Gender Transformative Research: An Imperative

Posted by Stephen Hall on 2 October 2012

I believe a gender transformative approach is key if WorldFish is to achieve the development impacts it is looking for – but what is it and how will it affect our organizational culture?

Barotse floodplain, Zambia

The AAS program will address underlying gender norms such as discrimination and inequality down the value chains. Barotse floodplain, Zambia. Photo by Georgina Smith, 2012.

I was recently asked by a member of WorldFish staff if I would share on film why we have placed a gender transformative approach at the center of our efforts to achieve development impact. Of course, that was something I was happy to do, and I think we did a reasonable job of explaining why our choice of approach to gender matters.

But, reflecting on the conversation I found myself wondering whether we had yet found a good simple way of explaining what a gender transformative approach actually is. I also thought about what WorldFish will look like when we have fully embraced the approach and embedded it in our culture.

So what is a gender transformative approach? Put simply, I think it is about going beyond only doing research on gender to doing something concrete with what we learn. It’s about working to understand how we can improve the lives of poor women and men under existing social norms, but then acting, where needed, to help change these norms and transform gender roles to increase our development impact. In other words, it’s about understanding and then helping to overcome the constraining gender barriers and norms of the status quo so that our agricultural innovations have a much greater chance to improve peoples’ lives.

I find it surprising that some scientists involved in agricultural research for development in the CGIAR view this as a bridge too far. It seems that, for these colleagues, when it comes to gender, being a part of the effort to overcome fundamental barriers to development is meddling in societies in some way, and thus beyond their remit.

Imagine if the CGIAR adopted that approach for its work to increase productivity by breeding new plant varieties: how successful would we be as researchers if we simply described our results and made the seeds available on request? Rather than stop there CGIAR scientists often also work with partners to develop seed systems and strengthen extension services to support farmers to use the new varieties. In what material way is helping to shift norms and behaviors to increase uptake of new plant varieties different from doing the same thing when it comes to gender? In both cases, it is often only by doing so that we can achieve the outcomes and contribute to the impacts we seek.

I’m sure there are many reasons for this reticence concerning gender, but I can’t help concluding that the heavy predominance of male scientists in the CGIAR is a critical one.

Of course, adopting a gender transformative approach doesn’t mean that researchers must lead the efforts needed to change gender norms and behaviors – there are many other organizations better placed to do that. But it does mean that we need to partner with those organizations and actively support their efforts. And few can deny the evidence showing just how much impact a focus on gender can make: giving Kenyan women farmers the same inputs and education as men could raise yields by more than 20% [2]; a $10 increase in women’s income in Cote D’Ivoire would lead to improvements in children’s nutrition and health equivalent to what can be expected from a $110 increase in men’s income [3]. These are compelling findings by any standard, and there are many more available.

So, for me, the case is clear – a gender transformative approach must be at the center of WorldFish’s efforts if we really want to continue, as our tagline says, ‘harnessing research that makes a difference’.

But what will embracing the gender dimensions of development look like at WorldFish? Well, for a start there will no longer be arcane debates about whether gender should be ‘mainstreamed’ or identified as a separate effort. Instead, the gendered dimensions of any problem will simply be a natural and un-remarkable part of the way we do things.  Sometimes that will require an explicit gender initiative at other times it will simply be an integral part of something else. The best I can do here is an analogy with improving productivity – it’s quite clearly something “the CGIAR does”, and elements of the productivity enhancement agenda touch in some way or other the vast majority of our program. Gender needs to be the same – to use the hackneyed business term – it needs to be in our DNA.

The CGIAR’s new research programs provide a unique opportunity to pursue this gender transformative approach [4].  As we do this we’ll be reaching out to learn from and partner with many others working in this field, including in other development sectors such as health which have led the way with innovation in this area in recent years.  We’ll be discussing this at a workshop on Gender Transformative Research that we’re holding in Penang from 3-5 October.  Please look to the web page for more background and to see where we get to [5].

[1] Conversation on gender research
[2] Quisumbing AR, Brown LR, Feldstein HS, Haddad,  L, Peña, C. (1995) Women: The key to food security (IFPRI, Washington, DC.).
[3] Hoddinott J, Haddad L (1995) Does female income share influence household expenditures? Evidence from Côte d’Ivoire. Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics 57:77–96.
[4] Research on gender and agriculture/CGIAR
[5] Building coalitions, creating change. Gender Workshop, 3-5 October 2012