Book Review: Gender at Work: Theory and Practice for 21st Century Organizations

April 6, 2016

     By Duncan Green     

Gender at Work: Theory and Practice for 21st Century Organizations by Rao, Sandler, Kelleher and Miller, Routledge, 2016

This was another book that came to my rescue as I was struggling towards the finishing line on How Change Happens. In particular, it pulled together thinking about different kinds of power and change in a practical format for activists.

The book draws on 15 years of the ‘Gender at Work’ network of 30 gender and equality gurus and practitioners, with a cornucopia of case studies of attempts to promote gender equity in organizations from the global (UN Security Council, Amnesty) to the national (Moroccan Ministry of Finance) to the local (Dalit organizations in Uttar Pradesh).

Although the focus is on promoting change on gender rights within organizations, its uses go even wider.

The big idea is the ‘Gender at Work Analytical Framework’ for thinking about how change happens in any given context. It’s a standard 2×2 that locates change processes according to the nature of the institution in question (on a scale from informal to formal) and the locus of the change sought (ranging from individual to systemic).

The authors find that activists typically neglect the left hand side – the informal world. By reminding us to look at change in terms of all four quadrants, the framework stresses the need for work to happen at all levels (individual, community, formal politics, etc.) and it helps activists map who else is working on a given issue and identify gaps in the collective effort.

To use the framework, think about how the different aspects of the change process that you are considering fit into the different quadrants. Aspects of individuals’ access to resources, such as credit, or jobs, or health and education, belong in the top right quadrant; what is going on inside their heads – issues of awareness, confidence and ‘power within’, belong on the top left. At a systemic level, visible power exercised through laws and policies goes on the bottom right, but often, more informal institutions such as social norms play a significant role, and belong on the bottom left. Change processes will flow between the different quadrants, and activists’ attention should move from one to the another in response. The many facets of power (visible, hidden, invisible etc) permeate each quadrant, influencing how change happens.

Separate chapters then delve into each quadrant in more detail, again with loads of meaty case studies to illustrate.

The framework is used for ‘assessment, strategy development and mapping outcomes’ – i.e. a regular way to revisit your work, think about whether and how the system has changed, and adapt your intervention in response. The authors’ other ‘key ideas’ include:

  • ‘Accomplishments in one quadrant can be strategies for change in another. For example a gender policy (a lower right achievement) can be leveraged to obtain more resources for women’s organizations (an upper-right accomplishment), which may be invested in training local women in advocacy techniques (an upper-left change).
  • Sooner or later a successful change effort must come to grips with the social norms and deep structure issues of the bottom left quadrant.’

Those deep structures and their ‘pervasive influence’ is one of the big messages of the book. Whether in advocacy or changing your own organization, any number of clever laws, policies and communiqués will count for little until they confront the underlying structures of power that continuously generate and regenerate inequalities within organization and in the world at large

In the final chapter, the authors wade into the current debates on results and theories of change.

‘One very popular theory of change is that gender equality can be achieved (or at least advanced) by well-designed, measurable interventions that accomplish goals in the short to medium term. Successes are scaled up and replicated.’

In response the authors call for a ‘more nuanced understanding of how change for gender equality happens. Many of the important changes (consciousness change and change of deep structures) are difficult  to measure, happen in unexpected time frames and the outcomes are unpredictable.’

My only criticism is that the book if anything undersells itself – dull cover, high price (£29 paperback) and some fairly stodgy NGOspeak writing. But the ideas are great, and relevant way beyond work on gender rights work – I hope it gets the wide readership it deserves.