Gender equality in organisations

This is a blog post from 2020, moved from my former blog which I will take offline near the end of this year.

Gender equality is a key element of sustainable development – as illustrated in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which weave gender across virtually all 17 SDGs. It makes sense that ‚mainstream‘ organisations, which are not specialised in promoting gender equality, have developed gender policies and related activities. Where are they at, and what should come next?

Vera Siber and I carried out a study with four German organisations to find out about their work on gender justice: a political foundation, two non-governmental organisations (NGOs) specialised in international development (a faith-based one and a secular one), and a scientific agency attached to a federal ministry. The four organisations differed in the scope of their work, their size, and the degree to which they stated gender justice as an explicit goal – but they came together to commission our study.  We reviewed documentation produced by the four organisations and interviewed some 50 persons representing different perspectives within those groups.  

The framework developed by Gender at Work guided our analysis. It is a matrix around two axes: formal/informal and individual/systemic. That is, it defines four realms: The individual/informal square relating to personal consciousness and capabilities, the systemic/informal one to unwritten norms and practice. The individual/formal square refers to individual resources, the systemic/formal one rules and policies. 

The four squares of the matrix look different in each of the four organisations (cases) we researched. On the formal/systemic side, all cases displayed gender policy papers, but the documents varied enormously in their scope and precision. Three organisations employed gender specialists; one did not. In all cases, staff members from different departments met regularly to discuss gender issues – but only in one case, job descriptions allocated time for those activities. The degree to which gender was integrated in planning and monitoring processes varied widely. On the formal/individual side, women in one case found it easier to reach leadership positions thanks to an adapted recruitment process, and dedicated mentoring and leadership training.

Our study has confirmed the notion that gender mainstreaming unfolds tangible outcomes when combined with specific work on gender equality. For example, one organisation had supported women’s organisations in South Asia for many years. They introduced those organisations to ‘mainstream’ grantees – i.e., grantees with no specific feminist agenda – to strengthen their thinking and action so that women and girls could contribute to and benefit more fully from their work. In the same case, success stories and pressure by feminist grantees contributed to reshaping the donor’s overall regional strategy. 

The informal side of the Gender at Work matrix is to a great extent about individual commitment – present in all four cases we reviewed –, and organisational culture. In one case, committed staff members put in their ‘own’ time to organise internal workshops on gender. In that way, they built knowledge within the organisation ‚bottom-up‘, and pressured for more support from the top levels for gender equality. In an opposite case, organisational leadership successfully pushed for the implementation of a progressive gender policy. This top-down approach, arguably necessary when attempting to mainstream gender across an organisation and its work, has raised worries among some of our interlocutors: Would it still be possible to openly voice doubts, start controversial discussions and introduce new ideas? 

Our study could not answer that question. What emerged clearly was that even organisations with rather advanced systems for gender mainstreaming must continue to update their knowledge and re-examine their goals and approaches regularly, as new needs and interests emerge. For instance, work on the rights of lesbian, gay, bi- and intersexual, transgender and queer persons (LGBTIQ), as well as intersectional approaches that take into account multiple discriminations, were still in their infancy in most cases. Also, from 2017 on, the #metoo movement against sexual harassment at work sparked a need to introduce or strengthen policies and processes. At the time of our research, anti-harassment policies had only just been introduced – or were still in the process of development – in most of the reviewed organisations. 

There is no end point to work on gender equality. It takes constant, deliberate, and well-informed efforts to secure the commitment of everyone in an organisation and to ensure its work contributes to gender equality in a changing world. At the very least, organisations should make sure they do not deepen existing inequalities (do no harm). 

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development exhorts all states to leave no-one behind: Diversity and the ensuing differences in people’s needs and interests must be acknowledged and dealt with. Sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination within organisations and beyond must be identified and countered. There is plenty of instructive experience around the world – organisations can tap into it by multiplying opportunities for exchange, open debate, and joint learning. All this requires dedicated resources. 

Why not try out gender budgeting, i.e., a process whereby organisations systematically examine their budgets against the anticipated effects on gender equality? If international development agencies can teach governments in the ‘global South’ to introduce gender budgeting, surely, they can do it within their own systems? If these agencies require their partner organisations to display a gender-balanced leadership structure, surely, they can organise their own leadership along the same lines? Would that be a good resolution for 2021 and beyond?

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