Reflections on Gender Transformative Research

Stephen Hall -

For any organization trying to decide how best to achieve development impact, a good place to start is with a ‘Theory of Change’, or ToC. Formally defined as “a statement of the interconnected causal pathways that describe the types of interventions that bring about desired outcomes” [1], a ToC can be more plainly said to be a description of what you need to do to make a difference.

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I was fortunate to recently attend a workshop here in Penang on Gender Transformative Research (GTR) in Agricultural Development, where ToCs were discussed [2]. This was an important discussion because, as I explained in my last post, not all researchers are agreed about whether GTR should be pursued by agricultural research organizations [3]. Without a compelling rationale that forms part of a clear theory of change that situation is likely to persist.

The outcome of our discussion was the following proposition:

We will increase productivity in complex agricultural systems in ways that are economically, socially and environmentally sustainable if we improve gender equity.

I think this is an enormously important, powerful and compelling statement because, leaving aside for a moment the moral imperative of striving for gender equity, it provides a mission driven rationale for investing in GTR as part of our wider agricultural research portfolio. As a description of the causal pathway for a GTR approach that leads to impact, I believe it should be an explicit part of the CGIARs Theory of Change for agricultural research.

Let’s unpack the various elements of the statement a little to explain why its adoption is so important.

We will increase productivity in complex agricultural systems in ways that are economically, socially and environmentally sustainable if we improve gender equity.

Although carefully chosen, the term “productivity” in the above statement generated considerable disquiet among some workshop participants. The reason for the disquiet was that when agricultural researchers talk about “ increasing productivity”, they are often using shorthand for “increasing crop yields”. But the formal definition of productivity is “the returns obtained per unit of inputs applied”, a definition that extends well beyond crop yields. And it is in this broader sense that we need to think about the impacts of GTR on productivity. For example, altering gender norms and behaviours regarding intra-household distribution of food or income has nothing with increasing crop yields, but it can deliver huge improvements in nutritional and educational outcomes for children [4]. We can also expect GTR to deliver returns to income, time, food production, resilience, risk-reduction, and environmental protection – all domains in which the CGIAR must deliver outcomes.

We will increase productivity in complex agricultural systems in ways that are economically, socially and environmentally sustainable if we improve gender equity.

To be clear, although adopting a GTR approach remains contentious, few researchers question the importance of integrating gender issues into agricultural research. Studies from the 1970’s onward have both documented gender disparities in access to resources, markets and technologies and generated evidence to show the increases in productivity that can be achieved when they are removed. The excellent short video by FAO entitled Close the Gap provides a compelling summary [5]. And it is also true that development agencies and researchers have increasingly responded to this evidence by seeking to embed into their programs gendered analyses and interventions to reduce inequities in access to resources.

But “improving gender equity” connotes much more than the current effort to mainstream and integrate gender into programs, and it is in this phrase that the call for a transformational approach to gender lies. In essence, it implies that agricultural researchers must, not only try and address the consequences of gender inequality, they must also seek to understand and challenge its root causes. For example, as well as working to enhance women’s access to credit or a new technology say, we must also research and seek to challenge ingrained societal beliefs that limit what women can and cannot do, or the assets they can and cannot hold. Unless we do so, our record of failure to “close the gender gap” will continue, with consequent lost opportunities to increase and sustain agricultural productivity. As Einstein famously quipped: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

We will increase productivity in complex agricultural systems in ways that are economically, socially and environmentally sustainable if we improve gender equity.

Complex farming systems are diverse production and livelihood systems where families cultivate a range of crops, raise livestock, farm or catch fish, gather fruits and other tree crops, and harness natural resources such as timber, reeds, and wildlife.

While the Green Revolution has helped many billions of people increase incomes and become food secure, many of the farmers, fishers and herders who live in complex farming systems continue to live on less than US$ 1.25 a day. In Aquatic Agricultural Systems, for example, a third or more the 700 million people who depend on them for their livelihoods are in this position [6].

Complex farming systems also take place within complex social systems, which contribute to persistent poverty, unequal gender relations and differential access to and control of resources [7]. This means that investing in a GTR approach will be an especially powerful means for effecting change in these systems. Such persistent poverty also tells us that traditional technological approaches to improve the lives of these people are not working; once again an argument for adopting new approaches such as GTR. (I hear echoes of Einstein’s quote again.)

We will increase productivity in complex agricultural systems in ways that are economically, socially and environmentally sustainable if we improve gender equity.

Few would question the importance of, not only achieving productivity increases, but also sustaining them over the long term. And as with our conception of productivity, our view of sustainability must be broad.

This too is where much of the power of a GTR approach emanates because it offers avenues for pursuing all the dimensions of sustainability and thinking about these in different ways. We need to think, for example, about issues such as:

  • meeting the labour and technology demands for sustaining productivity increases in the immediate future as more men move off-farm to waged labour in cities;
  • meeting the aspirations of youth in rural areas to ensure social cohesion and security;
  • helping children who will soon be youths to have more and better livelihood options, and to acquire the skills and capabilities they need to succeed;
  • building the adaptive capacity and resilience of rural communities to the inevitable challenges of climate change and other shocks that will surely confront them.

A broad perspective on sustainability also demands that we recognize both the quantitative and qualitative characteristics of the productivity increases we seek and that we balance what can be conflicting interests. Reconciling, for example, the interests of those seeking to achieve social equity, with those for whom sustainable natural resource use or economic development takes precedence will often be challenging. Once again, this is an area where the potential of gender transformative approaches to effect change and negotiate mutually agreeable outcomes is clear.

A challenging transformation

For some researchers, this move to a GTR approach is a radical shift that takes them uncomfortably into the domain of social change and activism.

I think part of this discomfort stems from the belief that, because pursuing a gender transformative approach can legitimately be viewed as an ethically and morally justified end in itself, it falls outside the agricultural research domain. I even agree that, if this were the only justification for pursuing the approach and that it had no impact on productivity, it would be difficult to argue that it has a place in the agricultural research portfolio.

But, all the evidence indicates that, improving gender equity and increasing women’s empowerment will improve agricultural productivity and help sustain it. So, if we really want to make a difference we must include efforts to research how underlying gender norms, behaviors and structures lead to inequality and work with partners to challenge and shift them.

For those who worry about adopting a social change agenda, I also think we need to recognize that to pursue gender equity is, in essence, to drive for equality of opportunity for self-determination. When all parties have this right we can expect mutually negotiated outcomes between genders that are perceived by those concerned to be fair. That might mean in some cases that mum continues to play the role she always has, but it will be on the basis of informed individual choice not societal coercion or constraint. For me, striving for such a fundamental freedom trumps any qualms one might have about social activism.

A shift in mindset

It should be clear by now that I believe the case for fully embracing a GTR approach is compelling. But widespread adoption will require a change in mindset for many agricultural researchers. The principle change we need is a much wider acceptance that
adopting a gender transformative research approach will lead to qualitatively better, more rapid and sustained improvements in agricultural productivity. It is this that legitimizes engagement by the agricultural research community.

Adopting a GTR approach also demands that we recognize that actively striving for equality in the right of all individuals to decide what is right for them, expanding the range of options open to them, and increasing awareness of what those options are legitimate activities for agricultural research institutions.

My sense is that that these messages are starting to be heard. It is heartening, example, that the CGIAR Fund Council has just established a separate gender fund to support innovation in this area. This is a welcome development, but we will also need energy and commitment from individual champions and the right incentives, structures and accountabilities in our various institutions to unleash the true power of GTR approaches. I look forward to everyone here at WorldFish being a part of that effort and to seeing the impact that will surely result.


  4. Smith, L. et al. 2003. The Importance of Women’s Status for Child Nutrition in Developing Countries. Research report 131. IFPRI: Washington, DC.
  6. Aquatic Agricultural Systems occur along freshwater floodplains, coastal deltas, and inshore marine waters, and are characterized by dependence on seasonal changes in productivity, driven by seasonal variation in rainfall, river flow, and/or coastal and marine processes.
  7. Kabeer, N., 2000, ‘Social Exclusion, Poverty and Discrimination: Towards an Analytical Framework’, IDS bulletin, 31(4);  Hickey, S. and A. du Toit. 2007. Adverse incorporation, social exclusion and chronic poverty. CPRC Working Paper 81. Manchester: CPRC.
Stephen Hall

Stephen Hall

Stephen Hall's previous leadership roles include CEO of the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) and Professor of Marine Biology at Flinders University, Australia. Stephen has served on several international advisory panels and, in 2010, was a member of a global team overseeing the reform of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). Recognized as a leading scientist in his field, he has contributed more than 80 scientific publications on fisheries ecology and environmental issues as well as a highly cited book on the environmental effects of fishing. In 2004, Stephen was awarded a Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation and he continues to investigate and write on the roles and potential of fisheries and aquaculture for supporting international development objectives. In 2005, he was awarded the Australian Public Service Medal for leadership of AIMS. Stephen holds a Ph.D. in Marine Ecology from St. Andrews University and a B.S. in Marine Biology and Biochemistry from University of Wales, Bangor.

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