The concept of feminist evaluation gets a great deal of attention these days. Is it just a new label for gender-sensitive evaluation? Given that even gender-sensitive evaluation seems to be a challenge for many evaluation teams and evaluation managers, do we need feminist evaluation just now? If feminism focuses on gender inequality, will it help us to introduce stronger, broader equity orientation in evaluations?
These are questions I have bounced off with my colleague Khalil Bitar when we jointly reviewed a set of evaluation reports. The purpose of our review was to distil learning on evaluation methods for an organisation commissioning many evaluations. Gender mainstreaming was a requirement across those evaluations. In parallel, I reviewed a different set of evaluations commissioned by a women’s rights organisation interested in feminist evaluation. Khalil’s in-depth knowledge of equity-oriented evaluation has helped to expand our reflection.
The concept of feminist evaluation (FE) is not totally new; it has been discussed for at least two decades. A collection of articles on the subject was published in 2014, edited by Sharon Brisolara, Denise Seigart and Saumitra SenGupta (including contributions by Donna Podems, Donna Mertens, Jennifer Greene, and other eminent evaluators). In recent years, Global Affairs Canada has built on literature on FE to develop guidance. With governments in the ‘global North’ promoting feminist foreign policy and feminist development policy, it seems more urgent to understand what feminist evaluation is about – and whether and when we need it.
Many aspects of FE are found in gender sensitive or gender responsive evaluation: its transformational paradigm, its interest in uncovering root causes of inequality, its participatory character, and its ambition to ground evaluation in local contexts. All these approaches are also supposed to examine intersectionality, i.e., the criss-crossing and interacting layers of inequality and oppression linked to people’s identities (gender, class, age, and many more aspects).
Feminist evaluation may not be fundamentally different from proper gender sensitive or -responsive evaluation. But then, how much gender responsive evaluation do we see out there? In dozens of evaluation reports I have reviewed, gender sensitivity is misinterpreted as “counting women”, or “describing women’s plight”. Often, an analysis of root causes is missing; power imbalances are ignored.
Since the evaluation sector has performed poorly with gender sensitivity, is it ready for feminist evaluation yet? If FE is just another fad or flag that evaluators wave in their offers before carrying out an evaluation that is not even gender sensitive, we do not need it. But gender inequality is one of the most widespread forms of social inequality. Can evaluators just stand by and watch? I would say, no. The current emphasis on feminist policy may offer new opportunities to strenghten gender responsiveness in evaluation. But we cannot afford to pay attention to a single form of inequality only.
That is where intersectionality and equity focused evaluation (EFE) come in. EFE has much in common with feminist evaluation: EFE is not only about what we evaluate, but also about using evaluation to reduce inequities – like feminist evaluation, it has a transformative paradigm. Like feminist evaluation, it is supposed to uncover root causes of inequity, and find ways of addressing them. Like feminist evaluation, it should be participatory, by listening to and amplifying the voices of underrepresented people. Khalil and I believe that proper feminist evaluation needs to be equity-oriented to unfold its potential to support change for greater gender justice. If feminist evaluation neglects the elements it has in common with EFE, it reduces its chances to contribute to social transformation. One could even define FE as a form of EFE.
But not all equity-oriented evaluation needs to be feminist, i.e., to focus on gender justice – in certain evaluation contexts, it may be more appropriate to focus on inequity linked on other aspects of people’s identities (e.g., indigenous status, social class, disability…).
Finally, for feminist or other transformative evaluations to work, they need to be commissioned by people/organisations that are genuinely interested in and ready to promote social change. So, do we need feminist evaluation? If we are serious about gender equality, yes – but, as pointed out by Donna Podems, (i) we don’t always have to call it „feminist“ (especially in today’s hostile contexts), and (ii) we should apply it deliberately where it fits (and not everywhere and cosmetically).