New blog on gender & impact evaluation: it's not just about counting women!!

Injustice and inequality are not written into our chromosomes.

Blog originally posted at http://

The UN has recently released its online publication The World’s Women 2015, which contains ‘the latest statistics and analyses of the status of women and men’. The report notes the ‘growing availability’ of sex-disaggregated data across the world and, of course, this is good news.


As I note in my recent publication Addressing Gender in Impact Evaluation: What Should be Considered?collecting separate data on males and females (sex-disaggregated data) should be an absolute minimum requirement for all interventions because it provides much-needed basic information as to an intervention’s ‘reach’. However, any intervention wanting to demonstrate gender-related impact will not be able to do so by only collecting sex-disaggregated data because gender is not about men versus women.

Injustice and inequality are not written into our chromosomes.

Gender is a process of judgement and value (a social hierarchy), related to stereotypes and norms about masculinity or femininity, regardless of your born sex category. It is intimately entwined with sexuality and works alongside other social hierarchies, which most commonly form around race/ethnicity and class/caste/socio-economic status. In some countries and cultures, other hierarchies—such as those related to age or religious beliefs—are also important.

Fifteen years ago, Andrea Cornwall (2000: 1) wrote that one of the biggest challenges for international development in effectively promoting change regards gender relates to the ‘pervasive slippage between “involving women” and “addressing gender”’. The same remains true today. Showing an increase in the number of women participants in an intervention is not the same as demonstrating gender impact.

For example, projects seeking to increase the number of women in politics do not necessarily address the stereotypes and norms related to gender and politics: so what if numbers increase, but people still believe that, for a woman to be in politics, she has to ‘act like a (particular type of) man’, or that women in politics should be in charge of social services ‘because they are more caring’? Did Margaret Thatcher help to challenge gender norms, or to reinforce them?

Below is the latest available data on numbers of women in parliaments across the world; would anyone argue that this ranking equates to a country being more ‘gender equitable’ than another?

1. Rwanda
5. South Africa
41. Afghanistan
45. South Sudan
48. Australia
64. UK
83. USA (joint position with San Marino) (last accessed 18 August 2015).

In my publication, I argue that ‘Gender affects everyone, all of the time. Gender affects the way we see each other, the way we interact, the institutions we create, the ways in which those institutions operate, and who benefits or suffers as a result of this. This is as true in an international development context, as in any other’.

In order to assess the impact of our work on gender, we need to stop thinking of gender as men versus women and start thinking about gender as a social process of judgement and inequality based on stereotypes and norms of masculinity and femininity.

I propose that if we are serious about shifting gender norms, and if we are serious about assessing the gendered impact of our work, then we need to start by describing the major gender stereotypes, norms and judgements that exist among intervention staff members and community members in relation to the intervention topic, particularly in relation to power and decision-making.

Do people believe that:

  • Decision-making power in the community should only be held by certain types of men (usually middle-aged, middle or upper class, belonging to the dominant ethnic group who are seen as physically and mentally ‘strong’)?
  • Only certain types of women (usually women judged to be ‘good’ by being married, middle-aged, middle- or upper- class, and belonging to the dominant ethnic group) should be allowed to express an opinion on community matters, and then must leave the final decision to male power-holders?
  • Young women should be seen and not heard?
  • Young men are hot-headed and not serious?
  • Women who are believed to have transgressed norms on sexual behaviour must be stigmatised and excluded?

Only then can we hope to assess whether or not these stereotypes and norms changed for the better (or for the worse) during the life of the intervention, and if anything changed for the intervention participants, for better and/or for worse, during the life of the intervention.

Feature image: Sheet music from the 1920s, in reaction to what was seen as women a....

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Comment by Paul Kariuki on December 3, 2015 at 22:38

Thanks Gillian for this post, one question, how is gender a process? All along I've known gender as a concept, mainly defined by gender power and social relations between men and women. Help me learn how it is a process. Thanks. Paul

Comment by susmita mukherjee on December 3, 2015 at 8:33

Thanks Gillian for posting this. While we programmers are struggling to adjust multiple empowerment and development frameworks practically on ground when the sufferings are contextually differing, its essential for us to have a good understanding of the gender based development perspective. We should call for normative changes rather than just sex based changes in the social construct. Inserting the concept of equality in real terms along with justice is paramount. Thanks

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