Why am I still getting “the look”?


By Margarita Beneke de Sanfeliu

Editors’ note: In the writeshop that created this blog series, Walking the Talk: Think Tanks and Gender,  participants shared experiences on promoting gender in research. The final blog in the series will summarize key learnings on integrating gender in think tanks. In this blog, Margarita Beneke de Sanfeliu shares insights gleaned from many years working to promote gender in think tanks and in the research community. She also offers some practical ideas on how we could all improve our strategies for promoting gender in our organizations.

As Director of Research and Statistics at FUSADES, I have been working (and thinking) on women´s economic empowerment for some time now.  At FUSADES, we have been working (and thinking) on how to incorporate a gender focus on research in order to be more effective in our policy recommendations; we wrote about this a while back in 2017.

Our studies demonstrate the value of exploring how an issue affects men and women differently, and how our policy recommendations can be more effective by doing so.  However, when I talk about this with friends and sometimes even within the research community, I keep getting “the look”.  A “look” that says “there she goes again with women issues”.

(Recently I participated in a Writeshop part of the GALP.  When I mentioned “the look”, without even explaining what it meant, most participants laughed, sharing how they also get “the look”.  It made me felt less frustrated.  A little, at least.)

FUSADES was selected to participate in the Gender Action and Learning Project and also in a project supported by Grupo Sofía.  Participating in these projects was the push we needed to further include a gender focus in our research and to to convey the importance of doing so.

It has been 15 months and we have had advances and successes achieving the goals we set out with the two projects.

Learning about gender focus in research

For one, we had a series of workshops, with enough time in between them, so we were able to internalise what it means to consolidate, and mainstream a gender focus on research to improve our policy recommendations.  We are in the process of developing a series of tools to help us apply what we learn in our day to day work.  In particular, my team is working to produce a report on the “Status of Women in El Salvador”.  When researchers participated in workshops and “saw” what we mean by gender focus in research, we got interest and buy-in.

Consolidating our women´s initiative

Also, we have consolidated the women’s initiative we started at FUSADES a couple of years back.  It even has a name now: “Sinergias” (Synergies).  Women from different backgrounds and experiences in academia, politics, business, international relations, among others, accepted our invitation to join and work together.  Most of them are in institutions or other initiatives that also seek to empower or advance women; hence the name.  We were able to involve some powerful women who can be magnificent role models for other women and girls.  They are powerful, just like a train; we need to learn to harness all that energy!  

So, if we have made progress within the research community, why do I still get “the look” when I mention the word “gender”?

I believe we do not have a shared vision; sometimes I feel we are talking in two different parallel planes — “Why do women want to be like men?  Men and women are different and complementary”.  Exactly, that is why we need a gender focus on research, to identify how a situation can affect women and men differently.  “There you go again with women’s issues”.  Granted, when we apply a gender lens, we usually identify gaps, and gaps tend to be against women.  However, gender focus does not equal focusing on women; it is identifying who is being left behind, and why.

What can we do?

Participating in the GALP project allowed me to reflect on what we have done and learned.  I see that I have been thinking about this issue for some time now, and this has been a learning process.  So I should not be surprised that sometimes my friends do not “get it” in one presentation, or even in one conversation, even when providing compelling evidence.

Maybe we are at fault.  Most times we have only shown gaps against women; is this contributing to the idea that when we say “gender equity” we mean “equity FOR women only”? We have shown situations where men have the disadvantage: for example, in El Salvador, there are less men enrolled in universities, and  young men have a harder time finding jobs if they live in areas known for gang activities, due to the associated stigma, like we identified in our recent study.

Also, I think we have not made enough effort to include more men in events of our initiative.  Maybe when we finish the report “Status of Women in Society” and show that promoting gender equity (and this might mean supporting women, but it is not exclusive), is not only a matter of justice, but it makes economic sense.  How in using the gender lens we come up with better and more effective policy recommendations.

We have not taken the time to share how we each understand the words we use.  As a result, we might be speaking in “parallel levels”, while we all want the same outcomes.  We have not taken the time to talk about what the evidence means to each of us, for our work and for our lives.

I do not have the answers, but maybe this is why I am still getting “the look”.

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

Margarita Beneke de Sanfeliu is  Director of the Center for Research and Statistics at FUSADES.  She has more than 25 years of experience. Recent research and publications have been concentrated on: women´s economic empowerment, labor market, youth, crime prevention and evaluation of social programs.  

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