Learning from the Experts: Reflections on MSI’s Gender Equity and Inclusive Development Learning Session

Because we integrate gender equity and inclusive development approaches throughout our work, at times we forget to step back and reflect on what is involved in this kind of integration.

However, taking an intentional look at what we do, how we do it, and why we do it is important not only to acknowledge the work we have done, but to also consider new priorities for addressing gender bias, advancing inclusive development, and improving equity.

Recently, MSI hosted a company-wide learning event to spend some time with three of our program-based gender experts as part of our ongoing effort to strengthen cross-company engagement by pausing to learn from our many experts. This event was held on March 8th, and in her opening remarks for the event, MSI’s Senior Vice President for Programs, Dr. Allison Poyac-Clarkin stated that on International Women’s Day, “I … really slow down, and reflect on, and celebrate, the achievements of women and really reinvigorate my own commitment to advancing gender equity and the work that we do.

Graphic with photos and descriptions of MSI's gender advisorsIn this learning event, our gender experts reflected on how we ensure support for improving equity in the contexts where we work. They shared their experience with us about what works, what doesn’t work, where there are existing knotty challenges and their recommendations for where to focus as we continue forward. Bringing different sector perspectives and geographic contexts, the gender advisors provided insights into how to effectively integrate gender equity and social inclusion (GESI) into a diverse range of activities. They also reflected on approaches to build staff capacity to ensure a comprehensive approach to advancing equality across all aspects of our work.

This conversation afforded us new ways to think about our current successes and how we can improve our work on what seem like persistent problems. Here are four reflections from our three colleagues that continue to resonate with us as we look forward to continuing our efforts to increase gender and social equity:

The (continued) importance of seeing “gender” as intersectional – there’s still work to do

All three experts hit on a core issue that has been at the forefront of gender equality and social inclusion work for more than two decades: how to correct common misconceptions of “gender” as reflecting only cis-gender women. Moreover, how to effectively bring an intersectional approach to development activities taking place in very different contexts.

Antarini summarized the importance and the complexity of taking an intersectional approach, especially when there is lingering confusion over the meaning of basic terms: “The biggest challenge is the knowledge gap. People still confuse gender with women…When people understand the word gender, they don’t realize that gender always intersects with other factors such as race, class, ethnicity, religion, disability, and sexual orientation in a program to prevent intolerance in the community we have to ask…have [we] captured the experience of men, of minority sexual orientations? Of …disabled women who belong to minority religious groups? To [see] the combination of gender and the intersection that actually produce the power dynamics?”

How we define “gender” and how we use an intersectional approach has deep implications for ensuring that development efforts are fully responsive to people’s dynamic experiences with social structures that shape their access to resources, opportunities, and the protection of rights. There are also implications for how we conceptualize and act on gender equality and inclusion issues in our daily work.

Regina highlighted this point when saying, “the challenge is [that] there are a lot of stereotypes and misconceptions about what “gender” is, and what the definitions are…If we don’t really understand the concepts [or gender] in our every day, or in our day-to-day, then we won’t be as effective and productive when we’re going into the work.”

Effectively Integrating Gender and Inclusive Development

Regina discussed her strategy for integrating a deeper understanding of GESI concepts among program staff through intentional integration of GESI perspectives into training materials. While gender and inclusion standalone trainings are useful for raising awareness, introducing core concepts and establishing shared vocabularies, this type of training does not do enough to build staff capacity for integrating rigorous gender and inclusion approaches into daily work. Regina discussed strategies for embedding GESI vocabulary and concepts into introductory gender trainings, and then going further by making the explicit connections between GESI concepts and the daily work staff do through job- and sector-specific training. When staff begin to raise GESI issues on their own as part of their thinking and vocabulary in their regular work, then GESI integration becomes meaningful.

Gender Norms as a ‘Daily Construction’

Too often women are measured against standards that assert men’s experiences as “normal,” rather than being seen as people with agency, motivations, and complexities of their own. On the Harmoni project, Antarini works with local partners to create a nuanced picture of women’s roles in violent extremism to better understand how gender impacts the ways people relate to extremist messages and concepts. This includes how women returnees from conflict are frequently viewed in rehabilitation programs. Harmoni noticed that government parole officers were assessing women returnees by standards that assumed men as the norm. These officers saw women as “softer” than men, or “more militant” than men. But, as Antarini expressed during the panel, not only does this kind of assessment sidestep women’s own agency and refuses to see them as legitimate actors without comparison to men, but it means that these women’s specific relationships to extremism are not addressed. Through integrating gender components into parole officer training, the biases that informed rehabilitation and reintegration interventions are identified and addressed.

People of all gender identities interact in dynamic social contexts, meaning that we have to understand gender and social identities as continually shaped and re-shaped by those interactions. Addressing critical GESI issues by focusing on just women or girls misses the larger equation of how inequalities are created, continued, or productively disrupted. To continue expanding the full meaning of “gender,” Katia described how the PDP project focuses on fostering non-violent approaches for masculinity as a way to change harmful gender dynamics. Through these activities, PDP moves beyond the first step of using inclusive language and engages with men and boys around gender and social norms and expectations. She noted that it is important to engage with different models for masculinity that provide alternatives to the ideas of restrictive masculinity that many men grow up learning. Looking at gender holistically, as Katia notes, “It’s a daily construction, and a construction job. In our program, we have the opportunity to work on this…and we are doing it.”

Continued Emphasis on Seeing Youth as Gendered

Katia, Regina, and Antarini also pointed to areas where more attention is needed for gender and social inclusion work. They spoke to the need to more fully incorporate inclusion and accessibility issues, including for people with disabilities, people with low socioeconomic status, religious minorities, and other groups, Regina particularly highlighted the way in which youth are often conceptualized as a homogenous group with undifferentiated needs. Instead, she explained that using a nuanced gender lens to consider youth in specific contexts presents “a great opportunity to think about what the difference and challenges are … [for] young men and young women … If we begin talking about gender with this focus on youth, we can really be more successful in mainstreaming gender and activities focused on youth and integrating into the activities. So, if we … [don’t] just look at youth as this one big group, but understand the gender dynamics, I think we can be a lot more successful.”

Looking Forward

This GESI-informed learning event is one moment among many where MSI continues to make investments to improve our approach to development work. These investments include strengthening our existing focus on localization, taking increasingly rigorous steps to hold ourselves accountable for improved DEIA outcomes, and infusing inclusive gender equity standards into our projects and in our workplaces. Conversations with our gender and inclusive development experts are important and can easily be put to the side for when things “aren’t so busy.” But, as Katia, Regina, and Antarini brought home, making time to listen and learn is one of the best investments we can make. Because GESI is an integral part of our work. Every day.


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