Applying a gender equity lens is critical in designing interventions that lead to better outcomes for all. We recognize, however, that many organizations embedding a gender lens in their work struggle with significant practical challenges.
Through much of our global development and inclusive markets work, we have faced and overcome challenges when embedding a gender lens. This post builds on our prior experience across sectors but has been particularly inspired by our recent work on behalf USAID as part of the WASHPaLS consortium, where we have researched the levers that can help scale market-based sanitation in rural areas across the developing world. This work involved an extensive literature review of over 600 sources, an assessment of ongoing interventions, and in-depth field research alongside NGO partners in Nigeria, India, and Cambodia. Although gender has not been the primary focus of this work, gender considerations have been crucial throughout this process.
Based on our experience, we share 4 lessons that help foundation and nonprofit leaders approach challenges that can emerge when embedding a gender equity lens through their work. These lessons, though more relevant to formulating an intervention, ultimately have an impact on an organization’s overall strategy for improving outcomes for all.
- Watch out for biases when framing research questions
An important part of our research in rural Nigeria sought to understand how women performed as part-time agents selling toilets. We had framed research questions that assumed women performed this role well because they had more spare time than their male counterparts. We, therefore, wanted to understand how much time women spent selling toilets. After initial interviews, we learned that most female sales agents ran full-time businesses and sold toilets as a side business. Their success was due to relationships they had established with customers through their other businesses, not because they had more time than male counterparts. Our research question reflected our own gender bias and uncovering it helped us identify a key lever for driving performance of entrepreneurs, both male and female.
Dissolving assumptions when framing research questions can help surface bias in a proactive way. Talking to cultural brokers before framing questions provides context on the demographics and culture (the division of labor across genders, cultural taboos) of communities with which we are less familiar, and surfaces unconscious bias. However, cultural brokers may also play back biases that are inherent in the system. We have found that speaking to a range of brokers representing diverse backgrounds can enrich our perspectives while minimizing bias.
- Observe the context, not just the interviewee
As part of this research, we also wanted to understand the challenges that female sanitation entrepreneurs faced in establishing and running their businesses. Having framed our research questions, we set out to identify who we should speak to. We soon realized that female sanitation entrepreneurs did not exist in the regions where we conducted field research in Nigeria. Women were more likely to perform other tasks along the sanitation value chain.
The challenges in accessing specific interviewees limit the degree to which we can get concrete answers. However, they are also important data points that expose inequities worth exploring further – in this case, why women did not take the role of sanitation entrepreneurs. Speaking to other players in the issue area (male sanitation entrepreneurs) can serve to identify the barriers women face in achieving greater gender equity. Observing the broader socio-economic environment (understanding more about female entrepreneurs in other sectors) can also help gather important insights in the absence of direct interviewees.
- Be aware of social norms and power dynamics
Field research often happens in the form of qualitative, one-on-one interviews or focus groups with several people, where the inherent power dynamics are a common challenge. For example, a woman interviewing a man about gender-sensitive issues can result in biased answers. The interviewee may provide what he thinks is “the right answer” instead of what he truly believes about the issue. We have also experienced that when the interview context does not make the interviewee feel at ease, the process can be compromised. For instance, depending on the cultural context, a female interviewee may feel uncomfortable speaking to a male interviewer.
Taking steps to minimize the inherent power dynamics at play and being sensitive to relevant cultural norms increases the accuracy of our findings. Researching contextual factors that may inhibit interviewees from sharing their lived experiences has helped us design interview settings to address those barriers. Ensuring that interviewees can access interview locations safely and conveniently is also key to uncovering the perspectives of women. Specific actions differ depending on context but may include considerations like having women interview other women or ensuring public transport proximity and child care availability. Finally, approaching interviewees with honesty and respect (being explicit about the purpose of the interview, dressing appropriately, allowing sufficient time for responses, answering questions from interviewees) serves to reverse the power dynamics, empowering interviewees to feel in control of their experiences and outcomes.
- Disaggregate and question insights
Analyzing the data to generate insights can often result in playing back what we hear in interviews. This can reinforce biases and overlook systemic issues causing gender inequities. In our sanitation research, we often heard that women did not typically run sanitation businesses. This data point did not speak to women’s potential as sanitation entrepreneurs or to the barriers they face in pursuing this path. We noticed that acknowledging this as a social norm, helped us understand other factors preventing women from actively participating in the sanitation market.
Disaggregating data by gender and other relevant factors such as geography and income level that help us identify bias can expose root causes to gender inequities. Explicitly naming the assumptions that we or our interviewees may be operating under also serves to further unpack the reasons behind them. In the case of our sanitation research, we asked ourselves: “Do women not run sanitation businesses by choice? Are there external barriers that prevent them from doing so?” Asking these questions helps us get a more nuanced understanding of the context and of the assumptions that go into our conclusions.
The examples we describe in this blog post are echoed in much of our work beyond sanitation. Many of the lessons we share above have been clear only in hindsight, and we have often discovered ways to address certain challenges after going through the entire process ourselves. As we have evolved in our journey, we have found that embedding room for flexibility and adjustment is crucial when working to further gender equity. Our experience has taught us to be honest with ourselves and clear about our limitations. Adopting a gender lens is not easy, but we believe doing so is imperative for organizations to shape strategies and build interventions that improve outcomes for all.