How can your organisation be more gender equal?

Published on 26 April 2016

Image of Becca Williams
Becca Williams

MA Gender and Development Student

IDS MA Gender and Development students Becca Williams and Prili Bebasari, reflect on the Sussex Development Lecture, Organisational Transformation with a Feminist Lens, on research that can change how organisations address issues of gender.

Becca Williams

At IDS, we spend a fair amount of time linking theory to practice. How do we translate the countless readings into a real effort ‘on the ground’? In the context of organisations, that idea can be our ability to question the organisation’s mission, vision, ideals about equality, and how they carry out that work. In the seminar “Organisational Transformation Through a Feminist Lens”, this concept has been taken one step further. Aruna Rao and Joann Sandler, both with years of experience working with organisations like BRAC and the UN, spoke of a deeper level of organisational work.

Through their Gender Analysis Framework, they are able to map out the forces that are within organisations and take into consideration not only how they work with target populations, but also how the organisations themselves are structured. The breadth and depth of this topic can be overwhelming and deeply personal. Our lives are intricately interwoven with our work; we find our passions strewn about the office, in the field, in the reports that we write. How do we map our understanding of organisations that may, as Aruna stated, “profess social justice but fail to practice it”? This framework takes a comprehensive approach to help us get at these deeply embedded forces that surround our very gendered experiences at work.

This framework demonstrates that change can happen across two spectrums spanning from the individual to the systemic, as well as from the formal to the informal. It allows us to question certain themes, such as the individual awareness or consciousness within members of the organisation that perpetuate unequal (or equal) dynamics among staff.

It takes a look at the resources available that can help or hinder efforts to create a truly feminist and egalitarian workplace – resources that go further than budgets and staff to include outside allies and concurring social movements. It then takes a look at the formal policies of such organisations – do they have policies that address gender inequality in the workplace, or do they have policies that promote equality on a global scale but fail to address their own inequities?

Lastly, there are what Aruna and Joann call “social norms and deep structures”, or those aspects of the organisation that are key to its stability or instability. For example, is there an accepted norm of impunity for workers in foreign contexts that can lead to a sense of masculine dominance, and perhaps even violence, in the field? These issues are crucial to understanding our role in the development context, both in terms of those for whom programmes and organisations are designed and in terms of the internal workings of the organisation itself.

Prili Bebasari

Participating in the Doing Gender workshop by Joanne and Aruna as compulsory module in my MA reminds me of experiences working in the elite government agency in my country, and the President’s ad hoc unit for national development monitoring. I couldn’t get a project manager position even though I was an expert in administrative tasks and knew the project very well. Instead, my office hired new staff for that position. They, all men, also conspired to keep me silent so I wouldn’t fight for my rights. Only after I listened to similar stories from female attendees at the lecture, I realised what hit me was the real life glass ceiling or deep structure: “collection of values, history, culture, and practices that form the normal and unquestioned way of working”. (Rao, A. et.al., 2016, p. 144).

Joanne and Aruna mentioned three characteristics of deep structure. First, it is hidden and taken for granted. My male colleague once asked “why do you want to study gender and development? Don’t you think women know get the same chance as men?” Our office hired an equal number of male and female staff (despite only one woman among four deputies). Hence, no one in my office saw the glass ceiling against female staff, or how the attitudes and jokes from male staff made female staff uncomfortable. Anti-harassment regulations are not seen as an important issue. Equality in numerical sense was enough for them.

Second, it is self-producing and resilient. In my case, there was no accountable staff recruitment and promotion from the beginning. Meanwhile, I failed to create a safe working space for my female interns who often became target of sexual harassment by male staff or civil servants at the Presidential Palace. It was hard to voice my distress when the HR staff were in the exclusive “core team” who didn’t even invite us the “satellite team” to the office retreat. Indeed, the deep structure was sustained by lack of accountability in staff recruitment and the inequalities among staff.

Third, there is high risk of transgression. I was lucky that all my male colleagues did was accuse me of being unprofessional, because fair promotion to be a project manager was my personal concern only. Yet in other cases, feminist warriors often receive threats or physical attack.

In my opinion, caution must be taken not to blame shy female staff who don’t speak up as it will perpetuate victim-blaming culture. They probably protect someone or themselves or have other solid reasons. It would also be interesting to analyse the framework to create safe environment for gender minority or non-binary people.

The Gender at Work Framework is certainly beneficial for our reflection but is it enough to simply recruit equal numbers of female/male staff or have a just have a regulation in place to protect staff from sexual harassment? Apparently, it is not.


Rao, A., Sandler, J., Kelleher, D., & Miller, C., Gender at Work: Theory and Practice for 21st Century Organizations (Routledge, 2016)