It’s about time: Research that tackles gender inequality at its roots

May 24, 2019
UN Photo/Marco Dormino

Practical support, services, and training can go a long way toward improving opportunities for women. However, to ensure these opportunities are sustainable and grounded in local realities, we need to confront the underlying norms and systems at the root of gender-based inequalities. Only then will we have lasting and meaningful gender-transformative change. 

A man and a woman are heading to a small-scale mine in Central Africa for work. They part ways upon arrival — he disappearing underground to dig, and she making her way to the area where women process ore. He will earn much higher wages, and his job is more secure, but she’ll never be able to join him in the mine. Her community believes that women cannot be “real” miners. 

This is one example of how culturally rooted gender norms and attitudes in many parts of the world can dictate which activities women are “allowed” to do, or what is considered “acceptable” for them to do. Norms and attitudes not only affect economic opportunities; they can also influence women’s mobility, security, safety, health, and many other aspects of their lives.

Gender equality — and how people experience it within households, organizations, and communities — is the product of how different social systems and structures are designed, negotiated, and implemented. Influencing positive change at these levels depends on evidence that moves beyond simply identifying inequalities.

Worldwide, there is growing recognition that simply being “gender aware” is not enough, and that significant, sustainable change requires institutional and systemic transformations. In keeping with this, Goal 5 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Agenda calls for continued action to reduce gender inequality and empower women. Projects that focus on tackling this kind of foundational change are often referred to as gender-transformative.

What is gender-transformative research, and why is it so important?

Gender-transformative research promotes women’s empowerment, including shared control of resources and decision-making. It unpacks social inequalities, provides space for women, men, and non-binary genders to learn, and engages with people across the socio-economic spectrum to change the norms that enable inequalities.

A research project is “gender-transformative” if these considerations are addressed in its rationale and methodology and if it includes a rigorous analysis of root causes, gender power relations, and intersectionality (multiple vulnerabilities experienced by individuals or groups, such as race, class, sexual orientation, and ethnicity, alongside gender). This approach to research is important because it tackles inequalities in ways that reflect the lived experiences of real people and it promotes sustainable solutions that address root causes.

IDRC recently commissioned an international consulting group called Sisters Ink to evaluate its gender programming in order to gain insights and share lessons learned about gender-transformative research. The study’s findings are published in Transforming gender relations: Insights from IDRC research and they are summarized below. 

Ten years of gender research at IDRC

Sisters Ink reviewed 10 years of IDRC’s gender programming (from 2008 to 2018) before conducting a deeper exploration of gender-focused research projects over the past decade.

A sampling process identified 219 research projects, of which 42 were randomly selected and then assessed for their ability to challenge and change social, cultural, and gender norms. The consultants identified 16 of these projects as gender-transformative and chose six for further study. They explored the objectives, rationales, methodologies, and outcomes of these projects to uncover common patterns, findings, and lessons.

The six projects explored challenges to gender inequality experienced in different regions, different sectors, and by different groups.

1. Changing gender and social relations in the fisheries sector in Zambia and Malawi

The project addressed social and cultural norms that segregated women into lower-income fisheries jobs. It examined the use of community theatre to change attitudes toward gender divisions, decision-making, control over resources, women’s mobility, and more. Overall, in sites where community theatre was presented, attitudes shifted significantly toward support for gender equality.

2. Uncovering adverse norms in artisanal and small-scale mining in Central and East Africa

In this part of the world, it is often assumed that women are not suited to work in mines. Women in the sector are limited to lower-paying and less secure jobs. This project gave women miners an opportunity to articulate their experiences to policymakers and civil society organizers. It strengthened their leadership and voices in mining and supported gender-responsible policies and systems.

3. Intercultural health in Peru: choice and voice for Indigenous populations

Indigenous people in Peru experience social exclusion and inequality. This is partly because of limited access to health services, but it also arises from ingrained biases and prejudice toward Indigenous people. This project worked toward transforming these norms through a participatory approach and rights-based gender analysis.

4. Women’s rights and access to water and sanitation in India

Women living in overcrowded, polluted areas near Delhi lacked clean water and sanitation — a situation that compromised their rights to basic services, dignity, and security. This project addressed the role of gendered social norms in perpetuating women’s lack of access to basic amenities. By supporting dialogue between women, communities, and local governments, the project led to better water and sanitation infrastructure and gender-equitable policies, including a national policy on women’s safety.

5. Crowd-sourcing sexual violence reporting in Egypt

Sexual and gender-based violence are among the most common crimes in Egypt. This project provided a digital crowd-sourcing platform for reporting gender-based violence, tackling gendered social norms, and addressing harmful practices and beliefs in a challenging context. The model has been replicated in at least 28 countries.

6. Empowering girls to negotiate around early marriage in West Africa

Early child and forced marriages occur in some parts of the world due to entrenched gender norms. This project made girls aware of their rights, trained them in communication, and gave them negotiating tools to shift norms in their communities. Gendered analysis and intersectionality were at the core of this project’s research protocols.

Based on its analysis of these six case studies, the paper found that gender-transformative research shares four key qualities:

  • it addresses the root causes of inequality;
  • it recognizes multiple vulnerabilities and identities (since gender can intersect with race, ethnicity, ability, age, religion, caste, and other factors);
  • it builds trust and meaningfully engages stakeholders; and
  • it leverages and amplifies local thought leaders and institutions.

Recommendations for lasting change

Research funders looking to make a sustainable difference in gender equality may want to consider the following research takeaways.

1. Have an ambitious mandate.

Supporting gender-transformative research requires being rooted in values and being clear about what the research entails. It is about building awareness of which types of norms, structures, and behaviours contribute to different opportunities and outcomes.

2. Be clear about the meaning of gender-transformative research.

Terms like equity, equality, and inclusion do not have the same meaning to everyone in every discipline. It is important to clarify what the terms mean in order to define what is needed for research programming and application to align.

3. Take a long-term approach.

Changing gendered structural dynamics is a long road littered with obstacles and trade-offs. Success means immersing the right actors in discussions and dialogues. Ensure sufficient time for engagement, trust-building, and embedding in the local context.

4. Plan to measure performance over the long term.

Gendered social norms and structural changes require a longer-term monitoring and learning process to facilitate learning and broader dialogue and practice.

5. Build individual and organizational capacity.

Gender-transformative research requires a complex set of skills, capacities, and expertise. It also entails constant use, reflection, and iteration to get right. Some of skills required include systems thinking, stakeholder analysis and deliberative dialogue, as well as the ability to leverage mixed methodologies, create effective partnerships, and position research for use.

All six projects proved to be gender-transformative:

  • The Zambia and Malawi fisheries project shifted attitudes rooted in social norms to support gender equality, decision-making, and ownership for women.
  • In Central and East Africa, culturally rooted forms of discrimination were unravelled to reshape and expand the kinds of activities women could do.
  • In Peru, blending Indigenous and western health practices amplified the choices and voices of Indigenous women over their own bodies.
  • In India, interlinking the root causes of poor access to water and sanitation helped to influence a national policy on women’s safety.
  • In Egypt, factoring gendered power relations into process analysis and policy helped overturn misconceptions about violence toward women.
  • In West Africa, research showed that being intentional about transforming gender relations can empower girls to promote norms shifts in their communities.

Together, these projects tell us that nudging perceptions, norms, and institutions toward greater gender equality is a complex and long-term process that can be approached from more than one direction. However, the process ultimately relies on examining, questioning, and unseating rigid gender norms and power imbalances through community-led and participatory processes. IDRC has a strong foundation in this area, and hopes to continue to forge new territory and inspire experimentation, research, and granting partnerships with like-minded organizations to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 5 globally.

Read Transforming gender relations: Insights from IDRC research