions through reflective practice. The issue remains that traditional linear tools for M&E are ineffective on their own in supporting this type of organizational learning as tracking changes in gender relations and/or organizational cultures are complex, long-term, and context specific. Too often there is a mismatch between donors managing for results, the evaluation community’s concern for complexity, and activists and practitioners who are busy with day-to-day activities. 

Holland emphasized that how change is conceptualized affects how it is measured, therefore, it is important to start with a strong theoretical basis and then use appropriate methods to test the theory. 

For organizations to use evidence about what works best for gender equality, they need to be able to reflect on power relations (both the incentives and vested interests) that shape and maintain the status quo. Some of the methods outlined in the paper are participatory instruments which quantify relational change through scorecards—tools which are at their best when they integrate description of change with qualitative explanation of change. 

For organizations to use evidence about what works best for gender equality, they need to be able to reflect on power relations (both the incentives and vested interests) that shape and maintain the status quo. An overview of the variety of methods for measuring social change was presented, as you can see in the graphic.

Liisa and I worked with the paper to translate the academic prose into everyday language, checking back with Jeremy to ensure we got it right. We identified the key themes—the bold ideas on the measuring tape, then Liisa had at it. When she finished, we sent a draft to Jeremy—who accepted it as created. When she and I went over it in detail, we found a few more things to change; and when we got to the UK, where the workshop was begin held, Jeremy saw the large poster for the first time in its grandness. He did request a few minor changes, which we made later to the graphic and the image you see here is the final graphic. 

The key idea with graphic recording is something we all know: most of us are visually oriented, yet we try to learn or present our concepts through speaking (usually one way) or through bullet points, which miss the whole, and fragment any sense of larger meaning. Graphics put the ideas in simple pictures and words. Instead of attaching ideas to a person and interpreting the ideas based on your notions of the person, the graphic becomes objective material that people discuss and challenge in productive conversations. It’s a great way to summarize research and capture ideas from meetings so that everyone sees the whole, rather than relying on the slipperiness of bullet points and memory.

By Tanya Beer

This is part 2 of a blog about an experiment with strategic learning by a Gender at Work team of facilitators working on gender-based violence (GBV) in South Africa. To see part 1, click here.

The team’s long-term strategic learning approach focuses on observing and collecting data that signals whether these propositions are, in fact, holding true. Are they seeing signals that stakeholders feel an increased level of ownership and inspiration due to the participatory nature of the collaborative design? Does the presence of a broader and more diverse group of participants seem to create a context where people see beneath program-level treatment of GBV to the underlying cultural norms that drive it? Do the breadth and size of the convening seem to be generating momentum for a different way of working together across silos in the Vaal? And for all of these questions–what seems to be driving the results that we see, positive or negative? 

The team used the emergent learning (EL) process immediately after their first large group convening to examine what happened and generate fresh insights about what drives results. Then they refined their hypotheses about what success requires and identified concrete, upcoming opportunities to test the new hypotheses.

I’d like to give you an insight into the way it works. Very briefly, the contents of the team’s first EL table included: 

Ground truths: Data, observations and stories from the past from which we can learn 

  • Participants reported a high level of trust and a sense of safety because of the physical decor of the room, the open design of the process, a focus on individual experience, pre-existing trusting relationships among a core group of participants and the facilitators, and a lack of formality that helped break down traditional hierarchies.
  • Despite extensive formal invitations, we didn’t get the kind of diversity in participants that we wanted. We particularly lacked people occupying formal positions of authority in government agencies. 
  • Participants observed that they believed their work was addressing norms. After using the G@W framework to examine change, they realized this was not so. A non-judgmental conversation helped people think about how they might deepen their work to address norms. 
  • Some new ideas for addressing norms emerged spontaneously, but beyond a creative radio program aimed at discussing gender-based violence (GBV) with men, we have limited evidence of continued action. 
  • Some participants are now linking their GBV work to one another, but many who attended do not have the decision-making authority to redesign programs or to make decisions about new partnerships. 
Insights: What we’ve learned from what has already happened                                                     
  • Having a core group who had worked with us before and already trusted our methodology was crucial to creating an atmosphere that brought the others on board and created a non-competitive environment and agenda. 
  • The feel of the space was an important driver of our initial positive results—the welcoming and homey environment invited individual sharing and candor which is rare in work-related meetings in South Africa. 
  • A sense of co-ownership was driven by the co-creation of the approach by the group. It remains unclear whether this early feeling will translate into ongoing action and what kind of support would help people carry it forward. 
  • Formal invitations—even when issued to invitees by people they already know—were insufficient motivation for busy people in positions of power to participate in full-day, multi-stakeholder meetings on GBV, particularly if it’s not a priority issue for their professional work. 
  • Expectations about what types of new or different strategies, connections, or actions to address GBV will be catalyzed by multi-stakeholder GAL processes are limited in part by who attends the meetings, what kind of institutional resources they can bring to bear, and what authority they have to make decisions on behalf of their organizations.

Hypotheses: Given what we’ve learned, what we think will make us successful next time

  • If we can get people reflecting together on what each of us individually can do every single day, then we begin to tap into what’s normative in society, and participants will begin to have a sense that they can change it. 
  • If we ask participants to reflect on the practice of open-space meeting design and Gender Action Learning, explicitly identify what has been different about this way of interacting, and identify where they could apply it in their own work, then they will be more likely to carry it forward and spread the approach. 
  • If participants from the core group bring additional people from their own organizations to participate in the next collaborative, then they won’t feel like lone rangers within their own organization and it will be easier for them to keep it alive if they don’t have to do it alone. 
  • If we approach “official” participants (e.g., government officials, leaders of influential organizations) by asking one or two people to talk to them, listen hard to what would make participation valuable for them, and make sure we can pitch it as a win-win, then we can get more officials to attend. 
  • If after the next world cafe we can conduct an emergent learning table on the whole process with the core planning group, then we can learn more about what’s driving this increased sense of ownership and energy and apply it going forward. 
Opportunities: Upcoming opportunities to test our thinking in action  

  • We will test our hypotheses about how to attract more diverse attendees, including government officials, to the next world café session by redesigning our outreach strategy. 
  • The next world café will be designed to re-create the conditions of safety and trust that seemed to crucial to the first session, and will include reflection on the explicit ways the process is different from “business as usual” to test whether this helps participants apply the approach in their own settings. 
  • The debrief after the next world cafe will focus on exploring lessons that need to be carried forward, understanding what really caused the increased sense of ownership and energy, and exploring what it will take to support participants to continue action going forward. 

After the team had the opportunity to test the hypotheses above, they engaged in a second EL table, with observations and data about what happened serving as the “ground truths” for another round of insights and refinements to strategy. As the initiative progresses, the team will also collect data and insights on the bigger outcomes embedded in its theory to feed into an on-going EL process to generate hypotheses that Gender at Work and other participants can apply to multi-stakeholder Gender Action Learning processes in other settings.                                                     

By applying this cycle in different settings and for different efforts, we’re hoping to sharpen our ability to pose the right strategic questions, train our evaluative lens on the most actionable data, generate meaningful insights and create and test new hypotheses about how to accelerate change. We’d love the opportunity to test this approach out with our partners and friends who are learning from their work as well. 

Tanya Beer is an Associate with Gender at Work. This post was previously published in Fem2pt0.

By Tanya Beer

The issues feminist activists and organizations work on are sticky, entangled, and opaque. The deeply embedded dynamics that hold gender discrimination and inequalities in place make our work unpredictable, and the way forward hard to see. Gender at Work, a transnational network of individuals and organizations, aims to build knowledge and practice to end discrimination against women and advance cultures of equality. Although we place a deep value on shared reflection and learning—and as a core part of our work we facilitate Gender Action Learning (GAL) processes described in Aruna Rao’s April 16 blog for Fem2.0—we know firsthand what a challenge it is to embed intentional, evidence-based learning in our day-to-day work.

But learning as we go is not a luxury; it’s a necessity. In other words, learning isn’t something we need to find time to do in addition to our strategies. Learning is itself a strategy. If we can more effectively learn within organizations, across organizations, and throughout the feminist movement as a whole, we can aggregate our collective insights to get better faster, together. 

The weak link in an action learning cycle is usually the connection between reflection and planning. How do the insights we’ve generated from our reflection on data and experience actually translate into and affect sound decisions about what to do next? We’ve witnessed countless groups reflect on their experience or other kinds of data (including evaluation findings), then come to conclusions about what the data might mean for their own context, and yet fail to adapt their strategies or tactics in ways that improve their results. And even though we specialize in supporting groups with Gender Action Learning processes, we also struggle to build systematic ways of learning into our work in an ongoing way. So Gender at Work is experimenting with approaches to embed strategic learning into our individual projects and our network as a whole. We’d like to share what we’ve tried in this blog post and a sequel, with the hopes of illustrating a concrete approach that other organizations and networks can also test and refine. 

Our Experiment with Emergent Learning in Action

Rather than designing and implementing an elaborate, network-wide learning “system,” as many organizations do, we decided to test learning approaches in localized projects to work out the bugs before we try it in other settings or network-wide. Our first localized experiment with a systematic learning approach is occurring with a team of Gender at Work Associates working in the Vaal region of South Africa. With a FLOW grant ( from the Dutch government, the team is convening a multi-stakeholder Gender Action Learning process to address gender-based violence (GBV) in the area. 

The challenge is that despite the best efforts of many feminist activists and NGOs who have been raising awareness, providing programs to support survivors, and advocating for improved legal and criminal justice, rates of gender-based violence in the Vaal aren’t diminishing. This is unsurprising, as violence against women and non-conforming genders emerges from a deeply unequal society where violence has become normalized in everyday life. And the women and men who generally have less structural power (e.g. those from low-income, working class communities) bear the brunt of the violence. Yet they seldom participate in—much less lead—the analysis of the problem or the development of strategies to address it. Nor do most GBV change strategies focus specifically on the underlying norms driving the problem. As a result, the Gender at Work team wondered: 

How can we build a more sustainable gender action learning process that is rooted in working class perspectives, is less resource-intensive, and addresses existing gender ‘deep structures’ in society, particular norms underlying violence against women? 

In response to this question, the team developed a provisional theory of change for a Gender Action Learning process that would bring together community members in the Vaal from a variety of sectors (such as trade union members, NGO staff, faith groups, and the public sector). Acknowledging that this kind of strategy is complex and unlikely to unfold in a predictable way, the team’s theory includes a few key propositions: 

  • Transformative solutions to GBV cannot emerge unless a wide variety of stakeholders from across the community have an opportunity to collaboratively diagnose and address the norms that underlie the high GBV statistics. 
  • By building on our existing relationships and then broadening stakeholder participation to reflect a diversity of community interests, we will see enough critical mass (i.e., collective strength, common vision, bringing together of passions) to create momentum for working collaboratively in the Vaal area in a new way. 
  • An open space design and participant-led process will build ownership and increase the likelihood that the work on GBV will continue even after the FLOW grant period has ended. 

The team isn’t sure whether—or under what conditions—these propositions hold true, or how crucial they are to achieving their goal. As a result, the propositions serve as the scaffolding of the team’s long-term strategic learning practice. They will focus on observing and collecting data that signals whether these propositions are, in fact, holding true and under what conditions. Are they seeing signals that stakeholders feel an increased level of ownership and inspiration due to the participatory nature of the collaborative design? Does the presence of a broader and more diverse group of participants seem to create a context where people see beneath program-level treatment of GBV to the underlying cultural norms that drive it? Does the breadth and size of the convening seem to be generating momentum for a different way of working together across silos in the Vaal? And most importantly, for all of these questions, what seems to be driving the results that we see, whether positive or negative? If we answer this last question, we can adapt our tactics mid-stream to increase the likelihood of success.  

Based on these kinds of forward-looking, action-oriented learning questions, the Gender at Work team in the Vaal is now using a semi-structured action/reflection approach called “Emergent Learning,” developed by US-based organizational development consultant Marilyn Darling, to find answers to these questions, focus their evaluative lens, and adapt their strategies and tactics in response to what they learn. 

Our next blog post will focus more deeply on the Emergent Learning process and describe the experience of the Gender at Work team in the Vaal as they have gone through the process. In the meantime, to start generating a more meaningful learning agenda for your own organization or network, consider what forward-looking, action oriented questions could have the most powerful impact on your own work. Ask yourself: What would it take to….? That’s the start of getting better together, faster. 

(To be continued…) 

Tanya Beer is an Associate at Gender at Work and the Assistant Director of the Center for Evaluation Innovation. This post previously appeared in Fem2pt0

By Solange Rocha and Michel Friedman, translated by Rex Fyles (Gender at Work); facilitated by Oxfam Canada 


“I met myself again and valued myself more, not only at work but in my whole life, day to day” (participant’s comment)

In music, a pause means the sound of silence, a time between notes. For participants in our Gender Action Learning Process (GAL) in Mozambique, deep reflection about gender in workspaces often meant taking a pause. For most, this was their first experience of time to reflect, a silence filled with internal sounds coming through subjective doors. 

One of them, AMODER, provides credit in rural areas and has a mission devoted to the development of Mozambique. This is quite strategic since 54% of the population lives in poverty and women have difficulty accessing credit. Women are the most seriously affected by gender vulnerabilities determined by cultural, social and economic conditions. Mozambican society is patriarchal; power lies in the hands of men despite matrilineal systems in some parts of the country. Both patrilineal and matrilineal communities are grounded in forms of social control, which value the collective good to the detriment of the individual. This cultural context informs the conditions AMODER faces in granting loans to both men and women. 

Through the GAL process — a deep process of deconstructing the concept of masculine power visible in formal and informal institutional norms — AMODER reflected on what is necessary to overcome these limitations and make credit more accessible to women. AMODER’s process was not a flat photo, was not one-dimensional. Once they understood the different dimensions of gender, they were shocked because this perspective questioned all of the accepted truths, questioned the organization’s values and raised contradictions. 

“The big challenge is to demystify and make gender inequalities appear less natural.” (Participant’s comment) 

A deep respect for women as people and as workers already existed within AMODER. These are some ways in which the GAL process led to greater positive change: 

Greater sensitivity to “unconscious” inequalities and discrimination that existed within the organization and in their work with beneficiaries. The invisible slowly became visible. 

The genuine intention of reconstructing and recuperating a “democratic” culture” within the organization. Besides reflecting on the daily implications of gender inequalities, participants recognized that the “roots” of the limitations women face in accessing and controlling economic resources were related to the various dimensions of subordination in which women live. They understood that to advance women’s economic empowerment, it was necessary to challenge cultural and social norms to achieve economic development, which means changing the norms governing women’s access to resources and decision-making power.

 “The action learning cycle is very didactic and allows for a lot of interaction. It is more effective, especially in awakening consciousness and looking at group dynamics. It helps you to look at things differently. The methodology opens up your vision and makes things possible. People discover the need for change on their own and become aware.” (Participant’s comment) 

Individual changes related to participants’ increased awareness of the existence and reproduction of gender inequalities. These then contributed toward them initiating change at the organizational level. Improved communication stood out: greater personal openness, greater skill in managing conflicts and a feeling of calmness and assurance. Women became more vocal and assumed leadership roles in the GAL process, the workplace and family life. 

Organizational changes in terms of dynamics and rules. AMODER started paying greater attention to the specific needs of women within communities. There were changes in the ways of speaking and being within teams and in their interactions with communities and clients. More opportunities were created to hire women (7 new positions to hire women were created, using a strategy of selecting women for internships and training them to take on these positions). 

Changes in lending rules are changing women’s lives. 

AMODER now knows its clients better and knows how to do a gender analysis regarding access to credit. “Now we ask whether women are among the beneficiaries / borrowers or not.” More women are joining the credit program. There is a new understanding of credit as not merely about lending money but rather creating a means by which people – including women – can change their lives.

They also started using GAL methods in their meetings and confronted the stereotype that women are not capable. They now understand that if women are given opportunities and methodologies are appropriate, women understand, participate, open up and take on work with very good results. 

For AMODER, the biggest organizational changes started from changed individual consciousness about gender inequalities. They recognized that “if we didn’t change the culture in the organization and people’s mentality, everything would collapse”. For them, it was necessary to work on changes in institutional policies, taking the organization as a whole “as if we were stirring the ashes to make sparks to find light”. 

The GAL process touched on the roots “of personal construction and relationships with other people, it stirred something in our own lives – we consider this was the best way to understand gender”. 

Please click here to read a more detailed version of this experience. 

Solange Rocha, Michel Friedman and Rex Fyles are Associates with Gender at Work. Photo Credit: United Nations via Creative Commons. This piece was originally published in Fem2pt0.

By Joanne Sandler


I doubt that any young girl or boy stares dreamily into space thinking, “When I grow up, I want to be a gender advisor!” The idea that advising, advocating for and guiding organizations to become more gender equitable could be an exciting and viable job or career is a fairly new concept. 

And, yet, there are legions of such jobs and consultancies everywhere now: the UN alone has nearly 3,000 staff members that are responsible – mostly as part-time staff but with an increasing number of full-time positions as well – for supporting more effective policies and programs on gender equality and women’s empowerment. Multiply that by the number of such advisors in other government and non-governmental organizations, as well as an increasing number of equal opportunity and gender equity positions in the private sector, and you probably have tens of thousands of these jobs all over the world. Imagine the collective wisdom that the men and women who have these jobs could share if they joined together! 

Gender at Work is a global learning collaborative of more than 30 gender equality and women’s rights experts and organizational development specialists from almost every region in the world. Some, like me, have worked in large institutions and know the joys and frustrations of advocating for entrenched, patriarchal institutions to change. Others are long-time consultants, activists or scholars, highly skilled in bridging academic theory with organizational practice. 

We have supported more than 100 organizations with a wide range of gender advisory services over the past 10 years. As Aruna Rao wrote in an earlier blog post, Gender at Work helps people inside organizations identify deeply embedded gender-biased norms or “deep structures”, and then chip away at them. 

A couple of years ago, we held an e-consultation with 40 leading specialists on how organizations engaged in development – private foundations, UN organizations and government donor agencies like USAID or UK-DFID – transform to build ‘cultures of equality’, proactively advancing gender equality from the outside in and from the inside out. We wanted to share some of the collective wisdom on strategies from the trenches. Four of the key points that emerged: 

  • If an organization is passionate about ‘results’, help them clearly identify the gender equality results that they want to be known for: We rightly bemoan the obsession that many development organizations now have with “Management for Development Results” when it comes to complex processes like changing gender power relations. For those who are looking for quick fixes and immediate returns, it is true that there is no vaccine for gender inequality. But the results regime can also be an opportunity. A consultant who works with Irish Aid noted that she used the organizational commitment to results to help staff articulate concrete expectations of change. In 2.5 years, this approach showed more change than the 10+ years that she supported them to create institutional gender strategies and policies. 
  • Position gender equality as ‘mission critical’: Organizations tackle their exclusionary practices – including gender inequality — when they realize that these practices and underlying discriminatory values inhibit them from achieving their larger goals. The U.S. military, as an example, is an inherently patriarchal organization that exists to protect US global dominance. It will only make progress on eliminating gender discrimination when it realizes that it’s undermining their larger mission. Wide-ranging organizations – from McKinsey to the World Bank – are producing evidence to show how gender equality and women’s empowerment is absolutely mission critical to profits, productivity and effectiveness. 
  • Change happens when individuals begin to see themselves as gendered beings trapped within — but not prisoners of — gendered institutions. We have to stop conflating ‘gender’ with women. We are talking about a spectrum of gender identities. Narrow expectations of what is normal for ‘men’ and ‘women’ are constraining for almost everybody at some point. Participants in our e-consultation talked about the importance of creating reflective spaces so that staff in organizations can identify the gendered expectations that constrain them and then devise strategies to change these. 
  • Culture eats strategy for breakfast: The best laid plans for transforming gender discriminatory practices in organizations are sabotaged when organizational culture is not part of the consideration. The IMF can have a robust policy against sexual harassment, but if the organization’s leader is a well-known violator, the policy is not even worth the piece of paper that describes it. A law firm can have a strategy for non-discrimination, but if working 19 hours a day is incentivized with promotions and perks, women who are still largely responsible for reproductive chores will be disadvantaged. You can read the full e-discussion here
What are your ‘secret’ insights and strategies about the ways that organizations transform to build cultures of equality? We’d love to know! 

Joanne is a Senior Associate with Gender at Work. Previously she was Deputy Executive Director of UNIFEM for 10 years. She is an active Board member of Breakthrough and Women Win, and is a member of the Global Civil Society Advisory Group for UN Women. She tweets from @JoanneSandler. A version of this post was originally published in Fem2pt0.

By Aruna Rao 

In graduate school, I began to be fascinated by the ‘black box’ of organizations, the peculiar ways through which organizations digest gender equality laws and policies and put out something that looks quite different from what one might expect. Connecting these two worlds – how organizations worked and whether or not women could access opportunity systems – happened most clearly for me while working at BRAC in Bangladesh in the 1990s. I saw first-hand how the values that shaped the organization in its early years and resulted in benefits to destitute people, later inhibited its ability to recruit women staff because those values were gender-biased.

In the 1990s Bangladesh cultural context, it was easy and acceptable for men to carry out field work at night, ride bicycles and motorbikes, and live singly in villages; for women, it was not. So, in effect, women had to fit into a system that was made to fit men. In a staff survey we conducted in 1994, we asked BRAC staff, “must women become men to succeed?” Most male BRAC staff said that was not the case but many women contested their view. BRAC has since embarked in an organization-wide program to uncover and address institutional biases and discriminatory norms. 

Informal norms and rules become so deeply embedded in an organization that they remain unnoticed, ignored or invisible. They become insidious and dangerous perpetrators of gender discrimination and over time, they add up to a culture of inequality. This affects life within organizations for women and men. It also affects how effectively the organization can catalyse change in the communities in which it works. Gender at Work helps people inside organizations identify these deeply embedded gender-biased norms or “deep structures”, and then chip away at them. 

We work with a wide range of organizations, networks and movements around the world. In India, we supported Dalit women to break the strangleholds that prevent them from fully using and benefiting from the MNREGA scheme , a national rural employment program. In South Sudan, we worked with civil society organizations fighting gender-based violence; they started involving men in their battle and exploited the power of radio. In South Africa, we partnered with organizations to integrate HIV&AIDS issues into their responses to gender-based violence.


Uncovering deep structures and changing them is not easy. It is a complex and dynamic process for everyone involved, throwing up tough questions and requiring brave answers. This honesty is enabled in a number of ways – by building trust, by ‘unleashing’ capacity at the individual and collective levels, through strategic learning and evaluation, and by building knowledge. 

Our capacity building includes Gender Action Learning (GAL), a robust and intensive process that guides organizations and/or groups within organizations to develop strategies and processes that will end discrimination against women in formal systems and organizations. Together, participants examine the deep structures that hold inequality in place and then, we help develop a collective project to change these deep structures, or at least move in that direction. This involves peer-learning workshops, shared accountability, individual coaching and mentoring from a G@W facilitator, and the development of approaches, tools and writing. It involves thought, mind-body work, and plenty of laughter. 

When Lok Samiti partnered with Gender at Work in India, they wanted to fundamentally transform the composition of their Union. Not only did they want to increase the number of Dalit women by 25%, they also wanted to ensure that Dalit women come into positions of leadership in the union. Now, 50% of the membership and leadership includes Dalit women. Hospersa, a union of health workers in South Africa, participated in an action-learning process in 2011 to reframe their thinking on how the union listens to its members. Today, Hospersa addresses gender issues in their collective bargaining efforts. It has set up a sexual harassment policy; and it engages with and provides insights into national policies relating to gender & HIV/AIDS and TB. 

Organizations can also go through learning and evaluation from a gender equality and rights-based perspective. They do this using the G@W Framework , an analytical matrix which helps examine how change happens by looking at inter-connections among different change domains and collective impact. In 2013, Gender at Work developed a tool for FAO to assess whether there was gender inclusion in the agricultural and rural poverty reduction policies of their member states. We helped identify how the policies in a given country were addressing poverty and equality issues, their impact, gaps and incoherencies, and areas of priority action. The tool we developed will be used to provide country-wide “snapshots”, track changes in national policies over time, and identify policy options and possible corrective measures among FAO member countries. 

One of the most satisfying experiences of strategic learning was when we worked with organizations in South Africa to guide them on innovative writing / story-telling techniques to identify shared strategies. The stories that emerged became a book. Before we knew it, the book had sold thousands of copies and was being read by people who didn’t even usually read. The language, they said, was their own. 

Building knowledge remains one of our priorities because it allows us to move forward in this direction and contribute to the larger area of work around gender. We do this continuously and we try to reach people in multiple ways. We develop Collaboratories for people working on different aspects of gender inequality, write books, run contests, and produce articles, power-point presentations and other media. Our Board and Associates are profoundly interested in ending discrimination against women in formal systems and organizations, and they spend a significant amount of their time and energy sharing their knowledge and ideas. 

By trying to transform cultures of inequality in individual, innovative and meaningful ways, we’re aiming to end gender discrimination. Join us at our website, get in touch via email and stay in touch on TwitterFacebook and LinkedIn. 

Aruna Rao is the Co-founder and Executive Director of Gender at Work, a transnational network of individuals and organizations that build knowledge and practice to end discrimination against women and advance cultures of equality. She is an expert in the field of gender and development and has consulted widely with a range of government, academic and development agencies. This was originally published in Fem2pt0


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