Opening up the gender conversation

Françoise Pissart

Does using a gender lens strengthen a foundation’s ability to effect social change in their communities and beyond? Yes, it can… but the focus should not be limited to funding projects targeting women and girls. An exclusively female-oriented approach does not acknowledge that men and boys are part of the solution for the myriad challenges we face today.

Foundations working for social change should be careful about systematically linking ‘giving to women and girls’ to a ‘gender approach’. To some in the sector, a gender approach implies supporting ‘women’s organizations’ – which many European foundations do not wish to have as the focus of their grantmaking. By focusing on women and girls as a flagship, foundations risk missing many other ways to tackle gender gaps and lose the opportunity to use the gender approach as a way to increase their impact.

Sex and gender

Ever since the 1980s, the use of the word ‘gender’ highlights the fact that female and male roles are not defined by sex (ie biological characteristics). These roles develop differently depending on social, cultural and economic situations. Gender relations are deeply rooted in culture; they are defined by society, which determines activities, status, psychological characteristics, etc.

The concept of gender is thus a social construct that takes into account the biological differences between sexes. ‘Gender’ defines the differences between men and women and the inequalities in their roles, depending on the socioeconomic, historical, political, culture and religious context of different societies.

Because culture creates identities for each sex, stereotypes abound in our societies. Such stereotypes separate – and hurt – both women and men, trapping them in deterministic boxes. It is not the differences that are the issue – it is situations of inequality and dependence that are built up around these differences and the fact that they are often artificial and stereotypical. Importantly, these differences can be a source of value, creativity and diversity.

Actions for social change

Emphasizing that adopting a gender approach is not exclusively about giving to women and girls (through women’s organizations) does not mean women have achieved equality. Far from it. Despite the transformation in women’s legal rights, educational achievements and participation in public life over the past decades, there is much work to be done. The full and equal participation of women in the social, economic and political arena is fundamental to democracy and justice.

However, actions for social change should recognize the specificities and the differences between men and women and girls and boys – differences in their needs, roles and aspirations. These differences can be taken into account by adopting a gender-based approach that focuses on both females and males.

For example, considering the increasing risk of poverty among single parents (the majority of whom are women) leads us to focus on the difficult relationship men experiencing social exclusion have with their parental role. It also highlights how women can exclude men from responsibilities for their children’s education. Boys and men are increasingly confronted with challenges emerging from recent societal trends that affect them more negatively, for example school performance, homelessness, juvenile delinquency and unemployment.

Moving beyond stereotypes

While recognizing that women’s inequality is a critical issue in our societies, it is imperative to move beyond the stereotypical portrayal of women as victims, or poor and disadvantaged. In addition to supporting the important work of civil society organizations, foundations should promote and give more visibility to the important role women play at all levels in their communities. Even if women hold far fewer key positions than men in the worlds of business, culture, finance, science, economics, sports, politics, peace and social justice, foundations should reach out to these women as role models and allies.

Many male leaders in the philanthropic sector promote a gender-based approach. However, more female leadership would bring added value to the sector. There is certainly room for improvement at the European level. Progress is being made, albeit slowly. For example, for the first time in 37 years, King Baudouin Foundation’s (KBF’s) board of governors is chaired by a woman, Baroness Françoise Tulkens, vice-president of the European Court of Human Rights.

Mainstreaming gender

By using a gender lens and embedding gender into KBF’s strategy as well as the design and management of projects, we take an approach that deals with both women and men. Mainstreaming gender into our projects means:

•    looking comparatively at the situation of men and women;
•    identifying sources of inequality between women and men and seeking to reduce them;
•    involving and giving visibility to competent women (as authors, speakers, members of boards and juries);
•    recognizing the needs and realities of both men and women without resorting to stereotypical images or reinforcing inequalities;
•    raising awareness about gender mainstreaming among grantees and partners.

We have found that incorporating a gender-based perspective into initiatives at all phases of a project can result in greater effectiveness and quality. As an impact-driven foundation, this approach helps us to achieve our objectives more successfully and to make better use of available resources and skills.

In fact KBF does often support women’s organizations, not as part of a specific strategy of ‘supporting women and girls’ but within our different domains of action: social justice, migration, development and local engagement. KBF’s grantmaking strategy relies on juries which select the best proposals, and women’s organizations are often selected.

Strategies for foundations

While women’s economic empowerment, political participation and leadership is critical, we cannot achieve healthy economies and societies  without the full participation and engagement of both women and men.

One approach is to target women and girls or boys and men in the areas of legal rights, equal opportunities and affirmative action with a view to reducing inequalities. The background to this approach is based on the principle of ‘intersectionality’. Inequalities in our societies are often the result of a combination of several factors: gender and ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic disadvantage, gender and age. Our aim is to identify, and address, the points at which these different forms of discrimination intersect. For example, applying the principle of intersectionality to gender and ethnicity reveals a problem with young boys and educational performance. Do the same analysis with migrant women, and labour force participation emerges as an important issue.

Another approach is to work with women and men on stereotyping, prejudice, perceptions about skills and social roles, including family, community and political life.  For example, KBF-commissioned research showed climate change policies affect men and women differently in Europe just as much as in developing countries. So, KBF’s climate change project consulted external experts, distributed a gender memo among stakeholders, and ensured the issue was reflected in the recommendations.

Diversity can be encouraged by tackling discrimination in general or by showcasing the value of diversity in society, ie making the business case for diversity. Diverse societies are more innovative and make better use of available skills and resources. For example, KBF’s leadership project was attracting more men then women. By paying attention to the communication strategy, a gender-balanced selection has been achieved.

In addition, instead of counting the percentage of women who benefit from programmes targeted at them, or measuring how much a foundation gives to women and girls, why not apply a gender analysis and evaluate how they strengthen or weaken sex-related stereotypes?

Some ways forward

We must recognize that foundations, particularly European foundations, are not leaders in the domain of gender. Rather, we want to encourage the philanthropic sector to move forward. The main objective is impact. If social change requires targeting boys and men, then we should do it. Likewise if women and girls need specific attention.

Do not relegate gender to merely a politically correct issue, for example by appointing a manager responsible for gender and putting her in a corner – or by associating ‘gender’ with women as victims. Engage your foundation as a whole and at all levels – CEO, board and staff.

Finally, we need to adapt our expectations of short-term, measurable impact. We cannot change tradition and culture with just one project or programme. In combating stereotypes, the path of change is a very long journey.

Françoise Pissart is director at King Baudouin Foundation. Email

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