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Organizational Learning on Gender: Lessons and Reflections

March 18, 2019

Elizabeth Muriithi

Kathryn Toure

Jemimah Njuki

Jemimah Njuki

Senior program specialist, IDRC

Gender equality is of as much concern today as it was in 1995, when the United Nations adopted the Beijing Platform for Action, a blueprint for advancing women’s rights. Since then, through movements, organizations, and governments, people have been striving for gender equality. Reaching this elusive goal requires ongoing reflection, learning, and strategic action. This article synthesizes reflections from a candid conversation among representatives of a half-dozen organizations with presence in Nairobi who are seeking to better integrate gender in the workplace and in programming.

Why learn more about gender?

Disconnects exist between commitments to the outside world and the internal operations of organizations. People may be concerned about helping rural women while neglecting gender concerns in the workplace. This underscores the need, for all staff, for continual and critical learning on gender, inclusion, diversity, and participation. This includes the examination of personal beliefs and attitudes and of organizational commitments to integrate gender in internal policies, practices, and strategic goals. The process involves personal and organizational change and, hopefully, an alignment of inner selves and outer faces.

Gender concepts have evolved over time, and there is a need for shared understandings of various gender concepts and frameworks. Organizations achieve shared understandings through transformative structures at all levels – at the policy level, within teams, in the community and in the household. Examples of transformative structures include promotion by management of a shared commitment to address issues from gender perspectives, and opportunities for all staff to deepen their understanding of gender concepts and operationalize them meaningfully in their daily work.

Learning should be more than theoretical. Staff need to analyze gender inequalities, recognize barriers, and identify opportunities for change – both in the workplace and in programming. Consultants may help facilitate processes of peer learning, learning from practice, and learning by doing, but the primary responsibility for ongoing critical learning remains with the staff of the organization.

Enabling change requires a combination of approaches

Organizations use different approaches to promote gender equality, including, for example, a rights-based approach, which recognizes equal rights for all human beings, including women. Constitutional and legal approaches have led to progressive laws and policies. In Kenya, for example, Article 40 of the 2010 Constitution addresses the right to own property and Article 60 addresses the principle of equitable access to land. Nonetheless, patriarchal power relations consistently disenfranchise women at societal and family levels. Progressive constitutions will only deliver their promises when attitudes and perceptions about gender shift. For this reason, many organizations focus on deconstructing and reconstructing social and cultural norms.

Some organizations and programs focus on enhancing women’s economic empowerment through better access to and control of productive resources, and participation in the labour market. Studies on gender and economic growth consistently show that, when women’s control over resources increases, households allocate more resources to children’s nutrition, health, and education. This means women participate in making decisions about how their income is invested. Such negotiating power, however, is often stifled by norms that recognize the man as head of household and key decision maker.

Each approach of working toward gender equality has strengths and shortcomings, and together they are complementary spinning spirals creating a mosaic – spirals of laws, policies, practices, attitudes, and economic empowerment.

Even while focusing on gender, people in organizations must step out of the gender bubble to apprehend the bigger picture, identify allies, and discern trends. No single organization can transform all structures that discriminate based on sex, sexual identity, or other identities. Organizations working in partnership may begin to chip away at the stone of gender inequality. In so doing, they need to be attuned to local voices and social movements.

Walking the gender equality talk

Discourse on gender has evolved since the introduction of the concept almost forty years ago. It is important to assess the change that has transpired and to learn from what has changed and what has not, from what has worked and what has not. Organizations need methods and tools to document incremental and long-term change. They also need to identify unintended negative consequences of their actions. Discerning change requires sex-disaggregated data, but also data disaggregated according to age, income, geographic location, disability status and more. Qualitative approaches and storytelling are as important as data, because they can reveal, and promote discussion about, nuanced changes in gender and power relations.

Even as change happens, the milieu can stifle gains. This warrants further work on understanding complex non-linear change and sustaining change. Transforming patriarchal power relations and gender stereotypes and gendered practices is a veritable challenge. For organizations to move the needle on gender, they need constant learning, intersecting and complementary approaches, partnerships, and ways to understand, measure and communicate about change.

This article is based on discussions articulated during a lunch conversation hosted by IDRC in Nairobi on July 4, 2018. It includes contributions from Dominique Charron of IDRC, Ademola Olajide of the United Nations Population Fund, Cleopatra Mugyenyi of the International Center for Research on Women, Maureen Miruka of CARE USA, Wanjiku Kabira of the African Women Studies Centre at the University of Nairobi, Tamer Mansy of Global Affairs Canada, Hendrina Doroba of the Forum for African Women Educationists, Patricia Kameri Mbote of the University of Nairobi, and Viola Chemis of Heifer International.