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Are leadership and accountability systems the key to delivering increased gender equality in our work?

Itad are about to do a stock take of where we’ve got to in increasing attention to gender issues in our monitoring, evaluation and learning services.


A recent Gender and Development Network learning event on gender mainstreaming was therefore timely. There was a fair amount of despondency amongst the twenty-odd participants from NGO and consultancy organisations over the modest improvements resulting from vast amounts of effort and enthusiasm.  A consensus did, however, emerge on where to focus energies in this long-term change process to get organisations to deliver for gender equality.

Although the organisations represented at the meeting were at different points in their gender mainstreaming journey, there was a remarkable level of consistency in our experience.  Organisations certainly had embraced the idea of promoting gender equality in their work; management and staff were enthusiastic and readily engaged in training and discussions to understand what this might mean.  But, the change in practice was limited and patchy. The challenge then, we thought, is how to achieve active and sustained engagement of management and staff in promoting gender equality in their work, whatever that work might be.

We scratched our heads over possible solutions.  None of us felt we had uncovered the magic tricks which would revolutionise our organisations into transformative action for gender equality.  But our various strategies did converge around three areas:

  1. Understand your organisation’s drivers and use them to as your platform for galvanising efforts to promote gender equality: for Itad, ensuring we have a distinctive offer which meets our clients’ priorities is key. Many of our clients are stepping up their own focus on gender equality.  Being well equipped to respond to this will help us remain competitive, and perhaps even give us the edge in the market.
  2. Make sure the organisation’s expectations towards gender equality are articulated in practice, not just on paper: Vision statements, values, gender policies and toolkits are all important, but insufficient on their own to make staff do things differently. The importance of seeing the desired behaviours shouldn’t be under-estimated.  So, organisational leaders need to roll up their sleeves and role-model the behaviours they want other team members to adopt. Induction is, of course, a key moment for organisation’s to set out their expectations for new staff.  I found Oxfam’s online induction course on gender for new staff [link] a creative solution to what can be a time intensive and repetitive process.  But of course, we can’t rest at that.  The organisation’s expectations vis-à-vis gender equality need to be regularly reinforced, and in multiple ways, to instil the expectation that we should practice what we preach.
  3. Put in place accountability systems which incentivise and reward promoting gender equality: very often people see promoting gender equality as an add-on to their normal day job, something they have to do when time allows. This can send us gender champions down the route of seeking to integrate gender responsibilities into job descriptions and negotiating the amount of time individuals will spend ‘promoting gender’.  We need to turn this thinking on its head.  If an organisation expects all its staff to actively promote gender equality then it needs to search out and reward this behaviour in performance management systems at all levels of the organisation.

The stock-take of Itad’s gender equality initiative will be a fascinating experience.  There will be some successes, but also, undoubtedly, some areas where we could have done more.  Figuring out how we can build on these early foundations is my task over the next couple of months and I will certainly be drawing on the Gender and Development Network’s collective wisdom in doing so.