Talking Gender


A blog about gender, culture and organizational change

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


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