Opinion: Here's how to tackle root causes — not just symptoms — of gender inequality

Women from Pakistan receive training in sewing and dress making to build skills and abilities needed to generate additional income. Photo by: ILO in Asia and the Pacific / CC BY-NC-ND

There are many promising trends addressing gender inequality in 2017.

The development community is investing more in data, increasingly engaging men and boys, and refining strategies such as mainstreaming that are not delivering the results we hoped.  But some trends, such as the emphasis on the business case for gender equality and a strong focus on women’s economic empowerment, also warrant deeper reflection.  

While overarchingly positive and much-needed, emphasizing these without examining the root causes of gender inequalities runs the risk of overpromising and underdelivering on the outcomes we want to see. We must focus on designing programs that tackle root causes and not symptoms, alongside actively identifying and mitigating unintended consequences.

Here are five positive trends that warrant a closer look.

1. Gender data investments fill critical gaps, but much work needs to be done.

Many basic questions about women’s lives remain unanswered. Globally, 70 to 80 percent of the data for UN Women’s essential indicators is missing. This gap has not gone unnoticed. Several organizations are working on data equality, for example, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has earmarked up to $80 million to close gender data gaps and improve data collection and research, and Data2X is a multi-stakeholder partnership that aims to power a “gender data revolution.”

3 ways gender data could go ‘big’

Credit card use, mobile phone calls, social media posts and satellite imagery are all being used to inform mainstream development efforts. But what about gender issues? Data2X presents the results of three pilots to harness the power of digital data for women and girls.

Nonetheless, much work remains to be done. There is a large set of open questions around women and girls’ lived experiences and the root causes and manifestations of gender inequities. Over time, answering these will help us move from designing “gender aware” programs (ones that do not accidentally disadvantage women) to “gender transformative” (programs that actively seek to correct gender inequalities in access or uptake).  

2. Men and boys are well-recognized as part of the solution; we must now go from theory to practice.

Gender equity cannot be achieved by working with women alone; other household members must be engaged. Initiatives such as those by UNFPA and SIDA in the health space, and the work of groups such as #HeforShe, Promundo, and MenEngage are leading the way.

Looking ahead, thinking needs to be translated into practice. Programs should be designed to engage men early and often. Effective engagement with men and boys needs to happen not just at the individual level, but at the community level through larger scale norm change.

3. Gender mainstreaming is in urgent need of review, revitalization and replacement.

When the concept of gender mainstreaming emerged from Beijing in 1995, it was met with widespread elation. Finally, we could integrate women’s concerns and experiences into the design, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of all programs and organizations. But 21 years later, the results are disappointing. Study after study finds that mainstreaming is not being done successfully, nor is it achieving the desired results. It has often just become a “check box.”  

However, we shouldn’t give up entirely on the powerful concept of mainstreaming. Rather, we need to develop easy-to-apply principles, tools and approaches to mainstream it well. Looking ahead, more programs should flip mainstreaming on its head by building cross-sector programs that have a central focus on women’s empowerment. This idea is driven by repeated findings that integrated approaches work best to serve women and girls.

4. Gender investments are increasingly driven by business case arguments, but this comes with risks.

We now know that empowering women can be good for business and good for the global economy. Women are more likely to invest in their families and communities, be more loyal customers, and in many cases, more productive employees than men.

The business case for investing in women is widely used as an advocacy tool and is founded on empirical analysis. However, it also comes with risks. The strength of the business case relies in part on existing inequalities. Why do women invest more in their families relative to men? Why are they more productive, more loyal employees? Feminists have long argued that these choices are in part driven by disempowerment or restricted choice, implying an inherent tension between maximizing these benefits and empowering women. The argument also paints a positive picture, when in reality — at least in the short term — shifts in power structures can mean men and boys can get left behind; there can be retaliatory violence.

This is not an argument for lower investment in gender or questioning the intent of those that argue for the business case (Dalberg has done so ourselves). Rather, it is a call for caution in how we use this argument to minimize the risk of over-promising returns.  

5. Economic empowerment of women is now at the heart of the gender agenda, but we need integrated solutions to deliver sustainable results.

Women’s economic empowerment — meaning increasing empowerment through paid work or entrepreneurship — is now front and center of the gender and development discourse. This is a welcomed development: economic empowerment is critical to increasing agency and power. However, a growing body of literature finds that isolated interventions — or those that do not account for household power dynamics — can be ineffective or generate unintended consequences such as decreased control over income or increased spousal conflict.

Interventions that seek to achieve women’s economic empowerment should address not just visible proximate causes (such as lack of education, skills or training) but also root causes (such as sociocultural norms, legal or policy-based discrimination, or unpaid work responsibilities) that hinder women’s access to quality paid work and control over their pay. Programs should seek to anticipate and mitigate unintended consequences in advance.  

Staggering, persistent gaps between men and women exist in almost every outcome we care about as development practitioners. We know development cannot happen without being intentional about gender. But this realization is not enough: We must act to find inclusive solutions that tackle the root causes of gender inequalities.

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

About the authors

  • Tania Beard

    Tania Beard is a project manager at Dalberg’s Dakar office, and the co-deputy of Dalberg’s gender expertise area. She works in the areas of gender, agriculture, financial inclusion and broader issues of private sector development, and advises teams across Dalberg in integrating a gender lens into their work. Tania holds a master's in social sciences and a bachelor's in languages and literature, both from the University of Oxford.
  • Shruthi Jayaram

    Shruthi Jayaram is a project manager at Dalberg and is based in their New York office. She is a co-deputy of Dalberg’s gender expertise area. Shruthi works in the areas of gender, data and economic development, and advises teams across Dalberg in integrating a gender lens into their work. She holds a dual master's in public policy and administration from Columbia University and NUS, and a bachelor's in economics from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University.