What do we mean by feminist evaluation?
Feminist evaluation squarely challenges many traditional paradigms of evaluation, particularly around the misconception that an evaluator has or should have some sort of objectivity. In evaluation (placing value), we are nearly always either perpetuating or uprooting patriarchal systems. Feminist evaluation calls for evaluators to be activists and use value judgments to call for unsettling power and work toward greater equity. Someone’s values and agenda are always present in an evaluation. Feminist evaluation calls us to bring specific values (social justice, gender equity, participation, inclusion) forward as we shape our questions, design our methods, make meaning, and disseminate information — in ways that uplift, benefit, and do no harm to those who are most marginalized.
“While all evaluation approaches are laden with their own, often implicit, values, few assert their values as openly as feminist evaluation.”
This assertion of values calls us into a space of rigor to live up to these values and relief that we feel free to address the structural and systemic challenges posed by patriarchy and other oppressions (rather than pretend they are not present). Not surprisingly, this can mean different things in practice to different people. What does it mean to us?
We usually discuss feminist evaluation as one of our core approaches, alongside things like utilization-focused evaluation, developmental evaluation, or participatory evaluation. We were recently asked to describe our conceptualization of theories, approaches, strategies, methods, and frameworks in an interview. What a good question!
We arrived at an approach as the way we go about doing something; it is an embodied way of thinking and being that infiltrates the choice of strategy, implementation of methods, and generation of explanatory frameworks. So often, in responding to RFPs, what is asked for skips over the approach to the methodology or puts an approach outside of ourselves and into the realm of theory. Except, we find this doesn’t get us to the true explanation, which is that who we are (our life experiences, perspectives, values, etc.) is what comprises our approach. RFPs consistently thrust the focus on the doing-ness and not the being. Yet approach touches heavily on how we are and how we think, that which undergirds all the rest.
An approach is much more difficult to teach and hire for than knowledge and experience using a method or familiarity with a theory. It is a way of thinking that is made evident through aligned actions — sometimes, this is more aspirational than circumstances allow or our ability to swim against the stream of dominant paradigms. Taking certain approaches is the life-long work of living into them.
Not just gender
Though using gender as a lens can certainly be part of a feminist evaluation, this approach calls for intersectionality that looks at other dimensions of power and inequality, in addition to gender alone. We note that too often, white women have and do use feminism in a way that aligns them with the benefits of dominance, favoring whiteness even at the expense of their female-ness. Conversely, black feminism has put forth an intersectional approach and underscored how our different experiences of oppression are locked up with one another. Namely, I am only free if you are also free. Kimberly Crenshaw notes that “If you see inequality as a “them” problem or “unfortunate other” problem, that is a problem. Being able to attend to not just unfair exclusion but also, frankly, unearned inclusion is part of the equality gambit.” As white women evaluators with numerous other privileges in an incredibly unequal society, we have to constantly ask what is ours to do and how to avoid harm.
Access to knowledge and knowledge production
What gets evaluated and for what purposes is usually decided within existing power structures to serve the needs of those power structures. Evaluation is oft used for a sort of upward accountability that ends up as glorified monitoring and accounting. It has a history of being wielded against marginalized groups, offering proof of the rightness of systemic and structurally designed inequities. Feminist evaluation as an approach has us on alert from the beginning to question the very premise of evaluative activities. It is not uncommon in our work that we find ourselves wanting to replace the evaluation questions with ones that arise from the data or to refocus a client on a more genuine learning agenda. And yet, these are minor tweaks compared to what would be possible if we left the question-asking and resource allocation up to those closest to a project or initiative. Imagine the possibilities.
As evaluators, we know that data does not inherently hold any meaning; it is only when we gather together and agree on what the data says that it takes on meaning and significance. Feminist evaluation hits this truth head-on by calling out the fact that many people, too often women, are marginalized in this essential meaning-making process. But FE goes even further and says that the value judgments made during evaluation processes are a political activity — they can never be neutral. And if this is the case, then practicing feminist evaluation is tending to this political activity in a way that positively furthers gender equity.
Simple access to data is also access to power. Data is powerful. This is something Picture Impact has deep roots with from our mentor Dr. Helzi Noponen, who pioneered visual layouts for data collection and pattern-finding that were accessible to illiterate Dalit women in India. Dr. Noponen’s work was deeply feminist, and we see her strong influence in our design decisions, education, and advocacy with clients. Because of her, we know to lean into and double down on every person’s capacity to take in information and make decisions for themselves based on data. We also share her fierce allegiance to trusting people to make decisions based on the knowledge they gained rather than prescribing an action deemed from the outside to be good for them. Again and again, we have wonderful examples of the power of women and individuals, especially when they are powered by their own data.
Taking practical actions aligned to feminism
All of this leads to some regular, practical actions and preferences that we have when we engage in evaluative thinking and acting. You can count on us to:
- Select and design participatory data collection methods
Approaching data collection in ways that are relational and interactive is often more accessible to respondents. More importantly, designing data collection events that are useful and meaningful to those who are participating is an important way to shift from extracting data to shared knowledge production and access.
- Focus on qualitative data
We find the nuance available in qualitative data to be important during analysis to sort out the muck of systemic injustice, cultural narratives, and the like. It helps, too, that qualitative data collection often is done in ways that are not so reliant on the written word, formal education, or access to technology — all things that prioritize men, whiteness, and class privilege.
- Engage multiple methods in design
Any kind of decision-making or meaning-making process reliant on a single data source or method amplifies the likelihood that you are missing a systems perspective that is critical to understanding power and larger dynamics at play. Mixed methods encourage us to pull in more voices and perspectives to honor complexity better.
- Hold space for safety amidst data collection and use.
Data collection is a probing event that is very often inherently uncomfortable. There are lots of reasons for this discomfort — a formal interaction, the subject matter, the emotions of the day, power imbalances, etc. — but if it is not tended to, it can quickly shift into re-traumatization and almost always a distortion of the data. It is imperative to carefully consider the experience of those participating in an evaluation and to co-create processes that hold people whole and keep them safe.
Finally, using a feminist evaluation approach is not just about the work, theory, or evaluation at hand. As women, we experience the pain and constraint of sexism and misogyny baked into the field of international development in which we operate. While this work may be largely executed by women, the leadership and funders are still overwhelmingly male. More importantly, the entire enterprise and positionality of development is one that was built to uphold and maintain colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy. As we operate within a structure with such deep roots in the systems that have and still do cause so much harm, using a feminist evaluation approach is a small antidote and necessary to finding our own liberation.
Resources on feminist evaluation:
Feminist evaluation (FE) is a growing field with rich discussion. Better Evaluation is always a great starting point for reading about any specific evaluation approach and as a gateway to further resources. We also enjoyed reading:
What we are taking away:
“To use FE, an evaluator does not need to be a feminist. Rather they need to identify that at least one of these three core tenets are appropriate and useful ways of thinking for a particular evaluation context.”
Three core tenets: (1) there should be equity amongst humans, (2) gender inequity leads to social injustice, and (3) gender-based inequalities are systematic and structural.
Also, combining principles-focused evaluation with FE can help make FE more actionable. This article suggests 8 principles of FE that provide a lovely guide.
What we are taking away: State your bias as the “betterment of conditions for a particular subordinated demographic group” through an understanding of their perspective. Be intersectional; look at how various dimensions of power are at play. Commit to alleviating trauma, including trauma caused by oppression. Always tie evaluation to real-world action.
This article was written by Anna Martin and Jennifer Compton.
Anna says: The systemic inequities along gender lines have always seemed obvious to me. As a little girl I would get SO mad that my choices for basketball shoes were limited to two colors while the boys section had over a dozen to choose from, I remember vowing to change that. There was not a distinct or explicit feminist lens within my family of origin, I have had to find language of my own to name and validate my own experience. However, my father had five girls and only one boy and it was always clear his pride in and preference for raising daughters — this was an important part of feeling confident enough to name my experiences. For me, continuing to call out the systemic and structural features of patriarchy that make up our individual experiences is so important to keep me whole (knowing it’s not me, it’s the system!) and to shift the paradigm.
Jennifer says: I began learning about embodied feminism from my grandmother. Her pioneering education and role in educating others, progressive approach to family life, and interest in and independent views on politics and change showed me early on that feminists are made not through a single action or viewpoint but across a lifetime of thinking and living in a way that challenges the status quo. She would call for us all to slow down, take more delight in details, grow our compassion and care for each other and our environment, and eat more ice cream — all of which are now core tenets of my own feminist practice.