Ask anyone who works in international development about the challenges that come with improving peoples’ lives half-way across the globe and you’ll probably get an earful about funding, difficult collaborations, weak infrastructure, etc. The list could go on! In my opinion, however, there is no challenge in international development greater than the gender challenge.

Almost all international development aid must integrate a gender component into the work to ensure that aid investments and benefits are equally distributed between men and women. According to USAID’s Policy on Gender Equality and Female Empowerment, integrating gender “involves identifying and addressing gender inequalities during strategy and project design, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation. Since the roles and power relations between men and women affect how an activity is implemented, it is essential that project managers address these issues on an ongoing basis.”

After researching gender in international development for a couple of years now, I can assure you this is easier said than done.

To better understand the challenges of gender research in international development, I asked my supervisor, Dr. Maria Elisa Christie, director of the Women and Gender in International Development at OIRED, what she thinks are the biggest obstacles regarding gender work and how we can overcome them.

Maria Elisa in Cambodia

Maria Elisa (right) relaxes with a farmer in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

“Women don’t get involved in our projects as often as men. . . and there are many reasons why,” explains Christie.  Among researchers, “there is sometimes a mentality where they ‘want to speak with farmers,’ but don’t realize that women are farmers also, even if the household only identifies the husband as the farmer.” This perception can be particularly constraining when it comes to including women in trainings and successfully implementing interventions. “When there is a meeting or training, usually only one person is invited for each household,—and this is usually the husband or male farmer.”

Regarding gender equity in research teams, the struggle to include women is not necessarily participation, but rather experience and education. “While we encourage our research teams to have an equal number of men and women,” says Christie, “the fact is, in the US as well as in the countries where we work, there are fewer women in many of the sciences that we work in, such as soil science and entomology.”

So how do we overcome these barriers? “Well for one, invite the women,” says Christie. “Women are usually interested and will come if they are invited. There are obstacles though, even if they are invited. Sometimes men don’t want them to come, and the women usually have so many household chores that they feel they can’t come.” But researchers can consider factors that will increase the likelihood of women’s participation. These include picking a venue that is not far from women’s homes, and conduct trainings of short duration over a longer period of time (such as two-hour trainings once a week for a month) versus trainings of long duration over a short time period (such as four-hour trainings every day for one week).

“One of the things that gender researchers have known for years, which is rather simple,” Christie says, “is picking a time and place that make workshops and trainings accessible to women, which might differ from men.” Researchers also need to be aware that some women will not participate in mixed groups, a custom Christie ran into during her research in Bangladesh and Indonesia.

“When men and women don’t meet together, it is especially important to have female trainers and hold events for women in addition to those for men. Luckily, we had women scientists in those two countries to help with the women’s training.”

It is also important to have a topic that is a priority for women. “If we’re talking about a crop that is under men’s control, women may be less likely to have any interest. We need to listen to women’s voices and see what they want.” Christie explains one way to get their input is to work directly with women’s organizations. These groups provide women the opportunity to gain skills, confidence, and leadership positions.

Christie also stresses that researchers should use participatory methods such as focus groups and interactive exercises to encourage farmer participation. By using these methods, “we can learn about men’s and women’s knowledge, which goes beyond a general understanding of farmers’ crops, pests, and soils. These methods can further our understanding of whether interventions are appropriate for a certain area, and for whom they are appropriate.”

Maria Elisa in Mali

Maria Elisa conducts a mapping exercise of the tomato value chain in Mali.

To keep us humble and our egos appropriately-sized, Christie has one final recommendation. “There are gender experts, both men and women around the world who are proficient in addressing gender issues and reaching women. It is important for us to not to come in with our own agenda, but to work with local women’s associations and  gender experts in our collaborating institutions who know the issues, the culture, and the interests of women in the places we are working.”

Easy, right? Even though Christie’s strategies seem relatively simple, there is more to them than meets the eye. If everyone took these recommendations into account, many more people would be educated and fed. Maybe one day these challenges will be in the past, but until then, Christie has her work cut out for her!