Talking Gender


A blog about gender, culture and organizational change

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.

By Gender at Work Media / October 6, 2014 / Loading Disqus...

By Ayanda Masina

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill of things unknown,
And yet on and on and on it sings
for it is not just any bird
the caged bird wants nothing more than to be heard from that distance
into that distance it sings
for not only is it caged for its being
but it is also caged for the fear of its songs
The songs it sings tearfully for the outcomes of it are known
for the response of those who from that distance hear the songs unknown
and yet on and on and on it sings
With the fearful trill of things unknown to those who hear, who have heard and who will hear

~ Maya Angelou

"Hai Suka!awbheke lama Ntombazne azenza abafana” they are a disgrace to the community. One of these days siszo shisa lezinto” 

In a crowd of people, that hoarse and loud voice pierced my ears from a distance. He appeared in his Rastafarian ensemble, with a face that expressed hatred and disgust. He stood looking at me and my four friends. A lot was going on in my mind. I did not know what to do or say. We were making our way to a community dialogue at the Tsakane Park so we were rushing to get refreshments for the day. Tons of people stood there in the mall looking at us. A lot was written on their faces. In their hearts and minds, words were forming into lines and sentences, sentences were forming into paragraphs. Paragraphs filled with hate…love…pity...shame and the need to express themselves. 

“But my brother what’s wrong with you?” asked Mpo my friend. ”People like you are the people we need for today’s session, please be kind enough to join us at the park at 2 pm because what you just said shows that we as lesbians are failing to reach our goal in educating and equipping the community with knowledge and so we will face this kind of behavior every day.” 

I was amazed at how calmly and respectfully he addressed the guy who had just insulted us in front of a ton of people. Slowly I turned around, my pretty smile worn on my beautiful face, and I asked, “Will you join us Bhuti?” He just looked at us with eyes of disbelief and then walked away.

For this excellent behavior I really have to say that a huge catalyst was the Gender Action Learning (GAL) process. Sitting with people and sharing ideas at the action learning process on how to deal with issues that came up: “You cannot end violence or abuse with violence or abuse.” 

So we did what we came to do at the mall and we headed for the park where we found a group of people already there. The atmosphere was very chilled and welcoming. People had gathered in a circle on their camping chairs, some on the grass, some even standing. 

We had invited people from the community—mothers, fathers, sisters, daughters and every community member. The expressions on their faces said a lot, but most importantly the day we had all been waiting for had come. Friendly faces relaxed us a bit and we used the facilitating skills we had learned in the GAL workshops. 

We were ready to stand in front of a crowd with different opinions, views and beliefs. We were ready to start the work in breaking cultural and societal norms. We were ready to accept positive and negative criticism, but through our learning with GAL, we knew we were equipped. In our hearts we knew we had to listen and keep the crowd engaged. 

After the greetings we asked: “Which problems are our communities faced with? Unemployment, teenage pregnancy, crime?” The community members expressed everything but left out hate crimes, gender-based violence (GBV), HIV and stereotypical behavior. It could be that they did not pay attention or that they did not know. The truth of the matter is we also did not pay much attention to GBV and HIV, yet we knew that women were being abused. 

What surprised us most was when a pretty, bubbly, tall and slender black girl stood up and said “as much as abuse is there in heterosexual relationships, it exists in homosexual relationships too. You find a girl beating up another girl she is in a relationship with because she is butch and claims to be the husband of the femme. (A butch is a masculine dressing lesbian and a femme is a feminine dressing lesbian).This is not only in relationships. Even in society or in the workplace there is abuse. Abuse is not only beating up someone but also denying to do what they desire because you feel it is against your culture or religion. That is also a violation of your rights.” Silence and shame was written on almost everyone’s face. But also written was discovery. 

Many issues were tackled—from HIV and xenophobia to GBV and for us facilitators, it was easy to give answers to everyone. They also shared bits and pieces of knowledge with us and we learned from each other as well. 

We realised that we were growing and becoming more polished through the GAL because really a lot has changed since the process begun. Everyone is now eager and more determined even though we don’t have a structure and a leader, we still keep on. 

We are stronger than before. The GAL process taught us that even without a leader, through determination, ambition and hard work, a lot can be done. Having been through the process, we were equipped with information. We have learned how to trust ourselves and we have learned a different and inclusive style of facilitation where everyone can be a teacher and everyone can learn. We learned a kind of facilitation that breaks the wall between audience and facilitator. This kind of facilitation says “we are all teachers as well as learners in this place”. 

Through the GAL, we could look at problems not at eye level only. We learned to remove the lens and we were guided to look deeply into matters such as societal norms as things people believe in. People believe that this is how it has always been, and in so doing people forget that we are groomed like this. The Gender Action Learning process created spaces where we could voice our views and opinions. We could tackle issues without being judged. 

During the dialogues we tried to get to know the norms community members hold on to. This was important to understand in order to deal with issues like gender-based violence, homophobia and xenophobia, HIV and more. The knowledge and guidance we received helped us with these discussions. 

A lot has changed since the process began or rather since we became a part of it. The people who attend the study circles and especially the coordinators have changed their approach to addressing cadres and community people. There is more energy and clarity. Now we can hear and see passion and dedication when they talk. People have more drive and their spirit has changed. 

I recall an incident in the study circle where we were discussing dialogues and for the first time, people were complaining about the reading material. One of our coordinators, Sweeto, suggested that people read at home but bring their information and have an open discussion in the groups. This resulted in people being more active in the study circles. 

After all is said and done, after the marches, the study circles and dialogues, we hope that the acceptance, equality and respect we long for will eventually come. One day, someday, the hard work will pay off and people will see with the same eyes. The struggle shall continue. 

Ayanda Masina is a participant in the Gender Action Learning process that we faciliated in South Africa in 2012-13. At the end of the year, we had a short writing workshop with some of the participants. This is the first in a series of blog posts featuring the stories that emerged. 


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

By Anya Katz and Joanne Sandler

There is growing debate about whether or not we are at a tipping point for gender equality, a time when the gender discrimination and gender binaries that have divided and distorted us are poised to wither away. When we see millions of people on the street protesting the rape of a young Indian woman, young men and women in Egypt joining together to protect women from public sexual harassment, marriage equality becoming law or proposed as law in more and more countries and localities, projects like Everyday Sexism going viral…we dare to consider that a new era is – well, maybe not around the corner, but possibly – at an incipient stage.

We had this sense that there is far more happening than we hear about to confront gender discrimination in the every-day lives of people and we wanted to know about it: which is one reason we proposed the End Gender Discrimination Now! Contest and joined forces with AWID, BRIDGE and FLACSO, in August 2013, to issue a worldwide call for entries. We wanted to know, in particular, what strategies seemed to have proven traction, what innovative ideas people had and were interested in testing out, and also what was not working.  We wanted to know if, in addition to the many examples that we know through our work or through the media – that is, those that float to the top – there were other initiatives that would emerge.

Earlier this year, we announced winners in three categories and another six submissions that deserved honorable mention because they were so inspiring. In the coming days, you can read more about each of the individuals and organizations that were selected on our websites.

The 200+ submissions we received paint an interesting picture. Caveats aside – this was our first contest of this type, we were asking for complex processes to be described in 750 words or less, etc. – we were surprised both by what was submitted…and also what was not.

First some basic demographic data: We got very few submissions from North America and Europe (15% of the total), no submissions from the Pacific Islands and only 1 from the Caribbean, and relatively few submissions on gender and organizational change (an explicit focus of what we asked for). More than 30% of the entries were submitted by men. The region with the largest number of entries was Africa. With submissions from more than 60 countries, the two countries with the largest number of entries were Argentina and India.

What was particularly interesting about the entries was that they did not come, primarily, from the larger, well-known national and international NGOs or donor agencies that are most often associated with work on gender equality and women’s rights. The majority of submissions were far more local, including a surprising number from women and men who submitted their gut-based reflections on how they ‘witnessed’ gender discrimination and became sensitized to it. These submissions broke the mold of proposing project-oriented solutions; they simply described what they saw and ended with random ideas for change. They also showed, dramatically and straightforwardly, how gender intersects with other categories of discrimination. They included, for instance, a submission describing the Tanzanian practice of Nyumba Ntobhu – which roughly translates into “women marrying women”. The entry described Nyumba Ntobhu as a custom that enabled wealthy women who can’t have children to pay a ‘bridal’ price to a young woman’s poor family so that the young woman can bear children for the wealthier woman with any man designated to have the ‘right’ qualities. We received a heartfelt submission about the journey to gain self-respect and end societal bias by a trans-sexual activist in Kenya. Or a submission from El Salvador, where a community development worker described her wake-up call, “One day in 1991 I was sitting on a log with a friend, mother of 14 children, and she asked me, ‘what is an orgasm?’  She gave birth to 14 children and had never experienced the wonders of her own body…her story was the women’s story in these rural communities.”

Another quick impression of the totality of entries was the prominence of the strategy of ‘women inspiring women’. If a woman in a Muslim-majority country where travel for women was restricted saw women post photographs of themselves travelling alone, the premise was that other women would be motivated to do the same. If women see other female engineers succeeding, they will be more driven to pursue technical careers. Women diplomats, women in the airport security systems and in many other fields submitted examples of the ways in which challenging gender stereotypes in visible and courageous ways is crucial to confronting gender discrimination.

Other strategies – the extraordinarily creative use of traditional and social media (from radio to internet chat groups to databases), the continuing importance of self-awareness and consciousness-raising, the importance of actions by local governments, and the dedicated and courageous organizing of community-based groups – appeared in many of the entries. There were many submissions that described tried and true approaches and a smaller number that demonstrated out-of-the-box thinking.

The social justice activist and folk-singer, Pete Seeger, who recently died, once said, “I think the world is going to be saved by millions of small things. Too many things can go wrong when they get big.” And so it is for these contest entries. These hundreds of small things, multiplied by many more hundreds and thousands, offer great promise to create a tipping point: a time when gender discrimination is a memory, one that is an important history lesson, but that we no longer live on a daily basis.                  

About the authors: Anya is a first-year student at Oberlin College who focused her winter-break project on analyzing the entries to the End Gender Discrimination Now! contest; Joanne is a senior associate for Gender at Work and the co-author of the feminist mystery, Murder by Choice: A Sister Sleuth Adventure.


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