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.
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.
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.
Gender research at IDRC
IDRC recently commissioned an international consulting group called Sisters Ink to evaluate and review 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, presented in detail in Transforming gender relations, explored challenges to gender inequality experienced in different regions, different sectors, and by different groups.
Based on analysis of these six case studies, the research 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, building trust, 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.
Together the six gender-transformative projects that were analyzed 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.
Gender in context
These projects explore some of the many ways that IDRC-supported research is promoting gender equality and ultimately contributing to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). By sharing efforts to empower women, IDRC is contributing to a vital global conversation that will help make gender equality a reality worldwide.
Women all over the world are harnessing their collective power to address inequalities.
Women’s groups in two Tanzanian districts identify sustainable, culturally relevant strategies for better antenatal care services.
Development research is building resilience, boosting social equity, and challenging the powers-that-be.
We must move beyond job creation for women to be successful in the Blue Economy.
Solutions for gender equality (PDF, 7,691KB)
Economic growth and gender equality (PDF, 293KB)
- Feminist Advocacy, Family Law and Violence Against Women: International Perspectives
- Feminist open government: Addressing gender equity challenges in open government co-creation processes (PDF, 38.4MB)
- Gender equality: How think tanks are making a difference
- in_focus - Healthy Lives for Vulnerable Women and Children: Applying Health Systems Research
Women’s economic empowerment and trade (PDF, 345KB)