How to overcome 5 common constraints to integrating gender into programming

Working on your “black belt” in gender mainstreaming? Here are some tips courtesy of Land O’Lakes’ Mara Russell. Photo by: sean dreilinger / CC BY-NC-SA

Over the past five years, I have led Land O’Lakes International Development’s efforts to integrate gender considerations into our development programs. At first, I was thrilled about the opportunity to lead something that I had always advocated for. Not only would more women participate in our projects, but identifying constraints to their women’s participation would empower them to overcome these limitations.

What I didn’t know was that I would soon confront numerous hurdles of my own! I quickly discovered that what doesn’t defeat you makes you stronger, and challenges come with the territory. If you are committed to effectively integrating and women and girls’ empowerment into your organization’s programming, here are tips to overcoming five common difficulties:

Time and resources are limited

Often, gender champions must add mainstreaming tasks to already-full plates of responsibilities. Set up a committee to develop visions, missions, work plans, policies, approaches, tools and other items. Congratulations if you have separate budgets to hire consultants or interns though, more than likely, you will do much of the work yourself.

On the upside, you’ll earn a black belt in time management and build tremendous internal support. Be sure to pursue every tiny morsel of funding and get really good at project design and proposal writing! Learn how to delegate tasks when necessary to be sure that you can devote quality time to items that really need your attention.

You are a novice in the company of experts

It is okay to be the new kid on the block. In the gender arena, there may be numerous organizations with plenty more experience than your organization. Maybe they have focused on gender for decades or their gender focus is central to the organization’s mission. In starting out, please know that you won’t have all of the answers, you will make plenty of mistakes and you will lose out to other players when submitting proposals.

When we got started, we did a lot of listening and learning, asked lots of questions and read as much as possible. We tried to attend every relevant event that we could and took lots of notes. This is work that we still continue today. After several years as a “newbie,” Land O’Lakes has produced some great results — our client base is now 52 percent female. We have also developed some pretty cool tools that have helped build our reputation in this arena — see, for instance, “Integrating Gender Throughout the Project Life Cycle”.

Donors may not require a commitment to gender

It may be difficult to convince project managers — who already have a great deal on their plates — that they must integrate gender components which they may not understand and which the donor may not necessarily require.

Our internal gender policy came into effect in 2012. It requires that we include enough funding in all of our budgets to conduct a gender analysis. It also stipulated that we hire at least one person who will serve as a part-time or full-time gender specialist or focus person. If the donor approves these components, they become program requirements. My ace in the hole for this accomplishment is that the person in charge of our proposal budgets is on the gender task force. This way, this line item is never forgotten!

Men are often left out

When I initially established our gender task force, lots of women and one or two men at Land O’Lakes were really excited about overcoming gender constraints. The remaining staff members wanted better guidance on how to approach gender integration. In particular, I noticed men working in new business development or on technical projects often asked me to write one or two paragraphs on gender, review the gender section of the proposal, and teach them how to analyze gender. I eventually wrote a “Using a Gender Lens” document aimed primarily at helping these men learn how to read or write a proposal with gender considerations.

It has become clear to me that integrating men is part of the solution. Building their support is perhaps one of the most effective means of ensuring full gender integration. As a result, we now have a high degree of commitment to gender among men at Land O’Lakes International Development. Nearly half of our gender task force members are men.

There are not enough women in leadership

Despite our years of experience addressing gender constraints and increasing benefits to women in our projects, we have only brought in a few women at the chief-of-party level. As an implementer of agriculture, livestock and economic growth projects, we have encountered many problems as we seek to hire top-notch women as COPs.

This is no small matter: A good COP can make or break a project. In 2014, we will expand our efforts to ramp up networking to increase our external talent pool, and will empower women internally with new leadership opportunities. I hope that by next year, we employ many more women as COPs. (If you are interested — contact me!)

Full gender integration is not an easy task and is never totally complete. We have accomplished a great deal, but we continue to face many challenges. Nonetheless, I am heartened by the partnerships that I have developed along the way – both internally and externally. Sometimes, the challenges are really daunting but working together with others — again, with both women and men — has been the best road to success.

Want to learn more? Check out She Builds and tweet us using #SheBuilds.

She Builds is a month-long conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, Creative Associates, JBS International as well as the Millennium Challenge Corp., United Nations Office for Project Services and U.K. Department for International Development.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Mara Russell

    Mara Russel has been working in the fields of food aid and food security for over 25 years. She's been with Land O'Lakes International Development for 10 years and currently serves as the company's practice manager for gender, food security and livelihoods, providing technical leadership to projects that address vulnerability and food insecurity, and ensuring that gender considerations are integrated into all division projects. Russel facilitated the development of her division’s gender policy.