Why a 'Gender Transformative' Approach?

Monday, April 6, 2015
by Riki Wilchins, Executive Director, TrueChild
Two decades of basic research have found that when girls and boys buy into really narrow ideals for femininity and masculinity, they have measurably lower life outcomes in a cluster of related areas that include sexual and reproductive health, intimate relationships, economic empowerment and educational achievement. 
For instance, young women who internalize codes of femininity that prioritize the "three Ds" of being deferential, desirable, and dependent are more likely to have unplanned pregnancies, drop out of school early and be economically disempowered. 
Boys who buy into narrow codes of manhood as defined by strength, aggression, and psychological toughness are more likely to abuse female partners, engage in high-risk behaviors, leave school early and believe that pregnancy validates manhood.
It is for these reasons that international development agencies like the CARE, PEPFAR, UNAIDS, USAID, World Bank, and WHO have made “gender transformative” approaches that highlight, challenge and ultimately change rigid gender norms and inequities central to their work.  
Yet U.S. funding still tends to overlook or ignore gender norms. Funders who say they fund from "a strong gender lens" usually mean they prioritize inequality among women and girls (which is important), but not that they address masculine and feminine norms that help make such inequalities possible. 
To help start a long-delayed dialog on these issues, Philanthropy New York members like the Overbrook Foundation, New York Women's Foundation, Ford Foundation, and North Star Fund recently sponsored a presentation by TrueChild, "Beyond Gender Equity: How Philanthropy is Taking Gender Norms into Account."
The program focused on communicating the main concepts, terms, and research behind gender transformative work. In addition, Dr. Scyatta Wallace of St. John's University, a TrueChild partner, discussed a specific research initiaitve she has been developing for the Heinz Endowments to challenge the impact of rigid feminine norms on health and wellness among young Black women and girls. The white paper and research clearinghouse created around this project is available online here
Following the presentation, a robust discussion ensued among the two dozen funders in attendance for the next hour. The topics ranged widely and included the impact of gender norms on young Black and Hispanic males, the impact of masculine norms in the military, the best way to achieve systems change at the policy level and how rigid norms affect gender non-conforming or LGBT youth. 
Funders also expressed interest in why gender transformative work has taken so long to take off in the United States. One idea offered was that international donors are more used to dealing with the tribe, the clan, or the village as the unit of intervention, while domestic funding often addresses each person as an individual, isolated unit. Whatever the case, everyone present seemed to be in agreement that addressing gender norms is a critical step in today's grantmaking process. 
Another idea offered was that to help funders understand the issues of gender non-conforming youth, it may first be necessary for them to get how the vast majority if young people who DO conform to rigid gender norms also face lower life outcomes.