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Gender policy and practice: A more human(e) approach to bridging the gap?

Yes, another uplifting article about how we must do more on gender! Well, not quite. To be honest, this is more of a lengthy introduction to some preliminary findings from a 2015 survey (mentioned on this site here) of DEVCO/EEAS Gender Focal Points…and, yes, maybe a *few* reflections based on this and other recent sources on what makes making progress on gender such hard work.

Wordcloud of most frequently used words from Gender Focal Point Survey commentsWordcloud of most frequently used words from Gender Focal Point Survey comments

First, everyone knows gender is increasingly important for our development work – or at least we know that it should be. How do we know this? Because we have gender policies and strategies and action plans, which have in turn been turned into indicators, targets and checklists. As an institution, we also regularly make promises and issue warnings about the need to move faster on gender. And sometimes we succeed to do so! But in general, collectively we have failed (although we are not alone in this) to fully integrate gender perspectives in the design, implementation and M&E of EU development projects. Certainly, we have fallen far behind the targets we set ourselves – for example, in 2014, 28% of new proposals scored G-1 or G-2 on the OECD DAC Gender Marker, compared to the existing GAP target for 2015 of 80%.

Of course, we can ask whether those targets were too ambitious in the first place, but nevertheless we see a general note of alarm that is sounded by several reports studying the EU's work on gender:

And so on. It's depressing reading – and there are other past reports and studies which make similar conclusions (however, at time of writing we await the findings of a major study: Evaluation of EC Support to Gender Equality and Women Empowerment in Partner Countries). Of course, it's not ALL doom and gloom: we see improving coordination between the EU and its Member States, the increasing use of sex-disaggregated indicators and Gender Country Profiles, and increasing partnership with civil society and UN Women. There are emerging islands of good practice across the globe – (Morocco, Fiji, Mozambique etc). But the message is clear and stark: there remains a huge gap between EU policies and EU practice on gender.

Of course, we know that faster progress IS possible. A new Commission and new leadership from Commissioner Mimica and HR/VP Mogherini offers a new mandate for us to learn those lessons, internalise them and use them as a foundation for a new Gender Action Plan that – when implemented – could help better position the EU as a global champion of gender equality. This year we've also got the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and the 15th anniversary of the adoption of the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 – and the Sustainable Development Goals just round the corner. The timing couldn't be better to raise our game on gender.

So it seems the right time to call attention to evidence providing some insights as to WHY implementing our gender commitments is so difficult. The reports above can tell us about the bigger picture, but we now also have the results of an internal survey to help us, and in the language of real people doing real jobs.

Surveying the Gender Focal Point network

In early 2015, as part of the Task Force's preparatory work in creating the Gender Action Plan 2016-2020, we designed a survey and used it to collect feedback from DEVCO/EEAS' network of over 130 Gender Focal Points (95 responded). Most people reading this will know these focal points are responsible for co-ordinating and leading their Unit or Delegation's work on gender equality. Our questionnaire was designed to inform the new GAP by getting inputs on their remit, their level of knowledge and perhaps most of all, their perceptions about how gender work is valued and perceived. After all, these colleagues are the ones who are operationally closest to the EU's work on gender.

Our survey anonymously gathered 56 free-text comments. Below are a selection of these:

  • "Gender Focal Points should work on a full-time basis in EU Delegations"
  • "In a delegation with a high workload, gender is not considered a priority by the hierarchy , and therefore not by the staff."
  • "Although women's rights are a priority according to our human rights country strategy and gender equality is constantly on the agenda here, gender mainstreaming is always left to the last moment and I am rarely, if ever, consulted during programme design."
  • "The delegation staff restrictions have a disastrous impact not only on monitoring the implementation of projects, but even more on the time spent on "'gender mainstreaming'"
  • "For the gender focal point to accomplish its mission, the inclusion of this in the job description should be "imposed", which would define the% of time to spare."
  • "I had the opportunity to actively write the PIN of the 11th EDF of my delegation and so I managed to introduce a specific component to address the gender issue. I think the role of GFP is very important in programming is national and regional because there is no possible action without allocated funds."
  • "The hierarchy is not interested or motivated on the issue and plays the game when asked by headquarters."
  • "The gender focal point should have team leading/management responsibility. It is not possible for low key staff to influence political dialogue and to ensure that project managers take into sufficient account gender in their work."
  • "Usually the gender focal point role is given to staff working on social issues and gender becomes mainly a ''social stuff'' while other sections in delegations (infrastructure, economic etc ) feel exempted from thinking about gender mainstreaming.
  • "The role of GFP will be strengthened when gender mainstreaming will be one of the specific objective in the EU funded programmes and projects, but not when it is a cross cutting issue."
  • "Perhaps something worthwhile to consider that at regional levels, gender is very much neglected so far."
  • "There should be an annual forum to share experiences from HQs and Delegations and also know the new innovative ways of dealing of the issue gender equality"
  • "A project should not be approved at Brussels levels if there is not a clear gender analysis and engendered indicators".

As an evaluation specialist, what I find impressive about these quotes (this is not a scientific selection, by the way, BUT I tried my best to pick ones that cover a range of issues!) is the fact that it triangulates and resonates with many of the key issues raised by the mainstream reviews mentioned earlier, BUT in a much richer, more qualitative and more heartfelt way. After all, these are the colleagues who are struggling to put gender policy into practice - these are the ones whose concerns are practical and tangible rather than theoretical. They speak less of strategy and more of management attitudes, staffing constraints, the rules of 'the game', having enough time, training, having a complete job description, engaging with quality assurance mechanisms, and the tendency for colleagues to confine gender to 'social stuff' rather than the mainstream business of formulating infrastructure (including energy) or regional trade projects.

Chart on perceptions of mainstreamingChart on perceptions of mainstreaming

These issues are harder to talk about but no less important than the higher-level technical or strategic issues. It's also worth taking a closer look at the wordcloud above. This is comprised of the most frequently used words in the comments that respondents made in the survey. That these words - 'management', 'time', 'training', 'support', 'colleagues' – are used so often tells its own story.

A more formal report on the results of the survey will come out in due course. But based on the preliminary analysis, one imagines that the typical gender focal person is an experienced project manager, female, and a strong believer in the importance of gender equality. However, she is either far too busy doing other things or far too marginalised to be able to achieve progress across the office, and particularly isolated from colleagues working in non-social sectors.

For me, this (and one of the charts from the survey – pictured) suggests that the primary challenge is not the technical task of finding a sufficiently ambitious strategy or the right set of indicators (although this is important). Rather, it suggests that the (even tougher) challenge is primarily cultural and organisational, and that to accelerate and transform progress on gender equality, we must first critically examine the way we organise our work, our investment (time AND money) in building technical capacity and innovation, and perhaps even more importantly, the way we manage and incentivise our people to collaborate on gender mainstreaming. It's a tough challenge, but we can do it (I told you it was uplifting…)

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James McNulty
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19 March 2015

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