Applying a gender lens to the production of research and knowledge
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Ruth Bottomley explores what it means to actively address the needs of both men and women across all of INASP’s work

The new INASP strategy (2016-2020) outlines some of the core principles on which we base our work. One of these principles is that we will promote equity by actively addressing the needs of both men and women across all of our work.

Gender inequality is a critical issue for international development. The global challenges outlined by my colleague Jon Harle in his blog post cannot be met adequately and sustainably if inequalities are not addressed. Globally, the need for gender equality has been recognized since the 1979 UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The call for gender equality was also central to the Beijing Platform for Action (1995) and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and this continues to be promoted through the new Global Goals for Sustainable Development (SDGs). The SDGs include a specific goal to promote gender equality and empower all women and girls, along with the pledge that no one will be left behind.

But what are the gender issues in higher education, research and knowledge production? And why is it so important that they are addressed?

The tip of an iceberg

Before INASP started to bring a stronger gender focus to our work, analysis of our programme data revealed that there were some notable differences in our ability to reach men and women. We discovered that workshop participants were predominantly male, and four out of every five small grants were received by men. And we began to realize that this was just the tip of a much bigger iceberg. As we conducted further research, we found mounting evidence that in many countries women face far more challenges in pursuing research and academic careers than men. Women are often constrained by family expectations and their roles as mothers, wives and carers; roles which interrupt or limit their education. Within institutions, women often find that policies and practices fail to address their needs, and insecurity and harassment can be common. Julie Brittain in her blog post also described some of the challenges that female researchers face when conducting their field research. With a lack of senior female role models who can mentor and support, these challenges often lead to what is known as the “leaky pipeline”, where women are more likely to drop out of their academic careers than men.

These gender barriers have huge implications for the overall research and knowledge sector and its ability to provide a sound evidence base on which global decisions are based. The barriers and biases that sustain gender inequality also prevent the creation and use of knowledge that can enable inclusive, just and sustainable development. As more and better quality research is being produced in developing countries, we need to ensure that women researchers have an equal opportunity to participate in the production and communication of this research and knowledge.

More than just numbers

We are now much more careful in ensuring that both men and women attend training and that there is a more equitable distribution in the provision of grants. But addressing gender issues requires going beyond the numbers. It requires raising awareness of the biases, understanding and adapting interventions to better meet the needs of women, and addressing the structural and power issues that tend to keep inequalities in place. We at INASP are not able to address all these challenges, but we are working with much greater awareness as to how we can adapt our approaches to be equitable and inclusive.

We have been exploring ways to better reach early-career women researchers so that we can help them on that crucial first step to publishing their research. As we have scaled up our online research writing courses we have asked for feedback from participants and analysed this from a gender perspective to find out what works for women. We have found that online courses enable people to learn at a time that suits them, and this seems to make it particularly valuable for women juggling work and childcare with their own professional development. We have encouraged more female mentors to sign up to our online mentoring system and have added an additional support option of career mentoring, something that women researchers have told us can be of help. We have started to award grants for those wishing to run gender workshops at their institutions or who will be presenting gendered research at international conferences. These are all small steps, but each step is enabling us to understand how we can better support women researchers and promote gender equality in the work we do.

Supporting women to shape the agenda

We have found that one of the best ways to support women researchers is to let them lead and shape the agenda. In 2015 INASP was approached by a group of female academics at the University of Dodoma in Tanzania who requested support to run a workshop titled, “Getting out of the box: Creating a gender platform”. These women had realized that gender barriers in the institution were affecting the full participation of women in academic life and their chances of promotion. The initial workshop brought together 26 female academics to discuss the issues and to identify solutions. The Dodoma team is now working towards the development of a gender policy, establishing a gender unit and building understanding and tolerance across the institution.

A more equitable future

As our new strategy outlines, we are strongly committed to gender equality across all of our work.

We are currently conducting a gender audit of INASP programmes to establish a baseline and recommendations as to how we can ensure a more systematic consideration of gender as we move forward. The audit will also allow us to develop tailored tools which will help us to better analyse and assess the gender dimensions of particular areas of work.

With the team at the University of Dodoma, we have developed a new gender toolkit to help other universities identify the obstacles and take the critical next steps. We will be launching it soon.

And we will be building on our first steps and the understanding we have gained to provide specialist and tailor-made support for women researchers to ensure that they can be as productive and successful as their male counterparts.

All small, but important, steps in ensuring that no one is left behind.

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