Talking Gender


A blog about gender, culture and organizational change

By Gender at Work Media / April 25, 2016 / Loading Disqus...

At a time when some corporate women leaders are advocating for their aspiring sisters to ‘lean in’ for a bigger piece of the existing pie, this book puts the spotlight on the deep structures of organizational culture that hold gender inequality in place. Gender at Work: Theory and Practice for 21st Century Organizations makes a compelling case that transforming the unspoken, informal institutional norms that perpetuate gender inequality in organizations is key to achieving gender equitable outcomes for all. 

 The book is based on the authors’ interviews with 30 leaders who broke new ground on gender equality in organizations, international case studies crafted from consultations and organizational evaluations, and lessons from nearly fifteen years of experience of Gender at Work, a learning collaborative of 30 gender equality experts. From the Dalit women’s groups in India who fought structural discrimination in the largest ‘right to work’ program in the world, to the intrepid activists who challenged the powerful members of the UN Security Council to define mass rape as a tactic of war, the trajectories and analysis in this book will inspire readers to understand and chip away at the deep structures of gender discrimination in organizational policies, practices and outcomes. 

Designed for practitioners, policy makers, donors, students and researchers looking at gender, development and organizational change, this book offers readers a widely tested tool of analysis – the Gender at Work Analytical Framework – to assess the often invisible structures of gender bias in organizations and to map desired strategies and change processes.

By Gender at Work Media / April 23, 2015 / Loading Disqus...

The World YWCA is organizing a Twitter Chat for World YWCA Day tomorrow. Each World YWCA day has a special theme and this year, they are looking to the future to develop their new strategic framework and envision what the world will look like in 2035 for  women, young women and girls. Gender at Work will be participating in the Twitter Chat tomorrow. Stay tuned!

By Gender at Work Media / April 13, 2015 / Loading Disqus...

Hemingway receives credit as the inventor of the six word story. Whether or not that little story is true, the six-word-story movement is very real and lends itself to reflection and conversation. 

On Wednesday, April 15, Gender at Work will launch The Gender Line, a website that invites you to submit your six-word thought, idea or story on gender, your "gender line". The Gender Line will draw on the tradition of the six-word story to incite conversation on gender. We're inspired by the Race Card Project, Everyday Sexism and other sites like that, and we hope to be part of a movement alongside them.  

The Gender Line will also have a Twitter wall which will show up tweets that are gender lines.Join us by tweeting your six-word lines on gender through April 15.  Use the hashtag #genderline.

will go live on April 15. Do visit and bookmark!

By Gender at Work Media / March 20, 2015 / Loading Disqus...

By Aruna Rao

We are just back from New York where Gender at Work held three very successful events at the 2015 CSW. What a ride! Along with the TMI Project, we organized a Women’s Rights Storytelling Collaboratory involving 12 incredible gender equality and women’s rights advocates from Ecuador, Jordan, Nicaragua, Pakistan, South Africa, Paraguay, Nigeria and the USA. Through the process, they crafted powerful personal stories that they shared at three events during CSW. Spanning various themes related to gender equality, these stories combined honest, even stark truth telling with insight, humor and wisdom. They demonstrated the power of the personal story. Audiences responded with tears, cheers and an overwhelming sense of solidarity.

The winners of the End Gender Discrimination Now! Contest spoke about their projects at CSW 2015.

People commented on how refreshing it was to hear truth speaking through to power, no-UNese, just naked and real experiences. For our storytellers, it took a lot to go up there and share very personal experiences of abuse, name often-unnamed challenges and dilemmas, and open their hearts to strangers. The reception at the first event with a largely activist and NGO audience was incredible – there were few dry eyes in the room. Following that, at the Permanent Mission of the Netherlands to the UN – a session organized specifically by Ireen Dubel from Hivos – with a very different audience mostly of donors and bureaucrats - the reception, again, was very warm.  

Kwezilomso Mbandazayo is a 28 year old Black, Queer Feminist thinker, activist and agitator. Among other places, she told her story at the Intergenerational Dialogue organized by UN Women. 

We also participated in an Intergenerational Dialogue organized by UN Women where our story-tellers took centre-stage among panelists and gender experts from around the world.

Gender at Work held a session with the winners of the End Gender Discrimination Now contest that we sponsored at the end of 2013 in collaboration with the Association of Women’s Rights in Development, BRIDGE, and the FLACSO in Argentina. The winners were Kuña Pyrenda which challenged the political system in Paraguay, forming the first-ever women’s political movement in the country, based on socialist feminist principles; Freedom Traveller from Pakistan which launched a travel service supporting women in countries that limit their mobility; and Aiyoh Wat-Lah, a coalition of seven Malaysian human rights organizations that works to encourage higher standards of behavior from public figures and institutions in relation to gender and sexuality. Find out more about them here.

Hanadi Riyad is a development practitioner, a researcher, and a change facilitator in-the-making. Among other places, she told her story at the Dutch Embassy. 

Gender at Work is accredited with ECOSOC, and this is a space where we plan to be more active in the future. In that context, I moderated the UN Women session on Financing for Gender Equality held at the CSW – which was unexpectedly inspiring for me because I saw more clearly the possibility of a new financing model for human rights – not just in theory but also in practice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Gender at Work Media / 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.    

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 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.


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