Equality and Effectiveness: Lessons Learned

About the Authors: Stephenie Foster is a Co-Founder and Partner at Smash Strategies, Yeva Avakyan is Associate Vice President, Gender Equality at Save the Children, and Kristin Kim Bart is Senior Director, Gender Equality, International Rescue Committee. All three are recognized experts in this field.

We recently participated on a panel marking the launch of Save the Children’s Gender Equality Hub. The Hub is a cross-functional team that has been established to oversee the development and implementation of Save the Children’s Gender Equality Strategy through collaborative, cross divisional efforts.

Each of us brought unique expertise on how to promote gender equality and empower women and girls. Collectively, our work spans the government, business, and non-profit sectors. Each sector is different, but we identified overarching lessons learned to increase the effectiveness of this work across sectors.

Why a focus on gender equality? In business and development, we ignore gender equality at our peril. While the term “gender” is often used interchangeably with “women and girls,” the terms are distinct. In short, gender equality is not just about women or girls, but about the different ways women and men experience their lives, have access to resources and take advantage of opportunities. A focus on gender broadens our perspective, so that policies and programs reflect these differential experiences and concentrates work on structural constraints to gender equality. Importantly, this helps us create systems and structures to promote equal opportunity and outcomes for everyone: women and men, boys and girls. It increases organizational effectiveness and helps ensure we use all of the talent available to solve problems and address challenges in a sustainable and durable way.

Here are some key lessons:

  1. We must design, and operate, for change. Words aren’t enough. An organization needs to be purposeful in how it designs a gender strategy and implements it, and use this process to be clear about what success looks like. A gender equality strategy is relevant to both an organization’s internal operating environment and implementation of its outward facing work. It guides an organization’s substantive work to ensure that the differential impact of policies and programs is taken into account. Internal gender teams or working groups can help guide the work so that knowledge is shared within the organization, and the work isn’t siloed. These linkages between organizational and programmatic work ensure better coordination and implementation. Organizationally, gender mainstreaming across functions is important, but can dilute the focus on gender and decrease accountability for real change. It’s critical to ensure that there is a functional group (or person) that only focuses on gender, and helps hold the organization accountable. This helps ensure a sharp focus on gender equality doesn’t get lost along the way.
  2. Organizational leadership is key. Commitment from the top sends a strong signal to others at every level of the organization that paying attention to gender is fundamental to success. But, that’s not enough. Leaders are needed at every level who are committed, and have the resources, financial and otherwise to integrate gender issues into the way the organization functions and to do their jobs. The organization’s leader should refer to gender issues or gender equality in public comments, on social media and during internal meetings throughout the year — not just around International Women’s Day in March. Attention to gender should be integrated into annual (or other) job evaluations so that everyone in the organization is held accountable for implementing a gender policy.
  3. A vision about how a gender focus enhances organizational effectiveness is critical. In addition to a rights-based case for a focus on women and girls — and gender — it’s also important to make a case that focusing on gender translates into more effective policies and programs. In the economic sphere, the data is clear: When women’s participation in the labor force increases, GDP rises. When women start businesses, communities flourish. When women are promoted to senior management and appointed to corporate boards, companies do better. This compelling data is important to highlight and can provide an entry point to skeptics.
  4. Meet people where they are. As a corollary, you will encounter organizational and individual roadblocks and skeptics. It’s important to understand that not everyone prioritizes the issue the way gender experts do. We need to listen to what people say and the concerns they raise, and respond in a way that respects their views. We won’t convince everyone (and there are some who will never be convinced), but it’s critical to make sure we use every opportunity to have this critical conversation and frame it in a way that moves people. Using data and research, and continuing to build the case for why a gendered approach matters using stories, as well as sex-disaggregated data and metrics, helps with these arguments. Sex-disaggregated data is fundamental. It examines differing needs, constraints, and opportunities for women/girls and men/boys. It provides the information to see if interventions are reducing gender disparities in access to, and control over resources, wealth, opportunities, and services, or increasing capability of women and girls to realize their rights and influence decision-making in the public sphere. You won’t know the differential impact of your programs if you don’t segregate the data.
  5. Develop and customize training programs that are practical and help people do their jobs more effectively. Off-the-shelf tools and toolkits aren’t the only answer, but they help practitioners across disparate offices and locations get the start they need. More specialized, hands-on workshops where gender experts help the rest of the staff see how gender can be taken into account in their day-to-day tasks helps make the issue of gender manageable, and something that staff can relate to as they do their work.

Finally, we know it’s important to go beyond gender in recognizing that men or women are not homogenous groups. They have intersecting social identities of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, social class, physical ability among others. In doing a gender analysis, taking into account these intersecting inequalities is critical for understanding lived experiences, constraints and needs of different population groups. This is a long game, but worth every step. Making the case everyday — and in every meeting, forum and conversation — matters.