Talking Gender


A blog about gender, culture and organizational change

By Gender at Work Media / October 12, 2015 / Loading Disqus...

By Ray Gordezky

We're working with Oxfam America Cambodia to address gender injustice in Cambodia and Vietnam and the vehicle for this work is a Gender Action Learning (GAL) Process with four organizations that work in natural resource management and extractive industries. These organizations are as diverse as Oxfam America Cambodia, People and Nature Reconciliation (Vietnam), Highlanders’ Association of Cambodia, and Save Cambodia Wildlife.  

We started in February and recently, we held the second of three gender action learning workshops in Hanoi. The question that framed our work was: How can change teams (in Cambodia & Vietnam) accelerate their ability to integrate gender equality into their organizations and their programs so that they increase women’s’ participation in decision making at home, in their communities and concerning the protection and use of their land?

What emerged was interesting. These are some of the things participants said: 

  • I gained a deeper and practical understanding of how gender identify and gender power relations are socially constructed, and are fluid depending on the circumstances.
  • I’m beginning to understand how the power you have is both what you see as your own power within, and is conferred on me differently by different people. So while I see myself as powerful in certain circumstances, others see me as powerless.
  • Asking questions and heart listening deepens learning and makes new action possible
  • I learned some practical ways of using questions to help analyze how gender is playing out in various situations.
  • I learned that gender inequality is more deeply ingrained and harder to change than I originally thought.

My own lessons were as surprising to me as perhaps the participants’ lessons were to them. First, the Gender at Work Framework and other Gender at Work processes (such as peer learning and body work) are most useful when used to create a field of play for conversation and meaning making, rather than as a way to get to the answers. Whether using the framework or peer learning, these approaches provide opportunities for people to go deeply into their own thinking and cultural norms, traditional practices, gender power relations and so on. Coming up with a gender analysis based on the Gender at Work framework, or a polished plan for an initiative to address gender-based violence in the home, are important. 

Perhaps more important is people beginning to make their thinking clear to themselves and to others so that they can collectively accelerate the achievement of results they want around gender inequality. Conversations about gender, identity, sexuality and so on create a field participants step into when they leave the workshop, in their homes, in their organizations, in their communities. It is from this field that they can open up explorations with others about the tough problems of changing traditional beliefs that keep women from, for example, gaining decision making power and ultimately seeing themselves as having the power to create a better life for themselves and other women. People leave these conversations with greater clarity on what gender inequality is, and they start thinking and talking differently than they did before. Together they create a field where better results can happen, though specific results may take more time than we have for the project to become visible.

At the beginning of the workshop is when it's important to create a shared understanding about the terms we use. For example, when people talk about future-oriented ideas for action they are frame these ideas as about something they can actually test, as something that is specific and doable. Getting to a shared understanding about ending gender-based violence in the home, for example, involves questioning what people mean by gender-based violence, offering competing ideas on what gender-based violence could mean, and refusing to accept fuzzy language or generalizations. Getting clarity on terms is an art – the way an artist uses their tools while carrying out their particular craft or art. 

Ultimately, the greatest power people gain from these workshops is learning the art of learning. This goes beyond correcting errors or injustices by applying a framework; it goes beyond surfacing assumptions and recombining elements of a solution in a way that addresses the current context. Both are important, but they are not enough to change patriarchal norms. My hypothesis is that if we are to achieve lasting positive change for gender justice, it is critical to both increase a group’s ability to accelerate the achievement of gender justice and to use their learning in addressing gender justice to learn how to learn so that they can effectively address new problems and opportunities.

Gender at Work and the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex jointly held a course, Doing Gender, in June, at the University of Sussex. Watch this short video created by Aditi Bhonagiri to find out how it went!

By Aditi Bhonagiri

We have our 30 credit Doing Gender module in June once all other MAs are done with teaching. Can you believe it!” said an annoyed peer from the Gender and Development Masters program.

Andrea is going to bring two really established feminist bureaucrats and if she pulls this one off, it will be one of the best learning experiences IDS can offer to its students - it’s a make or break for us,” said another, sounding more optimistic.

This was the usual chatter in the corridors at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) building, at the University of Sussex, in the lead up to the two-week intensive workshop about gender mainstreaming in development institutions that was being planned, albeit shrouded in worrying uncertainty. Some of the uncertainty came from the fact that the convenor of the module, Andrea Cornwall, wanted to experiment with more immersive forms of learning to either enhance or complement conventional classroom style learning that is otherwise staggered over 12 weeks. 

Aruna Rao and Joanne Sandler from Gender at Work were invited to pilot their Gender Action Learning (GAL) program, specially tailored to prepare MA students specialising in Gender and Development for the world of development work and practice. The rest of us, especially those pursing the overarching Development Studies masters program like myself were really envious of such a promising opportunity. Submitting to part curiosity, part initiative and part coincidence, I decided to audit (attend informally, without credit) the two weeks hoping for it to be a stimulating and insightful learning experience.

The workshop was split in three parts that introduced us to key concepts, themes, strategies and relevant literature on mainstreaming gender in institutions; power dynamics in organisations and systems; feminist leadership and feminist institutionalism; strategic learning and feminist evaluation and monitoring for gender equality. They were also coupled with sessions that allowed us to engage with experiential and creative techniques of learning such as storytelling, forum theatre, simulation exercises and more. 

We began by drawing out our own expectations from the workshop: what was interesting about this exercise was that we were not asked to state them in purely transactional terms but carefully situate our responses with reference to how our mind, body and heart felt. This was a clever way to start as it helped everyone gauge where everyone else was positioned in the gender debate — an important dimension that is often assumed i.e. the fact that if we’re advocating for gender equality then we must all be on the same page. This also helped initiate a great safe and interactive space to learn by doing, reflect and share in togetherness. Over the course of the workshop, the creation of a healthy learning community meant that we are all present for each other’s feminist awakenings!

Personally, I found the Gender at Work framework to be an extremely valuable tool to analyse issues of gender inequality not only in organisations but also everyday settings and for my impending dissertation as well. Throughout the course, we were encouraged to use personal case studies to illustrate gendered power dynamics and use the framework to map out points of intervention for change and make visible discriminatory social norms and organisational deep structures of inequalities that were perpetuated, for example, even within the Institute we study at and blindly assume to be gender-aware and gender-responsive. 

By looking inwards, we were also able to build consciousness on what role we chose to play in a certain situation and found that we ourselves were often responsible for reproducing discriminatory patriarchal norms and practices that are often deep rooted and resilient. And to truly demonstrate a fantastic learning culture that was created over the few days, we ended our course by applying the tools and strategies we had learnt, to evaluate our own workshop!

Aruna and Joanna’s enthusiasm and expertise is really what made this intensive training period such an enjoyable, memorable and inspiring process. As a student, I definitely feel re-energised and equipped to step into the “real world” of fighting gender inequality and contributing to change at multiple levels. The learning process has only just begun.  


Gender at Work and the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex jointly held a course, Doing Gender, in June, at the University of Sussex. Aditi Bhonagiri attended the course. 



By Phumzile Mashishi

Our journey began at a stage where our union was starting from scratch to reshape and grow. Between 2007 and 2008 our union had experienced a turbulent period and was on the brink of being deregistered. Then suddenly there were rays of hope. The sunshine started to emerge as new leaders were elected at the November 2008 Congress.

It was in this period of putting the pieces together that our union was nominated as one of the organisations participating in the Gender at Work/LRS Gender Action Learning Programme. The theme of the GALP process was Gender Based Violence, HIV/Aids and women’s economic empowerment. In our very first GALP workshop we were introduced to four areas of change and we were asked to decide on the changes we would like to focus on. The four areas of change are namely changing consciousness, changing women’s condition and access to resources, changing formal rules and changing practices of exclusion, norms and values. As a union we decided to work on changing consciousness and making changes in formal rules like laws and policies. And so we took up the work of bringing back consciousness, changing the culture and making members' voices louder.

We wanted our worker members in their different workplaces, and our union staff, to deal more effectively with matters relating to sexual harassment, workplace violence, women’s empowerment, HIV/Aids and TB and rape. We wanted them to understand the  legislation relating to these issues. And we wanted to get buy in and support from the union’s leadership so that we could realise our dreams.

Have we succeeded in realising our dreams? Partly yes - not totally or completely, but we have made a start.

A new culture is emerging

You can’t give something you do not have inside. I mean deep down in your consciousness, and in your heart. If you want to impact on others you should yourself have experienced the impact you want to make. Participating in the GALP process helped us to think more seriously about issues pertaining to HIV/Aids, Gender based violence, Gender inequality and women’s empowerment. We thought more seriously on the role these factors play in preparing women to resume decision making and leadership positions.

Coming back from GALP workshops, we met with our mentor Nina Benjamin and we started engaging formally and informally on our objectives and plans. We were inspired to make our GALP project part of the agenda and discussion in all our staff meetings.  As we made our verbal and written reports we looked at issues deeply with gender lenses. And we started to change our thinking. The action learning programme became part of those of us in the departments of education and gender who were the drivers of the programme –- and it became part of me as a person.

I was assigned to lead the action learning programme and it became my baby, my DNA - but it was the same for my colleagues. We were hungry to deepen our understandings and we started to discuss strategies. When we started to link our general discussions and our experiences at home, in the community and in the workplace with gender inequality, patriarchal domination, oppression for women, cultural practices and justification of power relations – I knew and sensed that a new culture was being born in the organisation. A culture of not being afraid to confront, not being afraid to speak freely about differences, and not being afraid to debate the best solutions with men. Fire started to burn within us and this was to affect others.

We were hungry as we started reading articles on gender equality and HIV, as we found materials and books on leadership, as we visited websites, did research and searched for materials to include in our workshop packs. We did all this to deepen our understandings.

The GALP facilitators forwarded us relevant reading materials. This helped all of us to deepen our understandings, to come up with new strategies and ideas for planning, facilitating and  implementing our programmes. Even now as I am writing this piece my phone rings and it is my leader, the assistant General Secretary of our department, sharing with me how at a workshop organised by our federation FEDUSA and facilitated by the ILO she could feel the voice of a community of women ready to rise and bring about change.

Changing to a culture of reading, giving inputs, and consciousness of policies, acts and rules

We realised the importance of being aware of policies, legislation and regulations discussed in parliament. We realised that when parliament seeks mandates our members must participate and give input. We realised that laws are the kind of back-up we need, they are  tools  our members and our communities can use to advance their rights.

I never in my wildest dream thought I would be able to read a policy document, see the gaps and give input. My chance came when our federation was requested by the department of Women, Children and People with Disabilities to give input on the proposed Women Empowerment Gender Equality Bill. I circulated the bill to members of our gender forum structures in all provinces as a way of getting them involved. Normally as people we criticise the law but when given a chance to voice our position, we don’t. They read the bill and we had a telephone conference where gender forum representatives had the opportunity to give their input. I then I compiled our input and forwarded this to our federation.

We also circulated the social accord on youth employment creation discussion paper to the young workers forum in our union. National treasury asked for public comment on this document on “confronting youth unemployment policy option for South Africa”. Our youth were divided on this issue and we are hoping that they will be able to deliberate further in the youth summit being planned by our Federation FEDUSA.

We tried a similar process of distribution, discussion and inputs from our members on the Traditional Leaders Court Bill. As a union we realise that it is important to engage with all legislation, and not only labour related legislation. Knowledge is power. Knowledge makes you brave and confident to stand your ground.


Phumzile Mashishi is a participant in our Gender Action Learning process in South Africa. 

By Gender at Work Media / December 23, 2014 / Loading Disqus...

By Tish Haynes, Director of DOCKDA

This is the final part of a two-part blog post. Read the first part here.

Home-based care workers have been working voluntarily for up to 10 years to bring those who are ill back to full health. They have walked through the windy summer sand storms of the Kgalagadi to reach their patients. They bring first and foremost themselves as women, tenderly caring and bathing the ill woman, making her as comfortable as possible in her small house. Home-based care workers provided their services voluntarily. They provided transport for the patient to go to the clinic; they shared their food with children; they fetched medication from the clinic. They also became aware of the different kinds of abuse they or community members were experiencing. DOCKDA facilitated workshops with women from Home Based Care organizations to address issues of inequality (in remuneration because they were women); abuse and harassment on women and girl children by men; the context of sexuality and gender; and the influence sexuality has in human relationships. When these organizations wanted to share their knowledge with the community, they organized and facilitated workshops. At the end of the year, after four mentoring and monitoring field trips by DOCKDA staff, DOCKDA would hold a Lekgotla to bring women and men together to share opinions on power relationships. This deepened their understanding of power relationships and they were inspired to support each other.  

Growing awareness brought more questioning. Through the Gender at Work peer learning process, I became clearer about the links between HIV and gender-based violence. We were successful in accessing stipends for 95 home-based care workers from the Independent Development Trust. The stipends would provide an income to reduce women’s debt and over time enable them to start saving.  A focal point for our grant-making was to shift from solely supporting GBV awareness workshops to supporting women to become financially literate and have more choices.

If women workers are unable to make decisions on household budgets because they do not receive a stipend, they are again in subservient roles. If they have access to a stipend at the very least, they can make decisions on their own or jointly with their husband/ partner. The change project is bringing new life into our organization. Women are receiving stipends and are contributing to their families’ budgets.

Tish Haynes is a participant in our Gender Action Learning process in South Africa.

By Gender at Work Media / December 19, 2014 / Loading Disqus...

By Tish Haynes, Director of DOCKDA

What is the value placed on the work of caring for children, the ill and the elderly in our communities? As people we know that our children are a source of joy, that we should care for the ill, and we want to show our gratitude to the elderly for their devotion and care in the past.

DOCKDA Rural Development Agency is an NGO established in 1994 to take resources to rural community initiatives. Over time, not only funds but organizational development and management skills training workshops were facilitated with emerging projects and community organizations in Eastern, Western and Northern Cape. DOCKDA highlighted HIV as a sector for special focus by the year 2000. Our current leadership program works with rural women who are already organizing in their communities.

Since 2003, we have been working in the John Taolo Gaeteswe (JTG) municipal district, one of the 13 poverty nodal districts in South Africa, with women and particularly with Home-Based Care Workers. This has surfaced long-held experiences of gender-based violence and abuse within households. We hold lekgotlas for people to dialogue on beliefs, perceptions of power relationships, and practices that promote harmony.

In 2012, we joined an 18-month Gender Action Learning Process with Gender at Work. Our board and staff were curious and eager and during the first session, we were asked what gender discrimination we had experienced. When I qualified as a teacher in the late 1960s, I worked in schools in the east end of London. Returning to South Africa, I married and sought a teaching position in a government school. As a white, married woman teacher, I was employed only in a temporary position, and I was not offered legally-due benefits like a housing subsidy. That discrimination awakened my personal understanding of the many injustices on the majority of people/ citizens in South Africa. I joined the Black Sash, a women’s rights organization that promoted universal franchise and gave practical assistance on forced removals, arrests and court appearances.  I became acutely aware of the hardships and violence the apartheid state committed towards the citizenry.

Rural women who had shown so much resilience surviving apartheid, had to face the scourge of HIV within their communities from the late 1990s. Often, it was working children who returned to their villages to be cared for by their elderly parents as they deteriorated further. The women took the initiative and banded together to help each other in this new and overwhelming task. The women gained experience in the villages. They grappled with extending their meager grant to cover the needs of their newly orphaned grandchildren. The government was slow in setting up training in Home-Based Care and in giving access to anti-retro viral treatment. The women were becoming the eyes and ears of the community as they went into the homes of the ill and dying. Their growing awareness became clearer to me in the Gender Action Learning Process.

We want to strengthen women’s leadership and affirm their position in their communities as valuable workers, citizens and leaders. But habitual ways of thinking and expression are hard to break through to enable fresh words to flower. We have come through feelings of exasperation and frustration. We sometimes wondered if we would be able to find a safe landing for our change project.

This is the first of a two-part blog post.

DOCKDA Rural Development Agency is a non-profit organization working in partnership with home based care organizations in the deep rural areas of South Africa’s remote Northern Cape province. 

Tish Haynes is a participant in our Gender Action Learning process in South Africa. 



By Gender at Work Media / November 14, 2014 / Loading Disqus...

This is a video (in Portuguese) of the Gender Action Learning process we conducted inMozambique with 26 people of the Union of Rural Workers of Cabo Delgado with support from Oxfam Solidarité Belgium e Oxfam Canada. The process ran for 18 months and was facilitated by Solange Rocha. 


By Gender at Work Media / August 23, 2014 / Loading Disqus...

This toolkit developed by Srilatha Batliwala and Michel Friedman helps build the capacities of women in leadership positions. Based on the work done for CREA’s Feminist Leadership for Social Transformation—Clearing the Conceptual Cloud, the toolkit has been developed in collaboration with Oxfam. You can download it here. We chatted with Srilatha about what it covers—gender, power, deep structures and what it takes to create safe spaces.  

1. What are some of the most important tools you have talked about in this toolkit? 

I think each one is useful in a particular way, in a particular context and what each individual experiences with each tool is highly subjective and varied. Each exercise does something different, at a different level, or works for understanding different aspects of one’s internal life or organizational environment. But there are probably some that have a greater potential to create “AHA” moments—the deep structure mapping, for instance, or the personal histories with power, or the “I'm Okay You’re Okay” grid. 

2. Some of the exercises in this toolkit are intense and challenging such as the one which requires introspection on one’s own relationship/ experience of power. What kind of mindset or attitude is important for participants coming into it? What must they be prepared for? 

I think all the exercises require a considerable degree of openness, honesty and self awareness. But it is difficult to be totally self-aware unless one is also quite mature. People who feel easily threatened and insecure, who always need to be in control, may not get much out of them, especially the “SELF” exercises. For instance, in order to locate yourself in the “I'm okay you’re okay” quadrants, you have to be prepared to admit—even if it is only to yourself—that you’re primary position is “I'm not okay, you’re not okay”. Fortunately, a lot of the SELF exercises don’t demand that you share your insights with other people but they do expect you to act on the insights they give you, or to begin to explore how you can change negative patterns. 

3. What about the other side of it? What is important in a facilitator? What kind of attitudes or openness must the facilitator bring into this? 

Because of the sensitive issues and emotions that most of the toolkit exercises will inevitably throw up, we have emphasized the importance of the facilitator’s role and skill in managing these. The facilitator’s guide was added to the toolkit precisely for this reason. But the most important factor is the need for the facilitator to create a safe environment for the process, which means establishing and sustaining norms of respectfulness, honesty, non-judgement, dealing constructively with negative emotions or conflict that may emerge. This means the facilitator herself must be careful to keep an open mind, to remain non-judgemental even when opinions or attitudes are expressed that conflict with her own. At times, however, the facilitator will also have to have the courage and capacity to name and visibilize the dynamic that is causing problems, and manage the anger or hurt this might cause. The larger purpose of each exercise, and of the process as a whole, must remain the overriding priority for the facilitator, and individual sensitivities and reactions have to be balanced with this. THIS IS HARD WORK!! Which is why we have pointed facilitators to several resources that can help them do this, especially if they are not experienced facilitators – in situations, for instance, where a staff member may play the facilitator’s role. Nevertheless, we realise that even the most excellent facilitation may not work with leaders or organizations that are deeply threatened and resistant to change. 

4. The tookit talks about creating safe spaces for participants. What are “safe spaces” and why are they important? 

The kind of openness, honesty, and deep interrogation of the SELF, of organizational systems and practices that the toolkit demands, cannot be conducted or completed in an environment where people are afraid, tense, anxious. They may fear reprisal for speaking up, for naming the “elephant in the room”, or simply for sharing their real feelings honestly. So it is critical for the atmosphere to feel safe—meaning a space where there will not be judgement, reprisal, counter-attack, or blame—where each person is treated with respect and as an equal, where everyone is given the benefit of the doubt and the right to articulate their opinions and feelings, and who is trusted about wanting to contribute to the collective goal. It is difficult to describe a safe space in words. It is something we feel in our gut, something experienced. It is being in unsafe spaces that makes one realize the quality of a safe space. 

5. What are some of the ways in which safe spaces can be created? 

This is a complex process and cannot be described in a few words. The toolkit provides some ideas on this in the facilitator’s guide, as well as links to other resources that provide guidelines for creating safe spaces. Michel, in particular, has shared some of her practices in creating safe spaces for groups riven with conflict, anger, and even violence against each other.

6. In the toolkit, you have a section on why articulating Values and Principles (as an organization) matters. What are some of the challenges that organizations may face while doing this? 

As you know, the leadership toolkit is based on the concept paper that I wrote much earlier for CREA: Feminist Leadership for Social Transformation – Clearing the Conceptual Cloud, in which I proposed the idea of the feminist leadership “Diamond” comprising the four Ps of Power, Politics (purpose), Principles and Practice. I theorized that only when the four Ps are in alignment, when the power that leaders have is tempered by and accountable to the purpose for which they are leading (the politics of the organization or movement), and the principles and values they must uphold and promote, that their practices will reflect feminist ideology. But usually, organizations and leaders don't bother to spell out their politics / purpose or the principles and values of the organization / movement, or believe they are obvious or implicit, and so they don’t create any clear mechanisms for checking whether the organization’s internal and external practices are in sync with these values or not. So an important first step is to articulate values, and then to figure out how you are going to monitor the implementation / practice of these values. 

The main challenge in this process, though, is the temptation to put down a lot of high-sounding values and principles with no corresponding set of measures or indicators of what these will look like in practice. Which is why the toolkit offers an example of how you translate values into what we call “operating principles”, which are much more amenable to assessment. 

7. You have talked about power in different contexts and forms including ‘hidden power’ or ‘invisible power’. Can you briefly tell our readers a bit about that? Are these concepts that are recognised and acknowledged among feminist organizations or is it a challenge for organizations to look within? 

I would say that hidden and invisible power are not widely recognized or acknowledged in most organizations, leave aside feminist organizations. Most organizations—private companies, government departments, NGOs—would rather not deal with these dimensions of power, because they are uncomfortable realities. In rural districts of India, for instance, I have seen senior government civil servants send their wives to represent them at various events (like the inauguration of a women’s income generation program, for instance) and these women think nothing of introducing themselves by their husband’s designation (I am the District Magistrate, said one, I am the Superintendent of Police said another). This is a highly normalized form of hidden power in rural India. 

In feminist organizations, there is even greater resistance, sometimes, to recognizing or dealing with these forms of power because of all the myths and assumptions embedded there. For example, the belief that they should avoid all hierarchies and create “flat” organizations (often resulting in hidden or invisible hierarchies), the sense of discomfort with power and formal leadership and the mythology that is created that power is distributed equally, the delusion that women can’t behave oppressively to other women (or anyone else), the assumption that feminists will inevitably lead differently, fairly. For more information and an appreciation of the importance of hidden and invisible power—especially in organizational contexts—I would refer readers again to the Feminist Leadership for Social Transformation concept paper on which the toolkit is based, and particularly to pages 32 - 45. 

8. The toolkit talks about organizational ‘deep culture’ , the hidden sites and processes of power and influence in an organisation that construct its actual culture. It includes informal or unstated values and systems of reward and recognition like gossip, rumours or the culture of staying late or working on weekends. In some countries where these are ingrained ways of working (where there is no recognition of ‘overtime’ for example), how hard is it for organizations to break out of these systems? Have you frequently seen a commitment to do so on the part of management?

Personally I have seen very few organizations in my context in India and South Asia, willing to acknowledge the existence of a deep structure, let alone tackle the dynamics that operate within it. Even some of our most famous NGOs have revolting gender-biased or caste-based practices (like dress codes for women staff even in their offices, or subtly ensuring that people of certain castes do not handle food) that continue to this day. Part of the problem is that most people don’t challenge these unquestioned norms for fear of losing their jobs, or being penalized or stigmatized in other ways. There is a culture of silence and acceptance that gets constructed, a mirror image of the silence and acceptance of our culture as a whole. I have seen change happen only in contexts where there were leadership changes, or leaders themselves recognized the destructive power of what was happening in the deep culture, and decided to address it. But this is very, very rare. The need to tackle deep cultures is only now being recognized. And frankly, even when this happens, it’s not as though we have a vast number of people who can help organizations work on this. There are very few skilled people who can walk organizations through the process of unearthing their deep cultures and resolving some of the more problematic dynamics hidden there. So the whole area of organizational deep culture / deep structure is a huge challenge.

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.    

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.


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