Talking Gender


A blog about gender, culture and organizational change

By Gender at Work Media / January 8, 2015 / Loading Disqus...

By Anne Marie Goetz and Joanne Sandler

At the 2012 Forum of the Association of Women’s Rights for Development (AWID) in Istanbul, there were heated discussions about whether to lobby for a Fifth World Conference on Women in 2015. The majority of older generation feminists taking part expressed reluctance. A young Turkish feminist took the floor and challenged us, essentially saying: “It’s fine for those of you who had the chance to go to Beijing and Nairobi to decline this opportunity. But what about my generation? We never had the chance to mobilize the way that you did. We need this!” The 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing – including the official governmental meeting and its parallel NGO Forum – is widely hailed as a watershed. We both attended the NGO Forum, held in Huairou, a town an hour north of Beijing.  In a deeply muddy field, covered in makeshift tents to ward off the insistent rain, with hundreds of yards of garlands made of discarded plastic water bottles festooning the few hastily erected buildings in which the concrete had barely dried, 40,000 women from civil society around the world converged to make history.  And they did.  In spite of being accommodated at such a great distance from the official event, women from NGOs and networks joined their allies on official delegations to make sure that the final Platform for Action fought off attacks from the Vatican, from Iran and from a host of others who lobbied to diminish commitments to women’s equality and freedoms. We left with a sense of purpose and a roadmap to gender equality: the Beijing Platform for Action.

1995 Beijing, Women in Black demonstration. Credit: Anne Walker

In 2012 the UN briefly debated a proposal to hold a Fifth World Conference on Women, as a twenty- year follow up to the 1995 Beijing Conference. It would have been held in 2015, forty years after the UN’s First World Conference on Women held in Mexico City. Turkey and Qatar both offered to host. The Secretary General asked UN member states what they thought - should there be a follow-up to the Platform for Action agreed at Beijing?  It has become relatively routine to hold these international meetings to review and then advance achievements in a range of human rights or environmental protection areas. For instance, the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development was a 20 year follow up on the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Many experienced women’s rights advocates breathed a sigh of relief when UN Member States failed to pass a resolution in favour of holding a Fifth World Conference and, instead, recommended that 2015 should focus on (yet) another review of Beijing commitments. Beijing +20 follows other five-year reviews which have, at best, been lackluster, and could not replace the galvanizing force and visibility of a UN World Conference. The cautions against advocating for a new World Conference were made on the following grounds: It is far too dangerous now to re-open international agreements on women’s rights. Powerful governments and non-state actors today actively obstruct efforts to advance neglected areas of women's rights such as sexual and reproductive freedoms, and for this reason there was no 20th anniversary conference this year to advance the agreements made at the Cairo International Conference on Population and Development.  The power of these reactionary forces in an international forum is considerable; they could seriously reverse progress made at Beijing. So many of the commitments in the Beijing Platform have yet to be implemented - for instance the commitment to increase the proportion of seats held by women in governments to a minimum of 30%, or to put an end to female genital mutilation, or to cut military expenditures. An international conference will be a distraction. Let’s just focus on national and local-level implementation. Money! Women’s organizations are starving for money as it is. An international meeting is expensive and unnecessary in the age of ‘Skype’ and other electronic meeting venues. So there will be no Fifth World Conference on Women, at least not in 2015. This decision could be exceptionally damaging in terms of its potential impact on international and domestic women’s movements. But it is not irreversible. There will be no Conference on Women in 2015. But there can be one in 2020. Or whenever the women of the world want it to happen. The 20-year review of the Beijing Platform for Action at the Commission on the Status of Women(CSW) in New York in March 2015 could generate a recommendation to hold a Fifth World Conference by 2020. We are making this intervention to join voices with those who want this topic back on the agenda. As one civil societystatement to the upcoming CSW points out, the UN Secretary General's request for a Fifth World Conference has not been withdrawn or acted on, so any Member State can put it on the agenda again. We agree with those who highlight the real threat of losing ground on women’s rights. But let us think beyond the usual approach to these global inter-governmental meetings. The time has come to try a different format. We do not have a blueprint to hand, but there are options worth exploring. The Fifth Conference could focus on innovation in implementation, and could generate pledges for significant national investments in gender equality.  It could focus on the growing frequency and ferocity of attacks on women human rights defenders, and on effective strategies and commitments to end such attacks. The Fifth Conference could focus on a much deeper exchange between civil society and governments than has ever happened before. Its agenda and priorities could evolve from a bottom-up, inclusive process that engages millions of women and men.

1995 Beijing NGO Forum peace demonstration. Credit: Anne Walker

There is surely more to gain than to lose in holding a Fifth World Conference on Women in 2020. At the same time, we need to negotiate conditions that will help expand, not shrink, the women’s rights agenda: We are not proposing a re-run of Beijing. We need to re-think the way that UN world conferences are undertaken anyway. An international conference does not axiomatically have to arrive at a consensus document. There is no need to fetishize consensus. Women’s rights cannot be sacrificed to international agreement if that means lowering standards even further than they are. It should be possible, through global brainstorming, to come up with an agenda that builds awareness amongst even the most reactionary governments of the strength and determination of the global women’s rights constituency, and that raises the costs - both in the relations between states and in regional and international institutions - of domestic suppression of women’s rights. No United Nations Women’s World Conference has yet been held in the era of social media. In 1995 at Beijing, few had access to email, let alone the kind of instant commentary and feedback available now. Social media would expose to domestic and international scrutiny the reactionary positions of some governments. Democracies would have to think twice before refusing to support terminations for pregnancies of women raped by soldiers during conflict, or the rights of same-sex couples to inheritance, or the rights of adolescents to the kind of education that can prevent HIV infection and early pregnancy.  Young women and men have not had a chance to engage in this type of transnational feminism. This would be the chance for a new generation to take leadership. Younger feminists would have the opportunity to organize locally and connect globally and contribute to reviving women’s movements in many countries and regions. Women from countries under conservative governments need an opportunity to be heard around the world. If a world conference were to be held in countries or regions increasingly dominated by fundamentalist religious interests, it would be an opportunity for women to express their perspectives about the use of religion or culture to excuse repression and extreme violence. 2020 will mark five years from the time that the new set of globally-agreedSustainable Development Goals come into force. This could be an ideal moment for a World Women’s Conference, an opportunity for a diversity of women’s voices and views to assess how the first 5 years are going from our perspective, and whether progress is happening in ways women feel are most important. For many, an international women’s conference feels like an unwarranted extravagance. Yes, these meetings can be expensive; but the cost of gender inequality is much higher, and the benefits to democracy, development, and peace of reduced gender inequality, and increasing the strength of the women’s movement, are massive. These meetings also yield resources. They provide women’s organizations with opportunities to prove their relevance and to raise funds. You can’t put a monetary value on international solidarity. And you can’t deny its importance to women’s mobilization domestically and internationally.  At the time of Beijing +15, Sunila Abeysekera, the Sri Lankan women’s human rights champion and peace leader who died last year, pointed out in an articleon openDemocracy 50.50 that there was no mechanism for joining together “around the key challenges and demands of women from around the world, irrespective of their class, race or any other status, to combat the challenges of discrimination and violence they confront on a daily basis” and she encouraged that we move “beyond…narrow divisions to build a cohesive platform for action for women’s movements worldwide to confront and combat the common challenges…”  That is what a world conference on women’s rights can do that no other venue will allow: update and strengthen a common platform between women’s movements and networks in different countries and regions that creates opportunities for partnerships and agreements with, and between, governments and inter-governmental organizations.

Painting banners, 1995 Beijing NGO Forum. Credit: Anne Walker

Women’s human rights have no country. There is no champion state making sure that women’s human rights are advanced. The common ground that those committed to working for gender equality have is each other. And a great way to find each other is on the crowded fields - however muddy - of international meetings and the local, national and regional preparatory processes that lead to them.  We use this ground to marvel at the arguments used to dismiss our humanity, and then not only hold fast against these attacks, but keep pushing to make it the ‘new normal’ that yes, women are human, fully equal, and must live without fear, pain, and prescriptions as to who they should be and how they should behave. The starting point for any agreement to hold a Fifth World Conference on Women must be that there can be no re-opening of past agreements or looking back to question existing commitments. We all have to look forward, for there is still so much to be done.

This article was first published at Open Democracy. 


By Gender at Work Media / December 5, 2014 / Loading Disqus...

By Kailee Jordan 

This November, Toronto officially opened its first "Canadian Center for Men and Families.." Supported by the Canadian Association for Equality (CAFÉ), the center will address problems facing men in today’s society, and will provide a range of services including mentorship, counseling, and support groups for victims of abuse. The opening is already causing controversy, with CAFÉ claiming that although their main goal is to break down gender barriers, they have faced pushback from the feminist community. Women’s rights activists point to their association with several misogynistic men’s rights groups in the US, and claim that CAFÉ is more frustrated with women’s rights being promoted than men’s rights being violated. This divergence between men’s issues and feminist activism goes beyond this one center, and into the broader concern of how to improve gender relations in Canada. How do we find productive ways of engaging men on gender equality, without it turning into a he said-she said battle over who has rights to vulnerability and harm?

Let’s make this clear right off the bat: there are real and important issues effecting men in our society. Increasing rates of mental health and suicide, addiction, and the lack of services for abuse all deserve our attention. Stereotypes of what it means to be “a man” can lead to harmful notions of masculinity, that at best constrain the ways men feel they can express their emotions, and at worst, lead to cycles of violence. These are real problems, and do need to be addressed.

As someone who cares deeply about global discrimination towards women, however, the fine line between discussing contemporary issues facing men and completely sidetracking the conversation around gender equality makes me uncomfortable. Our society operates in an environment where women are still over-represented as victims of violence, and under-represented in positions of decision-making. Activists have fought for years to get gender equality to be seen as a priority, and Canada is still very far from making progress on these issues. As a new report launched by the Canadian Coalition for Policy Alternatives demonstrates, 34 out of every 1000 women in Canada have reported a sexual assault, and over 6.4% of women have reported intimate partner violence. As these are thought to only be 10% of actual cases, in reality, the numbers are much higher. When it comes to looking at women’s roles in decision-making, women make up only 25% of MPs, 14% of board members, and only 3% of CEO’s. 

Any approach toward tackling societal inequity must take into account this uneven impact still placed on women. In addition to failing to adequately address gender constraints, we’re also operating in a climate where there are fewer and fewer resources allocated to alleviating women’s inequality. Canada does not have a stand-alone policy on violence against women, in addition to only directing minuscule resources to the Status of Women Canada. Because of funding cuts, the Status of Women was forced to close 12 out of its 16 regional offices, and support has been cut to operations such as Women’s Centers of Excellence and research and advocacy organizations. 

I am not arguing that just because resources for women are being slashed should automatically mean that we don’t have the space to address challenges facing men – that is definitely not the case. Yet, it makes me uneasy to think that discussions around women’s inequality may get inadvertently stifled by men wanting to change the conversation. If we want to create new spaces to address male issues in Canada, this must not be at the expense of failing to recognize the disproportionate social inequities women continue to face.

Gender equality is not a zero-sum game. If there is going to be any sustainable progress on combatting discrimination, we need to find ways to include men and boys into these conversations. Campaigns such as UN Women’s #HeforShe movement, or Canada’s White Ribbon campaign recognize this, and we’re seeing a global shift in trying to find new strategies to engage men in the fight for women’s rights. This recognition does mean that we need to make sure to include the voices of men (and all other categories across the gender continuum) who also feel the impact of gender constraints. The same societal forces that perpetuate violence against women also lead to harmful and aggressive masculinities; we must recognize that what holds women back from reaching their full social, economic, and political potential can also have negative impacts on men as well. Creating spaces where men can talk about the challenges they face, as well as topics such as consent, positive masculinity, and how to be allies to women, could be a helpful tool to realize the goal of a more equal and peaceful society.

No one is arguing that gender polarization isn’t detrimental for both men and women. Do I think that the new Men’s Center will be a positive step in combatting this? I’m still not sure. If this turns into a debate about how “women have their space, now give us ours”…. then I want no part in that discussion. But if this opens up new ways for men and women to combat harmful gender inequalities together, well then, that’s something worth supporting.

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: 

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 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

Fabulous Fashionistas is about the style and attitudes of 6 women from the UK with an average age of 80. It tackles gender norms about women in a light-hearted manner. We thought this video was a perfect example of how women can break the 'deep cultures' of social expectation around gender and age. By redefining what women can look like — and behave like — at 80, the women are challenging age-old narratives and notions embedded in our culture. That they're doing this in a stylish and fun manner doesn't make the message any less powerful. In fact, it makes it even more so because it foregrounds something else that's important to remember: that we have the right to have fun, and to be fun, no matter what our age.


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