Talking Gender

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A blog about gender, culture and organizational change


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.

Gender-at-Work-Framework

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



Earlier this year, Women Unlimited published feminist scholar Srilatha Batliwala’s Engaging with Empowerment – An Intellectual and Experiential Journey which brings together her key writings of the last twenty years. In the book, Batliwala traces the transformation empowerment has undergone since the 1980s, analyzing why and how the concept has been depoliticized and diminished by the state and aid agencies.

In her response to the book published in OpenDemocracy, Andrea Cornwall said the book reaffirms that empowerment is more than just a development buzzword. It brings alive the purpose of empowerment through stories of change. "Srilatha Batliwala’s Engaging with Empowerment – An Intellectual and Experiential Journey tells stories about how change happens in women’s lives that reclaim and reaffirm an approach to empowerment that looks and acts very differently. And it is a reminder that these ways of thinking about and doing feminist empowerment work are far from buried in the past: they are just obscured from view, like the hidden pathways that are changing women’s lives that may be missed by those who travel on development’s motorways," says Cornwall.  

We took this opportunity to chat briefly with Srilatha Batliwala about the book and the writing process.   

1. When did you first start thinking about writing this book? Was there an incident or a trigger that made you decide to write it? 

The idea for the book was born on January 24, 2010, at a dinner before the Bangalore launch of Palestinian author Suad Amiry’s second book, “Menopausal Palestine.” My dear friend and noted feminist journalist Ammu Joseph, and Ritu Menon, founder of Women Unlimited (an imprint of Kali for Women), proposed that it was high time I put together my key writing on women’s empowerment and related issues, produced over the past twenty years, into one volume. I was sceptical at first – I didn’t think there would be much interest or demand for such a volume, and that some of my earlier work on the subject was outdated. But they insisted I was wrong, that many people were still using some of these pieces because they were still relevant, and that the volume would have a lot of value for many people trying to understand and work on women’s empowerment, movement building, and so forth. So I decided to do it! 

2. Tell us about the writing process. What was it like for you to revisit your experiences and pull them all together?  

It’s important to emphasise that the only original writing that I did for this book was the introductory and concluding chapters, and the introductions to each of the three parts of the book – the main chapters are all articles, concept papers and such that I had written much earlier, starting with a piece “Why I am a Feminist” that was written in 1986! But I greatly enjoyed writing these prefatory pieces… Ritu encouraged me to use these as spaces to reflect on the context I was in when the various articles in each section were written, and to talk freely about the people and experiences that influenced my thinking at that time, and what and who these pieces aimed at and impacted in some way. This allowed me to bring the personal and subjective into the book – to bring myself in – rather than restricting myself to academic analysis or intellectual distance. Many readers have told me that they have greatly enjoyed these introductory pieces, some even more than the main articles.  

3. Who are you hoping will read the book and how would you like it to affect them? 

I think the book is useful for a wide variety of audiences, but especially for activists, academics and donor agencies concerned about gender inequality and other forms of social exclusion, and about how to organise and empower marginalised people, whether they are women or not. I have generally written for activists – trying to push activism to be more analytical, more informed by theory; but on occasion, I have also written for academics, where I have tried to push theory to be more responsive to practice, to ground realities. In reality, though, I have been surprised to find a lot of the writing I have done for activists being prescribed and used in the academy, as part of courses on gender/women’s studies, development studies, public policy, social movements, civil society, and international relations. So I hope that a diversity of readers interested in social change processes will read it and find it informative. I wish, though, that the many hundreds of grassroots women I’ve worked with, who inspired so many of the ideas in the book, could also read it. Maybe some day some of them – or their children or grandchildren – will! 

'Engaging with Empowerment - An Intellectual and Experiential Journey', is available from Scholars without Borders.


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