Gender and Results

A Keynote Address for Project TEMBO’s Luncheon,Ottawa, October 27, 2018

Who am I? I guess I wondered initially why I was asked to give this talk.  

What do I do? I research, write, edit, teach, and I do development consulting. I’ve worked on designing projects where gender is taken into consideration and then helped to  make sure that gender is part of how those projects are monitored and evaluated.

I know that speaking up about gender issues is important and valuable. I’ve written about everything from music to travel to health to food – whatever I might be interested in. But when I write about gender, I get responses. Writing about women’s experiences and situations of discrimination have definitely received more meaningful feedback than anything else I have written.

I think that in everything I do I am always thinking about gender. But today I’m going to talk about how that thinking leads to results—and by results I mean positive change for all genders. Because, fundamentally, what do I believe?

I believe gender is important. I am a feminist.

But I also recognize the concept of intersectionality, developed by feminist scholar Kimberlé Krenshaw, which sees gender as one element of difference, which intersects with nationality, ethnicity, indigeneity, disability, sexual preference, age, political and religious affiliation, marital status and other elements of identity as important factors in thinking about lived experience and discrimination.

But what thinking about gender does is force us to not be blind to difference. When we think about gender, we are thinking about everyone. And it appears that in Canada, our government agrees.

In June 2017, Canada launched its Feminist International Assistance Policy. Yes, Canada’s development initiatives worldwide had always considered gender…but now it is in the forefront. Justin Trudeau has said that “Internationally, we have reaffirmed Canada’s commitment to reducing poverty and inequality, putting gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls at the heart of our development efforts. We took this approach because we know that when we empower women and girls, economic growth follows. Peace and cooperation takes root. And a better quality of life for families and communities is possible.” And what would make Trudeau and me know this?

There are all sorts of facts I can tell you. First, from and economic perspective: The Mckinsey Global Institute calculated the economic impact of closing the gender gap in labor markets in 95 countries: Every country would receive a GDP boost of at least 9 percent. The European Institute for Gender Equality states that improvements in gender equality would lead to an additional 10.5 million jobs in 2050, which would benefit both women and men. A study on Fortune 500 companies showed that companies with more women board members experience 42% higher returns to sales, and 66% higher returns on invested capital. In a study of 288 Australian firms, gender-diverse boardrooms were generally associated with increased labour productivity. A study of Italian manufacturing companies demonstrated that labour productivity in firms with a woman CEO significantly increases with the share of women workers.

And then an education perspective: According to UN research, “analyzing the relationships between and among girls and boys and teachers and learners can identify the root causes of inequality and suggest systemic, transformative changes to educational systems that will eliminate those causes.” An example can be found in a USAID-funded project in Ethiopia, where boys became more sensitive to the multiple burdens girls face that interfere with their schooling. And so, boys began to help their female classmates with their homework and no longer judged them intellectually inadequate.

And from a health perspective: Evidence shows that gender—a social construct—has a substantial effect on health behaviours, access to health care, and the way that the health care system responds to health care needs. Men, worldwide, do not have as long a life expectancy as women, but when risk factors such as alcohol and tobacco use and other behaviours are taken into consideration, the top 10 were more prevalent in men than women. If we don’t think about how gender shapes our lives and behaviours, we can’t decrease the risk to men’s health. And because women are more often care givers to children, we risk the health and welfare of the next generation when we do not think about women.

And from a perspective that looks at peace: Between 2011 and 2015, the Graduate Institute in Geneva conducted an in-depth analysis of 40 peace processes since the end of the Cold War. When women’s groups were able to exercise a strong influence on the negotiation process, there was a much higher chance that an agreement would be reached than when women’s groups exercised weak or no influence. And when there was strong influence and a large participation of women, an agreement was almost always reached. And finally, when there was a strong influence of women in negotiation processes, there as a greater likelihood of agreements being implemented.

But this is all information from organizations and studies, which is excellent—as a teacher I always tell my students that they need to use evidence from authorities, but there’s also evidence that stems from experience.

So let me tell you why I personally know from lived experience that thinking about gender leads to results.

In 2003 with Cuso International, I was working as a volunteer at the Caribbean Disaster Information Network. It was my first experience in Jamaica. On International Women’s Day a woman from rural Jamaica spoke out about the impact of natural disaster. Mudslides and flooding can be common, but after an incident, government officials would always be confused as to why people wouldn’t move away from dangerous areas. This speaker made it clear: the answer is easy. Because women need to be closer to water sources for cooking and cleaning. But officials would never ask the women, so they didn’t know why and then couldn’t work with women to see how it might be possible to develop ways of connecting to water that would allow families to live in safer spaces

I have been a team leader with Habitat for Humanity in Guyana, Ethiopia, Senegal, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Kenya. Working in Kenya, the first day there, our team of mostly women were working. Next day there were a pile of local women helping us. Habitat staff said that our example was important in that small way.

As a lecturer at the University of the West Indies, I noticed (as many people do) that there were over 75% women graduates. Some say it is because the education system is too feminized, but focus groups of young people made it obvious that gender roles were very much in place, and jobs and skills associated with women were valued less, which is also associated with homophobia – idea of gay men being less masculine and therefore less valuable. Women’s groups and rights organizations like JFLAG as well as Transwave Jamaica have been working to shift expectations about gender, which will affect everyone.

Working with other clients as a development consultant has meant that I have had the opportunity to do research into gender lens investing and learning about initiatives in many countries where people are thinking about gender and finance. Here is one example from my experience: in Malawi, of 80,000 tea workers, 60,000 are women and none of these women are in management positions. Moreover, sexual misconduct has been reported in the past. Companies have not developed any policies to deal with this issue and prefer to maintain the status quo. Working together with civil society, the Malawi tea industry has developed a gender policy which means better working standards for women and greater production

But the bulk of my experience has been as a teacher. It is really amazing to see what happens when people see themselves in curriculum. I know that teaching at a college like Vanier in Montreal, the most multicultural college in Quebec, we have a problem in terms of the diversity of our teaching staff that are much less diverse than our student population. But thinking about what books I choose – thinking about gender, and thinking about intersectionality means that I select books that attempt to provide images and portrayals that reflect a wide range of experiences

A student who said she had never seen herself in a book until she took my Caribbean literature class and read work by Kei Miller, which had a Black woman character who she felt she could completely relate to. The student told me that when she finished the book she hugged it like a friend. This young woman, still comes to my office asking for more books—and she’s still reading and learning.

What can we learn from this? It’s pretty clear. Thinking about gender does lead to results. Investing in and valuing women and girls is part of this—but moreover, as I mentioned, thinking about gender forces us to think about everyone. To look at how we all can benefit.

So how do we move forward? Yes, there’s Canada’s Feminist International Assistance policy. We need to make sure that we mainstream thinking about gender, that we value all genders and we support women and girls. We need to support organizations like TEMBO – whose mission is one that will help to improve society as a whole through the support and empowerment of young women and girls through education. And recognize that thinking about gender and having a feminist perspective does not undermine men, but it helps to build a foundation for a more equitable society for all.

Presenting at the TEMBO luncheon, October 27, 2018.

Presenting at the TEMBO luncheon, October 27, 2018.