Where thinking and working politically meets gender: tactics that have worked

May 17, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

Guest post by  Jane Lonsdale and Joanne Choe. This post was first published on the DevPolicy blog

Questions that repeatedly come up when supporting reform programs include: how do we work with local politics to influence change without reinforcing existing elitism and capture of power? How do we “dance with the system” whilst at the same time trying to change the system? When do we go with the grain and when do we not? Can we do both in parallel?

Thinking and working politically can achieve results, in areas such as policy influence or social accountability, when engaging with formal and informal power to build consensus amongst powerholders. But it’s too often all rather male and elite. How can we go from simply fitting in with the system to changing it to work for women and other marginalised groups?

Working with so many forms of power clearly requires the smartest of tactics. Here we present some ideas that have come from practitioners who are very much thinking and working politically on gender on a daily basis.

Create informal spaces: Much reform happens around the edges of formal space. Even when we can get to the point of women’s inclusion in committees or meeting invites, it doesn’t tackle the deals done and positions agreed before the meeting, in beer houses and on the golf course for example. Creation of informal parallel women’s spaces can shift where the underlying power lies. Women lawyers in one Pacific country initially began meeting as a group for morning walks to create a parallel informal space. They became more visible as a group convening for a healthy activity. Once the male lawyers saw the women getting organised, and sensed the power that these groups can generate and exert, the men asked to join the morning walks.

Use a Trojan horse: When working in a sector where gender equality progress is slow, such as infrastructure, first work on a promising relationship and the easier reform wins, then gradually use this relationship and traction to open up a conversation on reforms that progress inclusion. Language can make the difference when getting into difficult conversations and spaces: for example, women in leadership becomes “inclusive leadership”, rights-based approaches become “people-centered development”, and inclusion concepts become “modern leadership” concepts. Working politically means being pragmatic with the use of language, at least in the beginning, and being aware of how terminology can alienate the very group you are trying to persuade.

Engage people in research processes: Who you engage in a research process matters for future influence. Involving the right people in a baseline study, for example, secures their interest in changing gender dynamics and becomes a strategic way to prepare future partners and champions to work with. Inviting those you want to influence to be part of the research process itself, so they participate in data collection and analysis, helps generate their ownership of the research findings and incentivises them to be part of the solution. For instance, inviting Ministry of Education officials to be part of the group that looks at the data collected on a survey about school place sexual harassment means those officials see firsthand the data, personal accounts and stories of those affected by sexual harassment. This affects them emotionally and makes them become champions of measures to address the problem – more so than if they were presented with the findings in a polished report.

Use positive expressions of culture: Culture is often labelled as a driver of exclusion, however, finding and talking about positive expressions of culture and faith with powerholders in the local political economy can ensure traction. For example, mapping gender equality concepts to religious and traditional expressions may help to gain validation from national cultural leaders such as MPs and religious leaders. This is not without risks and needs careful thought as to how best to elevate positive culture without validating other harmful cultural practices. But if the right balance can be struck it can create powerful entry points and alliances that would otherwise have faced blockages.

Coalitions with visibility: When negative events happen, such as violence against women, it can be very difficult for one person or organisation to call it out without significant personal risk. A coalition approach provides cover and more voice, so that over time calling out abuses of power and privilege can become more of a norm. In male-dominated coalitions, work on women’s inclusion can usefully get us a seat at the table in building alliances and positions. Wherever possible, positioning women to represent or co-represent a coalition in key meetings with powerholders increases women’s visibility.

Work with national and international commitments: Offering support to governments on meeting their international commitments can be a smart tactic. Working within existing policy frameworks and showing how your work advances locally determined commitments and plans can create good will, which can be leveraged to go further. Human rights architecture is not always used to its fullest, so mechanisms such as CEDAW (The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women) and periodic review processes can provide a legitimate way to mobilise support and to hold governments to account on gender equality.

Where to from here? While this work to shift power may seem big and difficult, it is clearly possible. A long-term perspective and a portfolio approach, which mixes long horizon strategies with some quicker wins to demonstrate momentum, is essential. Learning and sharing is also much needed for inspiration and ideas. We would love to hear what has worked for others. Have similar tactics worked for you? What are your top tips?

May 17, 2023
Duncan Green


  1. Hi Jane, Joanne and Duncan,

    Thanks for this post – really thought-provoking but practical insights.

    Often when it comes to shifting discriminatory / exclusive gender norms, we can get quite focused at the micro-level, and put aside the bigger picture, more macro institutions and structures of power that shape all of our lives. So it’s really helpful to read this post.

    Here at Practical Action we recently documented a 15+ year journey of working with the government of Kenya to integrate gender and social inclusion into their national energy policy and programmes.

    It took a lot of ongoing tactical but strategic influencing. But progress was made, and the Ministry have gone from a single fixation on the big capital-intensive infrastructure of energy generation and provision (number of new power stations built, kms of new power cable laid.. etc), to a more nuanced perspective of engaging with and responding to the gendered energy needs and priorities of women and men.

    Strategies included: building coalitions with local actors, sharing research findings, leveraging international agreements (in this case Ban Ki Moon’s Sustainable Energy for All), playing the long game. Some of which resonate with your lessons above and the wider thinking in the ‘thinking and working politically’ movement.

    We tried to synthesise the journey and the lessons learnt in a short paper available here:

    It may be of interest.

    You asked at the end of your post for top tips. I think one important aspect of our experience was not stopping at the influencing. We found that once we had that engagement and commitment onthe issue (including in a formal govt policy), ministry officials still valued our support on ‘how to put it into practice’. For us as Practical Action at least, I think think this point about shifting from the ‘why’ and ‘what’ to the ‘how’ is really important; we shouldn’t assume that the how is easy orstraightforward in this area of redressing social and gender inequalities, our support is required and valued.


    1. Many thanks for sharing your reflections and link to the paper George, I’ll certainly read it. Agree on playing the long game – that balance between short term gains within the system and a long-term approach to changing the system, so at a practical level working through the trade-offs in short term results v systems change, then how to come up with an approach that can speak to both agendas. Your last point on continued support to partners with ‘how’, agree yes really important. Its definitely not straightforward – but it is possible!

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