By Alice Zhang, MPA/ID student

group of people
Author Alice Zhang (second from right, bottom row) and seminar facilitator Mara Bolis (second from right, top row) with students from CID's "Bringing a Gender Lens to Development Policy and Practice" seminar.

Women around the world lack the same access to opportunities, resources, and representation as men, reinforcing their relative disadvantages to live a flourishing life. Although they account for half of the global population, women represent more of the world’s poorest citizens and two-thirds of its illiterate adults.  

I was fortunate to grow up amongst women who shaped my perspective on the importance of educating and empowering women. My mother is a first-generation immigrant working in STEM who braved a path for our family and herself in the workplace. At the start of my development career, I lived with a strong single mother while working to scale mostly female-led savings groups in the hillsides of Lima, Peru. While participating in CID’s Global Internship Program this past summer in Kigali, Rwanda, I saw how a post-genocide country could rise economically and socially by including women at the forefront of its development agenda. Although gender inequities still exist, Rwanda, a small, low-income, and landlocked country is the first in the world to achieve female majority in its parliament at 61%.

When women work, they invest 90 percent of their income back into their families, compared with 35 percent for men. However, despite having worked in women-led spaces and development programs serving women as a vulnerable population, I wanted to learn more to bring an authentic and effective gender lens to my future development work. This is one key reason I am pursuing my Masters in Public Administration in International Development at Harvard Kennedy School, and why I enrolled in the CID seminar "Bringing a Gender Lens to Development Policy and Practice" led by research fellow Mara Bolis. This seminar was held during the fall of 2023 and is part of CID's Road to GEM24 series on gender and development.

CID Seminar: Moving Along the Gender Equity Continuum

As future policymakers and international program designers, I have to ask: how can we push the envelope to lift up women and create a more equal world? Beyond just checking boxes and requiring gender-based quotas, how do we ensure programs incorporate women’s lived experiences and voices?

Mara Bolis’ seminar on "Bringing a Gender Lens to Development Policy and Practice" was a valuable starting point that painted a holistic picture of how to think about gender in a default-male world. Over the course of five sessions, we discussed how to move from gender-unequal spaces to gender-aware, responsive, and ultimately gender-transformative spaces that address the root causes of inequalities. Although women deserve equal rights as men as a theory of justice, we talked about how the economic argument of advocating for women’s participation in the labor market as a “net benefit” could still be effective for change, especially when dealing with those in power that may not believe in empowering women from a values standpoint.

In our own small group reflections, we acknowledged that often there is a desire to do more gender sensitive work, but that individuals or organizations do not know where to start, find the process slow or expensive, the conversations uncomfortable, or simply cannot see how gender is relevant. We discussed potential ways to address this resistance, and how gender disaggregated data could be a powerful first step for organizations to simply become aware of potential unintended disparities in their impact.

gender at work framework
Source: Gender at Work

At the same time, I reflected on how gender equality cannot be achieved by well-intentioned individuals alone. I found the Gender at Work tool helpful in analyzing the individual and systemic context and informal and formal rules that a development context must contend with to ensure success for gender-mainstreamed initiatives. We discussed the case of India’s revamped NREGA temporary work program that aimed to include more women – including its blind spots, successes, and failures.

I was struck by the creativity of some initiatives to work around systemic barriers that prevent gender mainstreaming. For example, we looked at a case trying to increase female entrepreneurs’ financial inclusion in Guatemala, in a culture where women are often dependent on men financially or seen as threats if they do bring in income. In the intervention, the program designers gave funds to the women in a secured bank account that allowed their money to grow, preventing any withdrawals before hitting a reserve minimum. This intervention protected the women's financial security by eliminating the risk of theft or usurpation from any unsupportive men in their lives.

The lunchtime seminar was filled with women from all corners of the world, as well as some men who counted themselves as allies and wanted to better consider gender in their own work. I felt a sense of both empowerment and gratitude, knowing I was surrounded by a group of earnest, inquisitive, and dedicated leaders who wanted to ensure women would be at the forefront of future policy and development work. Only when we ensure freedom and equality for women, can we truly flourish. After all, as Pakistani female education activist Malala Yousafzai once powerfully said, “we cannot all succeed when half of us are held back.”

Headshot of Alice Zhang

Alice Zhang is an MPA in International Development student at the Harvard Kennedy School with an interest in financial inclusion, public-private sector partnerships, and the impact of urbanization and migration on future economic development.

Road to GEM
The 2024 Road to GEM features a series of important conversations on gender in the lead-up to CID's annual Global Empowerment Meeting. GEM24: Breaking Barriers for Women and Girls, will be held on May 1-2, 2024 at Harvard Kennedy School.
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