Can Gender Advisors Make Change in Development Projects?

Can people, working in development bureaucracies, push for radical social change and earn a living?

Gender advisors are the professionals in international development organizations tasked with incorporating gender mainstreaming into development projects. They can be employed on individual project contracts in aid-recipient countries or as full-time staff in donor countries overseeing the inclusion of gender in multiple projects.

The big question becomes: As gender experts inside development organizations grapple with bureaucracy, do they succeed in bringing change in feminist directions?

The Research

In my research, I completed interviews with 60 development professionals involved in agricultural development projects. Of these, 19 of them were gender advisors, many of whom spoke about this moment of women in development programming.

Gender advisors in the donor country noted that they no longer need to campaign for the inclusion of women. “Advocacy work is done,” they said. At the same time, they noted that people feel that gender is “already done” with their coworkers asking them, “didn’t we already do this?” 

One “gender enthusiast,” serving a development organization in the Global North, said she has to work hard to incorporate gender in her organization:

The devil is in the details. Staffing allocations, job descriptions, performance reviews, budget lines, the policies, how much time the vice president makes time for it, ‘Can you get that bullet point in the annual letter?’ I fought every single year in budget meetings for the line items. Every single year, I pushed myself into an executive meeting to give them a briefing… You have to be proactive and push it. Gender is a combination of not-people’s-most-exciting-priority and for people its passé: ‘Shouldn’t we have already fixed it?’ They’re so tired of it, so tired of gender training.

This gender enthusiast and others in the donor country were quick to point out incorporating gender into projects is stymied by workplace resistance. She alludes to the overarching bureaucratic context of working in development organizations to ensure resources are dedicated to the inclusion of women in development projects and notes that her coworkers in the donor country are tired of talking about gender. In order to try to figure out what is happening inside development organizations, I studied one important element of bureaucracy: measurement.

Measurement as a Tool for Power and Control

Now measurement practices may, at first glance, sound boring. But before you hit snooze on performance metrics and indicators, remember that Joan Acker (2006) once said, “Struggles for power and control are often struggles over bureaucratic tools.”

My research with gender advisors, involved in a large agricultural development initiative with stated intentions to empower women, found this statement to be true in paradoxical ways.

In international development projects implementation is often measured in very simple counts, such as “number of people trained.” And Global South gender advisors attempt to leverage these simple counts not as measurement tools, but as bureaucratic tools to force their reluctant coworkers to help with gender mainstreaming. 

Inside bureaucracies, employees are drawn into the dominant modes of acting and thinking within their organizations. Yet my research demonstrates that gender advisors aren’t buying into simple metrics as meaningful measurements. Although they advocate strongly for greater inclusion of “gender” in the quantitative measurement system, they simultaneously find indicators wholly inadequate for measuring change in women’s lives.

Gender advisors want to know how development works, they want to know why women are disadvantaged, and view women as nested within numerous structural barriers—something simple metrics do not capture. Gender advisors voiced wanting grounded, sustainable change that means, for example, if a woman is elected to a local community group leadership position, she will still be serving as a leader a year later. Instead, they felt that because the projects did not address women’s needs more holistically, women’s engagement and benefits were limited.

But by advocating for greater inclusion in the quantitative measurement system, these gender advisors reproduce a focus on metrics that do not serve their measurement interests, but do serve their bureaucratic interests.

How does utilizing simple metrics as bureaucratic tools enable and constrain the actions of people who may have a drive and passion for systemic change?

Due to the gendered nature of the organization, these gender advisors strategically promote metrics in an attempt to garner more staff involvement in gender mainstreaming.

Is measurement a smart battleground for social change? What is gained and lost by engaging metrics as bureaucratic tools to overcome the gendered workplace? For more info, read my forthcoming article about the everyday workplace realities for gender advisors. What do you think these gender advisors should do? 

Emily Springer is a PhD Candidate in Sociology and an affiliate of the Interdisciplinary Center for Global Change at University of Minnesota. Her research focuses on gender, organizations, development, and measurement. Her scholarly work is informed by her experiences as a development professional. Dialogue with the author through Twitter @Springer4Soc.

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