In early 2020, Gender at Work (G@W) was invited by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), to partner in a project to support science granting councils (SGCs) across the African continent to advance gender transformation in relation to science, technology and innovation (STI).
Taking place between 2020-2023 and funded by the Canadian International Development Research Council (IDRC), the project was set up “to create more equal spaces in science, where knowledge production and research are carried out more equitably (more diverse researchers, more inclusive research methods, greater valuing of different ways of knowing) and that the results of the research have an impact on transforming exclusionary norms in the communities”, according to Dr. Ingrid Lynch, Senior Research Specialist at the HSRC and Principal Investigator for the project.
HSRC approached G@W to partner on the project, as they viewed G@W’s approach to addressing organisational culture as relevant to the Science Granting Councils Initiative aims. G@W uses an adaptation of Ken Wilber’s integral model to address issues of gender and inclusivity at both personal and collective levels. One way we do this is through the Gender Action Learning (GAL) methodology, which brings gender and inclusivity to life for participants in concrete, recognisable ways.
The GAL process offers a facilitated learning and reflective space for people in organisations to reflect on, and engage with, contextually relevant and responsive ways of addressing gender inequality, and inclusivity issues. GALs are designed to engage participants as self-directed learners and peers, rooted in a reflective social practice, which draws on feminist thinking, peer learning, action learning and participatory methodologies.
This blog post – along with the second and third pieces of the series – offers key insights by members of the G@W facilitation team that worked with the science granting councils in the HSRC project. The piece below was written by Khanysa E. Mabyeka, and is also available in Portuguese and French.
In October 2021, during an online meeting with one of the groups I was accompanying, I found myself in an internal fight. I was trying to create a horizontal relationship with the group, while my body and the group expected me to play a more directive role. This was not a new conflict for me and usually, because of the pressure to have a deliverable at the end of my engagement with a group, I would quickly ‘sacrifice’ my ideals of horizontality and co-creation. During my work as a gender-transformative facilitator in a project aimed at deepening the inclusion of gender and inclusivity lenses in science granting councils (SGCs) in Africa, I wanted to uphold the feminist principle of shared power. This is part of my contribution to transforming a system I unfortunately live in, that propagates innumerable injustices. But this time, a part of me was tired of this contradiction between sharing power and being directive, and I could feel the fierce fight manifesting in my body. My facial expression is, fortunately in this case, very slow in aligning with my current feelings, however my discomfort was boldly expressing itself through muscle spasms in my upper back and period cramps that seemed autonomous from my menstrual cycle.
I decided to take a few deep breaths to help myself stay connected to my intention, since I was determined, at least this time and particularly since I had the blessing from the methodology I was engaged with, not to be directive but to really facilitate others in how they made sense of themselves and their decisions. The methodology we used supports a search for solutions to problems the participants have identified. The focus is on the experiences and knowledge of those involved, in a cycle of constant learning from and reflection about actions taken. This meant there was no predefined output nor ‘right’ path of arriving at those solutions. And this project was about inclusion after all. For me, it was important to both model inclusion and experiment with what it meant to be inclusive. So, I paid extra attention to what attempted to come out of my mouth. I wanted to try to shorten the gap between my belief in trusting the knowledge and agency of those I am working with and doing it in a way that was empowering for them and me.
Most of the national science granting councils involved in the Gender Action Learning (GAL) process have internal gender equality policies or strategies. Additionally, all the countries they represent have official gender equality policies and other sectoral instruments to promote gender equality in the areas of research and science. However, the ecosystem of science and research, the world where the science granting councils operate, is still perceived to be male dominated. Androcentrism seems to be the norm, for example, in determining who are the subjects of science and what is considered scientific; in establishing hierarchies among systems of knowledge where those based on so-called reason, neutrality and objectivity are at the top; and in defining localised and contextualised experiences as universal.
As our conversation developed, I couldn’t help but ask myself what it would take for this group to address the manifestations of gender inequality in their own system by looking, not simply at the external consequences but also into the inner workings of the system itself. Science, as we know, was developed in androcentric worldviews that not only excluded women but theorised about their inferiority, created racialised categories of humans and commodified nature. The consequences of this are the creation of binary and excluding categories such as I/other, public/private, objective/subjective, rational/irrational which (re)produce the unequal social relations between men and women, by associating the feminine with the categories considered inferior, namely, other, private, irrational, and subjective, and which universalise the masculine experience and knowledge.
Could they address manifestations of gender inequality in science more broadly without deconstructing these premises? And how could I make my own reflections visible without sounding prescriptive?
Finding comfort in the search
In that October meeting we were discussing the councils’ expectations of change within their structures that would show them that they were addressing gender inequality. An issue of interest was how to increase the number of women principal investigators (PI) in the research grants they award. The PI is the person with overall responsibility for a research project including the preparation, conduct and administration of a research grant as well as responsibility for the management of a research team. The focus was on enabling more women to take the role of PI in the awarded grants to fulfil the SGC’s quota system, which was not being reached. The council shared strategies they had already taken to reach this goal, such as offering training to women on proposal writing, offering mentorship sessions for women and girls interested in science or using language in the call for proposals specifically to attract women. But these strategies were not producing the expected results. The discussion moved back and forth from trying to figure out why this was so to brainstorming new strategies.
Some people suggested creating a separate call for women researchers with the idea of lessening the competition they had to face against male researchers that mostly fit the required criteria. Another group disapproved of this by arguing that a separate call for women would create reverse discrimination for men, as women would still be able to apply in the general call. And others argued that whether having a separate call or not, women researchers would still need to fit into the criteria of merit, that merit was untouchable and necessary to ensure objectivity in selection and research quality. At the end of this discussion, the whole group decided to discard the idea of a separate call and to maintain the merit criteria.
This conversation was exciting for me at different levels. I felt ‘on the edge of my seat’. The excitement was influencing my body´s production of dopamine such that, even without being a great fan of running, it felt like I could go out and run around a tiny block. Although our conversations took a long time and it sometimes seemed that we were going around in circles, I felt like we were thinking together about solutions to solve a problem they had identified. They were bringing their knowledge and expertise from their work as a council, and I was bringing my experience in questioning gendered systems of power. The exercise seemed empowering to all of us, as we felt like what we had to say counted. It appeared that the participants enjoyed being part of an exploratory problem-solving conversation where it was okay to not know the answers immediately.
At the same time, I was surprised by the narratives and dynamics I was observing. For example, it was interesting how some people used their institutional positionality to try to set the boundaries of what was negotiable in terms of what to change, and how others in lower hierarchical positions used the space that was created to make their case. I was also surprised by what seemed to me the creation or use of narratives that sustained structural causes of why they were not reaching the quota of women PIs their institutions had set. The idea, for example, of reverse discrimination of men if affirmative action measures were taken, such as creating a call for proposals for research project funding specifically for women researchers, revealed a concept of gender equality based on the zero-sum formula: the belief that for one group to exercise a right, another automatically must lose the same right. And based on this it seemed that there was the fear of men losing their privileges in access to research funds as PIs, even though such a call would not necessarily challenge the sex-gender system that has granted male researchers the privileges they had accumulated. And is that true? Do men lose when women gain? Isn’t it the whole society that wins? But what sounded the loudest alarm in my mind, in perceiving the narrative as defending a status quo and precisely the system that is inaccessible for most women in the role of principal investigators, was the conversation around meritocracy.
I wondered why they felt so attached to merit, this idea of rewarding the most hardworking and skilful individuals. So, if merit is a way of determining who deserves something (based on hard work and skills), doesn’t that mean that it reflects a certain perspective of what and who is deserving? Is it not worth revisiting what is being rewarded? Meritocracy is usually considered a fair model of the distribution of resources, in comparison to aristocracy, for example, where resources and benefits are transferred within the same group through inheritance. However, in societies marked by high levels of inequality based on gender, region of residence, knowledge of an imperialist language, gerontocracy, race – such as the ones where the SGCs come from – is it possible to use meritocracy as a formula to (re)distribute resources and benefits in a just way?
The concept of meritocracy focuses on the individual, their effort, skill and determination as the condition that allows for them to compete in an environment that is considered impartial or neutral. When the environment is considered impartial, the individual’s success or failure is seen as resulting from his or her personal condition. This idea ignores historical and violent processes such as modernism, colonialism and capitalism that have created and continue to create deep inequalities and injustices, so that the starting point of the members of society competing for the resources is not the same. It is not simply because they lack individual motivation and effort but is mainly because they are in a system that has historically distributed benefits and opportunities unjustly.
Where only certain experiences and interests are valued and prized, meritocracy can be a way of maintaining a status quo. If the science granting council did not question the criteria of merit, it was not likely they would simply get more women principal investigators as they expected. We discussed what they knew about why there were fewer women PIs. One reason had already emerged in an evaluation study they commissioned. It was society’s expectation of women being able to start a family early in life and raise their own children that was taking a toll on women researchers’ academic and professional choices and careers.
There are various historical and structural aspects that have created and sustained exclusionary practices, which this council’s granting system was not taking into account. First, colonialism and imperialism had devalued and, in some cases, erased traditional systems of knowledge that had valued women’s experiences and knowledge. Second, due to a combination of patriarchal systems, when colonised people had a chance to educate their children, it was mostly boys who were, and in some places still are, privileged over girls’ education. Third, also as a result of a combination of different patriarchal systems, womanhood has been associated with motherhood, putting more pressure on younger women, in comparison to younger men, to have children and start a family at an earlier age. Fourth, the naturalisation of care work as essentially women’s increases the pressure for women to be present in the reproductive, productive and community spheres of work with heavy consequences on their wellbeing and future livelihoods.
In this case, their granting system rewarded those that had not only had more access to education, but to longer periods of it too, resulting in the privileged group becoming more familiarised with the academic and/or research world and with this dimension of public life. It also rewarded those that could more freely choose to start a family later in life (perhaps after completing their educational goals), and if they chose otherwise, it didn’t interfere as much with their educational and academic pursuits.
The council had ideas to address the limitations created by the reproductive expectations projected on many women but had not tested them out. One was the possibility of extending the duration of the call for proposals for funding research studies, to allow caregivers the time to concentrate on those needing their attention (such as small children, sick family members and their own pregnancies).
If the sector still wants to open to traditionally excluded groups – such as women of different ages and backgrounds, people with disabilities, the young, people living in rural areas, people who interrupted their education to take care of others or to work – and if the merit criteria are unmovable then it means that the women have to adapt to the system to enter it and possibly excel. This is in line with the ‘add women and stir’ approach to addressing gender inequality. However, throwing out the entire ‘pot’, in my perspective, would mean valuing their different and mainly unequal starting points. Why should they even try to be principal investigators? How can their experiences, chosen or imposed, be valued in such a system? How could other ways of knowing, that do not necessarily constitute the rational, scientific world view, be supported and rewarded? How will science granting councils fund innovative and experimental research if meritocracy leads to rewarding the ‘safer’ approaches, what is traditional, and known and done by the usual suspects?
Liberation in embracing the tensions
Although the individual’s level of awareness is important, by centring the solution on this dimension, we bypass the much deeper structures and social norms that maintain women as well as their world views and lived experiences on the periphery of the system. The system requires more than individual motivation if a deeper change is to be seen. It seemed that the group wanted to address a structural problem without touching the pillars that sustained it and I could not see how they would achieve it.
The questions of how far the changes regarding gender equality should be pushed and how that can be done within systems built to reproduce those inequalities certainly create tensions within the systems and in the bodies, minds, and hearts of those within them. In addition, as the councils engage with the broader ecosystem in trying to change aspects of the system, they may be blocked. For example, if the meritocracy criteria are non-negotiable for their funders, they might be reluctant to revisit it in their granting manuals.
Personally, I don’t see the tensions within a system as problematic per se; they reveal that something is not flowing. What we do about them is where our power lies, knowing that every choice – in action and inaction – has a consequence. Whether the council challenges the merit criteria or does nothing about them, there are consequences in the lives of those affected and in the role the council plays in shaping the wider science and research ecosystem.
I don’t think addressing tensions within a system is at all easy. I am sitting with several personal tensions that I don’t yet know the way out of, although I have managed to name them. One of them is related to a constant attempt to try to escape the patriarchal system I live in. I have never wanted to get married; I support the right to marriage, but I do not support the institution of marriage. However, marriage is only one of the institutions of the system I am trying to escape.
When my partner and I decided to have children, we were confronted by cultural expectations about whose extended family they belonged to. In the cultures of both our families, the children belong to him and should carry his surname. The way we found around this was to register the children with my surname. Consequently, my partner has been accused of being a ‘banana’ and some people even expressed pity for him for being with a ‘woman of that type’. I too did not escape, particularly the eyes and voices of the women who are fierce protectors of patriarchies. A cousin of mine felt very sorry for my kids because in her mind they were in a kind of limbo. Because they didn’t have the father’s surname, they did not belong to his family, and it was inconceivable for her that they could belong to their mother’s family.
Navigating my escape from the system saddens me to the bone, the hurdles seem infinite and sometimes I feel like a prisoner. The system is so well woven that, although we gave ‘my’ surname to the children to try to escape a man’s surname, my surname is still actually my father’s. And even if I had taken my mother’s surname, that would have come from her father too. There is no way in my society that I can give my children a woman’s surname or a surname that is theirs only and not associated with gender norms. When I realised this, I literally felt claustrophobic, like I needed to run away. But where to?
These tensions live within me, sometimes they make me cry and, at others, they give me strength and inspiration to capture the opportunities, see the cracks in the system through which I can hopefully weaken its pillars while I figure out how it can be restarted. Are there consequences? Yes, some affect my wallet directly (there are certain post-retirement tax benefits I could be entitled to if we were married) and others affect my relationships. But which choice does not have consequences?
So, what will it take for councils to name and examine the tensions that affect their work on gender inequality as a strategy to address the system as a whole and go beyond the ‘add women and stir’ approach? Naming them might allow councils to see that they are viviparous creatures which give birth to live young and if laying eggs is their deepest desire, they won’t be able to do so until they figure out how to change their reproductive systems.
Read the other two reflections from the series here: Nina Benjamin’s Walking Alongside: A practice to transform unequal power relations, and Eleanor du Plooy’s Meeting the world, the work, and colleagues in new ways: Working emergently in sustaining an online learning community.