Why are we failing on gender? 3 bad excuses and 6 good ideas

March is women’s history month and Fabiola Esposito shares her reflections on the aid sector’s slow progress on women’s empowerment.

Last week I went to a networking event for women working in international development about ‘women’s empowerment’ (WE) in Syria. During the Q&A one of the attendees asked an astonishing, but revealing, question: “Why do you think donors are now asking for gender components to be part of programmes?”

I sensed (and shared) the frustration of the speakers – after an hour of debate focused on how to do better in supporting WE, the audience hadn’t understood the why of WE in the first place.

Why is this so? It boils down to a number of practical misconceptions and feeble excuses that I have heard over the years and still hear far too often.

  1. “Our activities are gender-neutral, so there is no need to target women”

This assumption means overlooking compelling evidence that society’s expectations of the role and behaviour of women continue to ensure that their lives are fundamentally different from men’s. From the opportunities that are made accessible to them, to the factors that restrict their ability to engage in them. Not only is this perpetuated through socio-cultural norms, but it is also often still enshrined in legal discrimination on the basis of sex.

Often, development programmes and policies discriminate against women simply by being mostly designed and led by men. As such, they are intrinsically biased towards favouring male needs, viewpoints and approaches.

  1. “Working on gender issues is too hard” (aka “we need to be realistic”)

Programmes like to be ambitious on everything except equality targets: short timelines, small budgets, stretch targets on the programme’s “main” focus, but gender equality? Not so much.

Teams apparently lack incentives to work on gender equality because they are too busy doing other things. So not enough time is dedicated to understanding and addressing gender issues. Gender experts are given a handful of days to come up with solutions to centuries of gender discrimination.

And when they come up with sensible recommendations – as one of the speakers perfectly put it – “the men in the room will roll their eyes” at the prospect of another rant from the gender expert, whose recommendations they will then dismiss as unrealistic and unachievable.

  1. “We don’t have the budget for that”

This is the most commonly heard phrase and perhaps the most disturbing.

How come there is no budget if I have a £70 million project whose focus is inclusive economic growth (the expected impact of many projects)?

“This is not a women’s project”, they say. But if the targets resemble any of the following: better services for citizens, more jobs, or firms attracting investment, then gender equity should be central. Where is it stated that better services should go exclusively to male citizens, only men should access jobs, or that male-owned firms should be the ones getting aid investments? All policies and programmes should seek to benefit women as much as men.

But gender targets do not magically design and achieve themselves. So, when the inevitable happens, you get the following:

“Ooops, we haven’t benefitted any women.”

It is only when programmes fail to achieve their gender targets (if any), that people start to panic. They then try to retrofit activities to benefit women into projects that have been entirely designed to reach and benefit men – from the partners involved, the team members recruited, to the types of goods and services they deliver.

This lack of early planning to make programmes gender equal is not about sticking in a separate “gender component” (whose reason to exist was puzzling my fellow event attendee). Gender mainstreaming is critical from day one.

But not all is lost!

There are numerous ways in which development practitioners at all levels can contribute to gender equality and women’s empowerment. Here are 6 – I have plenty more:

  • Educate your client. We moan about how it is all the donor’s fault, since they decide priorities and requirements. But surely we could do better at convincing them that by not setting specific gender targets (which does not mean merely disaggregating data by gender), they are not only systematically leaving behind half the population, but also actively contributing to the gap increasing.
  • Talk to disadvantaged women. We have been implementing programmes without talking to the people we are supposed to benefit. Few go to the most disadvantaged communities and speak directly to them to understand their specific concerns. It does require investment upfront, but it will pay off by preventing the failure of more programmes.
  • Diversity in recruitment. No wonder progress is slow when we keep seeing the same faces lead programmes – especially in terms of their gender and privileged socioeconomic background. In most fields, it is extremely hard to find women to take up leadership positions. When we do, donors’ preference for sticking with a “safe pair of hands” perpetuates this vicious circle of profile recycling.
  • Due diligence in recruitment. Last year, the development sector was shaken up by reports of sexual exploitation, abuse and complete disregard for the populations it is supposed to help. This state of affairs would be less likely if there was greater emphasis on recruiting people with the key values and objectives that any development professional should stand for.
  • Resources and structures. If gender equality is to become a priority, leadership teams must include gender experts or champions. This will ensure the necessary buy-in so programmes allocate resources early on, put in place concrete actions with clear responsibilities, and hold teams to account.
  • Raising awareness. Promoting debate and discussion on the topic, especially outside the circle of gender and social inclusion experts.

The good news is that some donors have been making gender equality a primary focus not only in aspirational statements but also in practical requirements (eg. to implement their Strategy for Gender Equality and the Gender Equality Act 2014, DFID now want to see concrete action plans and targets for gender equality in programmes). Likewise, a number of development consultancies have been expanding their gender teams and recruiting more diversely. I have been lucky to witness this change in mine and several other organisations.

The not-so-good news is that many of these misconceptions also apply to the inclusion of other socially excluded groups who have been left at the margins of development policies and programmes for decades. Do we really have to re-learn the same lessons for each group in turn?

If the international development community is to support development for all and not just for the usual suspects, we need to rethink how we all operate and take concrete action.


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5 Responses to “Why are we failing on gender? 3 bad excuses and 6 good ideas”
  1. Lucia Fry

    Under diversity in recruitment, include commit – really commit, as in recognising and accepting risk – to flexible working. Including – no, especially – at leadership levels.

  2. Frances Mys

    Fabi has written a well constructed argument about the importance of including women’s empowerment into a development programme. Fabi presents practical tools and solutions on how to implement women’s empowerment into a project. Now, we need to make sure our donors read this article and act upon it!

  3. Umutai Dauletova

    this is an amazing piece – sharing widely and thank you- every word that is said in the article is something to discuss within gender networks of international aid

  4. Mary Morgan

    I am always amazed at the ignorance of gender in development. It is like we are gender dictators saying gdner equity has to replicate the west, of which the west is not doing too well by the way. I mean the president of the USA got elected after publicizing that he has assaulted women.

    The fact that the group in Syria actually shared and articulated the 3 points regarding the difficulty of targetting gender, getting the budget for it in a conflict and fragile state, and that their activities are gender neutral- says it all. On the ground gender awareness with a lens on power does not exist. In fact it did not exist in the UK or Canada where i live 30 years ago, and today we are still dealing with pay inequality and violence towards women as a norm, especially if you are an indigenous woman in Canada. And most men in the world are freaked out about gender equity because they seem to think they will lose power. I can name so many men in development in very high positions who really don’t want women to have equity at all. Yes it all boils down to power- I say kudos to the folks in the meeting who were honest, and too bad for WE development experts who EXPECT different on the ground meaning that you have no idea about context and no idea how to work in contexts where the oppression of women exists, which by the way is everywhere. The problem is not the ignorance of inequality on the ground- believe you me, women know they are being ripped off, but WE professionals and development professionals who have no idea how to facilitate or animate to raise awareness of how equality works for everyone. This is so old, it is embarrassing.

  5. Charlotte Ornemark

    Track it, expose it! Quantify both gender parity and substance and see how they may link up. If the facts are on the table they are harder to ignore, particularly if you involve the right (frontline women’s rights groups) to remind everyone about realities on the ground… Are people just talking the talk of gender equality, or actually backing it up with budget and action? We developed an approach and methodology to do this gender tracking in a universe that is largely gender blind — namely that of extractive industries and the EITI multistakeholder initiative. See article summarizing recent research in West Africa here: https://www.pwyp.org/pwyp-news/gendered-change-to-transparency-in-extractives-starts-in-west-africa/