Mainstreaming gender in a research institute


By Maheen Sultan

Editors’ note:  Think tanks, like other organisations, face decisions over what sort of structures they put in place to support the integration of gender. While there are many lessons learned on what it takes to effectively integrate gender in organisations, there is no blueprint of the appropriate “gender architecture” for specific organizations or indeed for think tanks. Is a specialized gender unit most likely to make progress in promoting gender? If so, where should it sit in the organisational structure to influence change? Or should gender be included – or “mainstreamed” – across all organisational units? In our eighth blog, Maheen Sultan, of BIGD, Bangladesh, shares her reflections on strategies attempted in her think tank.

A specialised research centre on gender

“We are strong on gender and research — we have a dedicated centre working on this”. This was how BRAC Institute for Governance and Development (BIGD), a research and policy institute in Bangladesh, proudly presented itself to the outside world of similar research institutes and government agencies. That ‘dedicated centre,’ established in 2012, was the Centre for Gender and Social Transformation, where I was a founding member. However I have had my doubts about whether having a specialised research centre is enough to ensure that the research and advocacy done by the Institute as a whole is gender transformative. Is the Institute contributing to challenging gender discrimination and bringing about greater gender equity? Or is it able to ensure gender responsive research through understanding that differences between women and men needs to be taken into account at all stages of research planning, design, implementation, analysis and writing, not just through the work of the dedicated Centre?

The Centre for Gender and Social Transformation functioned internally as a research team working in parallel with other thematic clusters. It built up a track record of research on women’s economic empowerment, care work, changing gender norms, social movements, as well as advocacy and policy engagement around these and other critical gender issues. However, it functioned as a silo with little engagement or exchanges with the rest of the Institute. As a result the research done by the rest of the Institute often lacked an understanding of the relevance of gender issues, and our team felt that our capacities were not being fully appreciated or used internally.

Mainstreaming gender in research

When the BRAC Institute for Governance and Development joined the Gender Action Learning Program with the International Development Research Centre’s Think Tank Initiative in 2018, we decided to use the opportunity to make the research and projects undertaken by the entire Institute gender responsive. This involved going beyond the confines of the Centre to work across the Institute. To do this, a team was formed with members from other research clusters, coordinated by myself as a senior member of the Centre, a long-term Gender Specialist and a Women’s Rights Activist. I had previously advised other organisations on gender mainstreaming but was now being asked to do so in my own organisation. At the same time, a change in senior management resulted in greater inter-cluster cooperation and the gender team’s participation at senior level decision making.

In order to build internal consensus that research rationale should be based on gender analysis and this was an essential dimension of research quality, we began parallel processes of information gathering and consensus building, as well as working on cross cluster research projects such as the annual State of Governance and State of Cities reports for 2018, which are flagship projects presenting research related to governance and urban development. While there were some reservations about this across the institute since this had the blessings of management we had the “go-ahead”.

The experience of two research initiatives

The State of Cities (SoC) report 2018 had water management as its central theme. The gender cluster decided to assign one of its members to the research team so that gender issues would be integrated from the beginning such as understanding the use, access and management of water by women and men. Unfortunately, the outcome was that although the SoC team gained additional human resources, the research design, implementation or analysis was not influenced sufficiently so that we could claim the SoC report was “engendered”.

On the other hand, the State of Governance report for 2018 had as its theme Social Accountability and I myself along with another experienced member of the Gender team worked on it. I was co-lead of the study and the Lead was open to inclusion of gender. This led to the entire exercise being much more aware of how women and men were participating in different social accountability mechanisms and the differential implications it had for them. I felt satisfied that the exercise had been a good example of how research could be gender responsive and that the rest of the team from other parts of the Institute had learned from the process.

Policy and procedural reforms

The opportunity for me to contribute to senior level decision making also allowed a number of measures to be taken at the policy and procedural levels that encouraged researchers across thematic clusters to consider the relevance of gender. Firstly these included a provision that a collective decision would be taken by the senior management team (SMT) before proceeding on developing a project or research proposal and that among the criteria to be considered would be whether gender and diversity issues had been considered or not. Secondly the research approval process was revised and the SMT decided that a Code of Conduct would be prepared to ensure that all researchers, including lead researchers, would address gender equality and equity concerns in both research management as well as design of their research projects.

Along with research conceptualization and design issues, other implementation issues arose which included the ability and skills of women researchers to carry out field research by travelling to remote locations and interacting with a variety of actors. This prompted the women researchers to articulate their demands for safe transportation and accommodation as well as childcare, which administration was able to respond to satisfactorily, with encouragement from management. 

Reflections on the process of change

Reflecting back over the year I can see that the Gender and Social Transformation team, as well as BIGD as a whole, has benefitted from various opportunities which we made the most of to begin to mainstream gender into research throughout the Institute. These have included the encouragement of coaches from the Gender Action Learning Program, the support of senior management for addressing gender equity in research, the change of management style with a new Executive Director, new staff coming into the Institute bringing new perspectives and new dynamism, and an openness and demand among younger research staff to learn about addressing gender in research.

However, the mainstreaming and increased influence of the Gender and Social Transformation team has come at a cost.

A challenge is that time and human resources of the Gender and Social Transformation team have been spread over the Institute, so less time and attention can be given to conducting its own existing research, developing new research and nurturing its own human resources. Another challenge is that working with other teams does not necessarily result in better gender outcomes in terms of research results, since the result of such collaboration will depend on the skills and motivation of the gender experts and the openness and interest of the research teams to bring in new perspectives and dimensions. And finally, the last challenge is that the Centre has to function both as a centre that is producing quality research and active in advocacy, as well as supporting research across the Institute with no additional budget and human resources.

Time will tell whether in the long run the Centre’s loss in the short-run will be compensated by gains in terms of influence and reputation. By influence is meant the chance to contribute to setting the research agenda and questions of other teams and therefore the outcomes. If BIGD’s reputation as a research institute that is known for its expertise in addressing gender equity concerns is enhanced the Centre for Gender and Social Transformation will benefit as well.

These are the author’s personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Gender at Work or IDRC’s Think Tank Initiative.

Maheen Sultan is a Senior Follow Practice at the Centre for Gender and Social Transformation, BRAC Institute of Governance and Development.

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