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Gender at Work > News  > Walking the talk: Think tanks and gender – What did we learn?

Walking the talk: Think tanks and gender – What did we learn?

By Carol Miller and David Keller

Editors’ note:  Walking the talk: Think tanks and gender is the last blog in the series.  The 14 blogs, shared over the past seven weeks, emerged from the “writeshop” organized by Gender at Work and International Development Research Centre’s (IDRC) Think Tank Initiative (TTI), and hosted by ASIES in Guatemala City on March 2019.  In this final blog, the series’ editors, Carol Miller and David Kelleher from Gender at Work, synthesize key learning from the project.

Shortly after launching this blog series, Gender at Work participated in Women Deliver 2019 Conference held in Vancouver and attended by over 8,000 policymakers, researchers and activists from around the world.  Several sessions, including three co-hosted by IDRC, explored the theme of gender and research.  We were intrigued by how many of the ideas discussed at Women Deliver had been discussed in the TTI Gender Action Learning Project (GALP) and in the writeshop.

One of the aims of the writeshop held in Guatemala was to explore the potential of storytelling as a tool for individual and collective reflection, sense-making and consolidation of learning at the close of the Gender Action Learning Project (GALP).

Skillfully coached by Ethan Gilsdorf, writeshop participants from the five think tanks crafted their fabulous blogs which are, in turn, poignant, passionate, funny and informative.  If you haven’t read the previous blogs in this series, we invite you to take a look.

In this concluding blog, we share a few ideas on what was learned from the GALP and from Women Deliver that can contribute to broader discussions about building stronger enabling environments for gender and transformative research in think tanks.

Engaging individual researchers as gender champions

Among the themes discussed at Women Deliver was the role of researchers in the research process, highlighting the need for researchers to explore their own perspectives on gender, their positionality and their ability to support transformative change through research.

Looking back over the blogs of the past seven weeks, we are even more convinced of the role that storytelling can play in supporting researchers to reflect on their own experiences of gender and power inequalities, and to make sense of these experiences in a way that is both empowering and transformative, for themselves, their institutions and their research.

Working with both women and men

Another key theme at the Women Deliver sessions was the need to work with both women and men on gender equality.  Again, the stories in our series, drawing on experiences in the five GALP think tanks, have highlighted effective ways of working with women and men researchers, particularly the need to value and nurture young researchers, and ensure that their voices and perspectives are heard.

Another indication of a shift is that many of the blogs were written by young researchers.  There is clearly a change in confidence and capacity to understand why gender is relevant and how it can be embedded in research.  Hearing their stories is encouraging. 

Building cultures of equality within think tanks

For some time we have been aware of the importance of organizational culture and how it supports or denies equality.  The Women Deliver sessions on gender and research were also clear on this, with one speaker reminding us that, “It is not enough to have more women, we need to change the research institutions themselves”.  As Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg, Director of African Women in Agricultural Research and Development, put it: this requires us to “change the rules of the game”.

Easier said than done, yet participants in the TTI GALP work took steps in this direction.  Engaging their colleagues in ongoing discussions of what gender responsive research would look like, developing protocols for gender in research, doing a gender audit and conducting research with a gender perspective, all contributed to shifting their organizations toward cultures that valued and could act on gender equality.  Crucial to that effort was the sense of solidarity and peer support with others facing similar struggles in their organizations.

Organizational cultures, like people, learn by doing.  Participants in the GALP program acted in ways that modelled a more gender sensitive culture.  They involved management and their colleagues in this process, then they brought their learning to real projects such as a transport study, climate project or parliamentary budget discussion.

Embedding gender in the research process

These accomplishments are not without challenges.  As the blogs have highlighted, there is often not enough time and money allotted to ensuring that gender is integrated throughout the research process.  Gender advocates often find themselves trying to fit research on gender into already full schedules and budgets.  Still, as we have seen in this series, there are many positive examples of efforts to ensure that gender is considered a key dimension in research.

Typically, different research teams are at different levels of readiness.  This doesn’t mean that nothing can be done if readiness is low, but as we have seen in the stories shared in this blog series, it does mean that what can be accomplished is conditioned by the experience, values and interests of researchers and other think tank staff.  Also important is the political and social environment outside the think tank.  How gender issues are framed, what case can be made for relevance to think tanks’ fields of research, who is making the case for gender, all contribute to how gender is taken up in research. 

Many of the stories shared by GAL participants pointed to the value of collaborative approaches to integrating gender, using carefully designed strategies to advance collective understanding within think tanks.  Building the knowledge and attitudes of researchers on gender contributes to uptake of gender analysis tools, gender policies, and gender and research protocols.

We are grateful to have been able to work with such thoughtful and committed researchers and it has been a true pleasure to be part of this storytelling process.  There is still much to be done to support think tanks and other organizations to “walk the talk” on gender, but as we have seen throughout this series, positive steps are being taken in the right direction.

These are the author’s personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Gender at Work or IDRC’s Think Tank Initiative.

Carol Miller works with Gender at Work as a Knowledge Specialist and David Keller is a Co-Founder and Senior Associate at Gender at Work.

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