Strengthening gender as a component of Research Quality (+)


By Erika Malich

Editors’ note: Over the past five weeks, our blog series has shared stories from a Writeshop held in March 2019, co-hosted by Gender at Work, IDRC’s Think Tank Initiative and ASIES. A highlight of the workshop was the opportunity to learn about RQ+, an IDRC initiative to take a more holistic approach to “research quality” – one that includes gender as integral dimension. In this blog, Erika Malich describes RQ+, along with her reflections on what the discussions among participants highlighted on things to think about when integrating gender in research.

It was easy to feel inspired in the warmth of Guatemala City (while it was barely reaching above zero back home in Ottawa), surrounded by individuals hailing from five different think tanks from five different countries. Over the course of four days everyone shared honest reflections from their personal and professional experiences as part of the final workshop of the Gender Action Learning Project (GALP), supported through the Think Tank Initiative (TTI).

I had been invited to participate in this workshop as part of my own journey to reflect and learn about gender in research, building on work I was doing around research quality. Since the summer of 2018, I had been working with Manuel Acevedo, a consultant with TTI, to support two think tanks to adapt and implement the Research Quality Plus (RQ+) approach to their organizations (See Manuel’s blog in this series, On becoming a feminist). RQ+ is a novel approach of thinking about research quality developed by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) that looks beyond academic metrics and citation rates to other dimensions of quality including research integrity, legitimacy, and importance, among others.

A different way of thinking about research quality

RQ+ was developed by IDRC to help evaluate research projects in a way that is consistent with what IDRC values in research. RQ+ is both a conceptual approach as well as a framework to evaluate research quality. While the approach consists of standard components, the RQ+ framework was meant to be adaptable for other organizations to reflect what they value as part of research quality.

Manuel and I had been working with two organizations, the Association for Research and Social Studies (ASIES) in Guatemala and Grupo Faro in Ecuador, through this adaptation process, and it emerged that both were keen to deepen their thinking around integrating and evaluating gender as a component of research quality. As gender is a sub-component of research integrity in the RQ+ framework, and a theme important to TTI, it was given particular emphasis during the project.

As ASIES was already involved in the Gender Action Learning Project , we were able to leverage the opportunity of the GALP final workshop to share lessons between the two projects. Manuel and I were invited to participate to share information about the RQ+ approach, while also being able to benefit from the gender expertise of the GALP participants.

Diving into thinking about gender in research

At the workshop, Manuel and I hoped to foster a discussion on how RQ+ could be most useful, and how it might be leveraged to better help organizations thinking about integrating gender considerations in the research process. For instance: Were there any additional elements or guidance currently missing around gender in RQ+? What advice could we give to other organizations on how to integrate gender into their research, and (how) can this be captured in an evaluative framework? What considerations are different when thinking about integrating gender consideration into a specific research project, vs. integrating gender into organizational systems?

The discussions coalesced around five main areas that are relevant to thinking about RQ+, as well as to evaluating gender in research more generally. These themes included:

  1. Language and terminology matter, including language used for the ‘gender’ sub-dimension in RQ+. Maintaining a consistent use and application of common terms was acknowledged as being highly important. There was also the recognition that not everyone understands terms in the same way, and the implication of these terms is equally important to consider. What would be the value of using terms such as gender responsive, as is used by the United Nations, which often refers to a project addressing gender dimensions, or terms that push the boundary further, such as gender transformative, which is often used to connote projects that are aiming to transform gender relations and power dynamics, but may not be relevant to all research projects?
  2. Who conducts the research is important in addition to the methodology used to conduct the research. Is there a way to capture who is making up the research teams; for example, are research teams composed of women and men? While gender diversity in research teams is important, it was also recognized that this would not ensure strong gender analysis. Further, we could consider other elements of the research context such as who is being referenced in literature reviews or who is setting the research agenda.
  3. The benefits and limitations of evaluating gender as a stand-alone sub-dimension. While the participants agreed it was important to evaluate gender as its own sub-dimension so it wouldn’t be overlooked, they also saw how gender would be linked with other dimensions. This might include, for instance, how gender intersects with elements of research integrity, research importance, or the implications of the research or political context. While RQ+ aims to acknowledge the interconnectedness of the various quality dimensions, is there a way to ensure that reviewers are able to isolate this as a sub-dimension, while also capturing how it relates to these other components? For example, while a research project may score low on the gender sub-dimension in one particular context, the same type of project may be transformational in a different context.
  4. The amount of guidance to provide around the gender dimensions in evaluative tools. Current short descriptions of how to evaluate different quality dimensions in RQ+ (from “unacceptable” to “very good”) allows for quick quality assessments by evaluators. Yet a trade-off was identified between providing these limited descriptions for quick assessments with providing more information to help better guide reviewers and ensure more uniform application. When reviewers may not be gender experts, providing additional information on how to assess this dimension could prove valuable.
  5. Overcoming organizational barriers to gender in research. While falling slightly outside the scope of the research evaluation approach, RQ+ was seen as a possible entryway for discussions around the topic of organizational barriers and opportunities to improving gender equality. This could include addressing gendered hiring practices, implementing organizational gender protocols or organizational policies. For example, being more cognizant of who is conducting the research may raise issues of the importance of supporting female participation (i.e. supporting women researchers with childcare while doing fieldwork).

I am thankful for the experiences and expertise shared by the GALP participants, and have come away invigorated to continue improving my own capacities around gender in research. Through these discussions, it became apparent that approaches for assessing research quality such as RQ+ can be useful for researchers and organizations looking to make the case for the importance of incorporating gender analysis into their research and within their organizations. Manuel and I were also reminded of the inherent complexities and trade-offs in evaluating gender as a component of research quality.

While we may not have come away with any easy answers, the discussions brought forward important considerations when thinking about integrating gender into research or organizational practices, and the challenges inherent in evaluating these approaches. Based on these discussions, I am again reminded of how important it is to continuously ask questions, continuously learn and to build capacities (both our own, along with those of our partners) to address and evaluate gender in research.

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

Erika Malich is a Program Management Officer with the Think Tank Initiative (TTI) at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

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