Closing the gender divide

In a conversation moderated by Iris Steenkamp PhD, Nanjia Sambuli – one of BBC’s 100 Inspiring & Influential Women of 2019 and eminent expert on the digital gender divide, Yasmin Madan – Director of Programs at Co-Impact, and Doreen Ndishabandi – Director at One Acre Fund, discussed practical lessons and insights from their work in reducing gender inequality in low and middle income countries. The event was organized by the Social Impact Club at London Business School (LBS), in collaboration with the Wheeler Institute for Business and Development and in partnership with the WiB Club at LBS, Africa Club at LBS, Said Business School and Judge Business School.

The UN states that at the current rate of change, the global gender gap will not close for another 136 years. Globally, persistent inequalities limit women’s access to economic and political power, particularly in low to middle income countries. This has serious implications – women experience lower agency, control and life satisfaction than men; and as a result, women aged 25 – 34 are 25% more likely than men to live in extreme poverty. It is therefore urgent and critical that we build systems – across education, healthcare, politics – to focus on strengthening the power of women, and that all organizations and sectors have a role to play in advancing progress toward gender equality.

Making government resources effective and inclusive is the first port of call

Madan, speaking to her work at Co-Impact, emphasized that no matter what philanthropy and private funding spends on services, it will never match the resources the Government has. These resources go far beyond the typical institutional or financial resources that come to mind, but include factors such as public workforce, infrastructure design, public financing and regulatory mechanisms, which are all essential in creating large-scale, long-term investments. The first hurdle is recognizing that our current systems are designed inequitably – women and girls have worse outcomes than men and boys, outcomes which are amplified when they overlap with other types of discrimination – race, class, caste etc. As an example, labour force participation in South Asia has stagnated – even decreasing in India – despite the billions of dollars governments are investing to drive participation. Understanding how to amend public services toward improving gender equality requires us to understand the inherent power structures behind the system: who has the voice at the table, who makes decisions and who sets the rules of the game.  

COVID-19 has highlighted the fault lines within the current system more glaringly than ever before, with women and girls literally falling through these cracks. In the past year, we have seen increasing numbers of women leaving the workforce, significantly increased burdens of unpaid care, higher rates of violence and scant inclusion of women’s needs in the national agenda. Creating systems change to improve these outcomes requires realignment of private and public resources and leadership by undertaking a comprehensive analysis and repackaging of the power dynamics and structural barriers at play.

Stakeholder interaction is essential to drive effective, sustainable and scalable change

Ndishabandi echoed the power of stakeholder partnerships in her work at One Acre Fund, emphasizing that for many non-Government organisations, partnering with other stakeholders and governments is a learning curve that is constantly being refined – there is no ‘correct’ way to partner, and effecting change often requires multiple stakeholder interactions. In Rwanda, One Acre Fund partners with government programs to support ~40,000 farmer promoters through the creation of gender equitable training materials, and has 20 staff seconded to support this system in performance management. At the same time, they partner with Co-Impact in driving a joint nationwide gender transformation campaign which aims to shape positive gender norms around activities, and more fairly distribute benefits associated with key agriculture productivity factors by leveraging these farmer promoters. In the nationwide system of 40,000 farmer promoters, only ~20% are women. One Acre Fund is aiming to raise that to 50% by leveraging public infrastructure and private donors to create sustained impact, hoping to a) increase the number of women training and leading communities; b) change and reinforce community views on who can serve as a leader; and c) create a shift in how training is designed, challenging gender norms by depicting women in traditionally male activities.

You cannot solve a problem that you cannot see

Madan stated that when the system finally works for the last mile, then it will have for the first hundred. She provided an example of one of Co-Impact’s partnerships with the Foundation for Ecological Security in India that works to restore the ecological rights of the commons. More than 73% of rural women are farmers, and more than 65% of livestock keepers are women – however, less than 15% of landowners are women, meaning they are left out of crucial land management decisions. Co-Impact is assisting the Foundation to bring a gendered lens to resource allocation, and ensuring that 30,000 women leaders are included in local government institutions to increase visibility, share of voice, agency and ultimately – power. Co-Impact is also involved with the implementation of women leaders at the Board level, ensuring gender equity is visible throughout the organization.   

Double clicking on data and unpacking social norms are other methods used to uncover unseen issues. Ndishabandi spoke to the importance of disaggregating data and understanding the impact of experiences in her work at One Acre Fund, Madan also spoke to re-wiring social gender expectations and the measuring changes to these as outputs, such as increased agency or power. Sambuli seconded the importance of unpacking the perspectives of all stakeholders – including power-holders – advocating for creating space for people to unload their assumptions, acknowledge where problems could arise, and address them going forward, making gender inequity more visible.

Inequitable gender norms are a root cause of poverty, but we have an opportunity to shape an agricultural system that is pro-women and works for farmers  

Ndishabandi has worked with Madan on behalf of her organisation One Acre Fund in Rwanda to undertake a gender audit and implement more of a gender lens in their programmatic work. By undertaking this analysis, One Acre Fund found that women have less control of market decisions or use of income than men, which constrains their roles in both investments and consumption. Moreover, they are severely underrepresented in the agricultural regulatory space or in accessing land rights and have greater limits on their paid work potential vis-à-vis men. The World Bank estimates that by 2039, 90% of the world’s poor will be in rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa where farming is dominant. Agriculture is an area that remains highly gender inequitable. Women have unequal access to every productivity factor, and as a result, produce 13-25% less than men per acre; however, we also know that once women have equal access to productivity factors, they can produce similarly to men. One Acre Fund sees an opportunity to shape a gender equitable agricultural system that that levels the playing field for women and is responsive to extreme global poverty. Ndishabandi notes that “we will not make as much progress if we continue to leave women behind.” Financial inclusion was cited as just one example of how to bring women into the fold – by providing women access to credit, we can give women greater financial independence, and see communities benefitting from financial inclusion through increased spending on education and health. Ndishabandi spoke of a Ugandan farmer named Jessica who was able to quadruple her farms’ productivity through a loan from One Acre, enabling her to support a family of 10 children and send two of her children to university.

As we talk about the economic potential of gender equity, we must not commodify women

In discussing the focus of her work, Sambuli spoke of many of the same structural issues as Ndishabandi and Madan – simply ported to a new paradigm in the digital world. The first consideration Sambuli asked listeners to apply is ensuring women’s economic empowerment is good for women before it is good for the economy. Gender responsive systemic reform has been cited to develop business models that target women, but do not necessarily benefit them. Digital lending is one example: here, cash lenders target women (who tend to be more loyal than male counterparts) but charge higher interest rates, creating a perverse effect in a system meant to empower women through digital.

The increased connectivity of people through digital increases the risks of gender inequality – even looking at the COVID-19 pandemic, in developed, saturated markets – questions like who was able to undertake an online course is gendered, or who is able to share political opinion without facing trolling and vitriol takes a gendered perspective. Sambuli states that one of the most difficult elements is to get people to understand that the gender divide applies online, in both developing and cosmopolitan societies. Apple failed to include any consideration for tracking women’s sexual and reproductive health in their AppleWatch design, despite years of planning; online translation services assign gender assumptions to job titles that continue to perpetuate stereotypes – such as male doctors and female cleaners. The gendered nuances we experience offline are being encoded into the online dimension, and it is key for both business and tech to understand how to address this issue.

Madan echoed the topic of ensuring interventions effectively address the needs of women above all, raising two key considerations. First, we must understand the power dynamics between donors and their partners, acknowledging that “the partner should always be in the driver’s seat”. Although donors bring the financial resources, partners have a deep, contextual knowledge of the problem and what drives the issues at play. Second, the common programmatic response to how to get more women in leadership focusses on skills improvement – as though the issue is a personal one. The problem is systemic, and we need to shift the onus from the individual woman to the structural barriers at play; barriers such as the fact that women often lack the networking and mentoring pathways granted to men, or that childcare systems and maternity support are often made to sound more like a choice rather than a difficult reality. Co-Impact last year committed to making sure that at least ~50% of funding will go towards women-led organisations, all in the global south and found a myriad of opportunity across employment, health, education and economic empowerment. Madan spoke of the challenge for funders to be both comfortable building capacity with their partners, and to challenge their own assumptions.   

Online spaces can enable communities of women to reinforce each other’s narratives

For Sambuli, the online sphere provides a huge opportunity to advance women’s political empowerment. Twitter has been used as one such forum for communities of women to connect on their experiences – from India to Kenya to America, women are adding to each other’s content and building a notion that we are here, we are going to be seen and we are going to be heard. This has been incredibly powerful in changing opinion on social norms for both men and women – for example, the judiciary in Kenya will be led by an all-women team for the first time, bringing to the fore many classic patriarchal tropes, but the ubiquitous nature of the internet means that this discussion can happen in a public space – even translating into conversations that men on Twitter might have with their wives and daughters. Sambuli opines that these public narratives can assist us in making up the systemic path we are trying to build and cultivate a space for women to speak up and garner power.

Driving change relies on continually challenging our solutions to prove their efficacy

Sambuli termed driving action here as truly showing up for how those most affected by policies, and unpacking how they are actually accounted for within them. We have to understand where business models effect unwanted change or where they empower a corporation instead of the women the policy was attempting to empower, and question if business and private actors would cease to pursue such models if they were found to be exploitative. This is imperative both offline and online, across LMICs and wealthy nations. Challenging private actors on their appetite to act with moral responsibility and encouraging moral fortitude is a key lever here in futureproofing systems so that they do not continue to perpetuate the status quo. Sambuli encouraged listeners to look beyond surface level narratives and really question the goals and the responsibilities of a system and its stakeholders to drive effective change.  

Increasing accountability is another crucial lever in shaping gender equity norms globally

Where multilateral organisations have proved their power as conveners, they need to move beyond principles and strengthen their ability to hold actors accountable. The difference between signalling that you are a member of a compact and having that commitment enforced is a stark one – if we look to any company that has signed up to the business and humans rights principles of the UN Global Compact, can we see their diversity of leadership? Sambuli endorses the UN and other multilateral organisations to find the fortitude to develop and enforce these accountability mechanisms, alongside other key stakeholders and communities.

All three panellists agree that a course correction is required for women in leadership. When asked if we are satisfied in the progress to date since the Beijing Declaration, Madan answered that it can only be a resounding no if we’re still ~100 years out from parity. However, all were also encouraged by the work that is beginning and being done today, and advocated for the continual pushing of the status quo to ensure improvements are not just made at the edge. A complete restructure of the system is necessary – which means levelling the playing field for women to be the same height as that of men.

Own your convictions, find your purpose and recognise your privilege

Our panellists left listeners with three powerful lessons to guide both their personal and professional journeys in the advocacy space. First, own your convictions and claim your space. We have communities now – both offline and online – to change norms and systems, so feel empowered to back yourself and advocate for them. Secondly, understand where you can serve a purpose. You can bring experience and skills from many different sectors, societies and systems to elevating a social purpose goal. Thirdly, recognise how you can use your privilege within your spheres of influence. The topic of gender equity can, at times, seem insurmountable and overwhelming, but utilising your position to champion change for the women who lack that same privilege helps to move closer to this universal goal.  


Victoria Henderson (MBA 2021) has three years’ experience in management consulting at Bain & Company, and a background in Law and Politics. She is an intern for the Wheeler Institute, contributing to the creation of content that amplifies the role of business in improving lives.

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