Gender and market systems development: Why we struggle and what can be done to tackle common challenges
By Giulia Salmaso, Senior Associate, Economic Growth, Palladium
In this post Giulia highlights the challenge of gender inequality in market systems approaches. As Giulia suggests, the issue of gender is often framed from a social or moral perspective. For many practitioners, this way of contextualizing the gender issue has created a type of push-back resulting in many projects deciding to think of gender as a secondary consideration. At the same time, from a more objective systems thinking perspective, the idea of restricting 50% (or more) of the human capital in a social system from engaging in developing and testing solutions to emergent risks and opportunities is a real limitation on a market system. Especially from complex systems understanding, it is essential that a market system actively engage as many people – regardless of gender – as possible to increase the likelihood of generating value added solutions for a society. In this context, gender inequities are not secondary, but are of primary concern.
It’s no news that we need gender equality to achieve sustainable growth and eradicate poverty. Yet, ‘gender’ is often found only at the end of reports, a small paragraph among the many ‘cross-cutting issues’, an add-on at best. I brainstormed about why this is the case at the Market System Symposium, earlier this year in Cape Town, with a room filled with practitioners who haven’t lost determination. We discussed issues ranging from difficulties in mainstreaming gender to more controversial aspects such as when and how to target women’s specific constraints. Overall, we all brought challenges to the table, but also many examples of how market systems development can be effective in redressing imbalances to empower women and contribute to inclusive impact.
Here are some takeaways.
Gender, Women’s Economic Empowerment and Market Systems Development: a (mis)perception that we better fix
It seems that market systems development (MSD) programmes are confronted with a significant push back when it comes to Women’s Economic Empowerment (WEE) or worse gender. Eyes starts to roll, people yawn, doors could even slam shut – brace yourself, it isn’t going to be easy. It appears to be grounded in the strong perception that women’s (economic) empowerment is ‘socially’ driven and has nothing to do with markets, and that including women’s constraints in the market diagnosis and intervention design (whether it’s mainstreamed or targeted) would shift the programme focus away from improving productivity and increasing incomes. When ‘gender’ and WEE come with too much ‘social’ baggage simply using a different language helps. Some of us found it very effective to discuss with staff about women and men customers, producers, employers and employees; how women and men are currently engaging (or not) in market systems and what products and services women and men require, afford, prefer and can access.
The deal with Mainstreaming: It starts at the start (and ends at the end) …
Gender mainstreaming means integrating a gender perspective into the preparation, design, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation of projects, with a view to promoting equality between women and men and addressing discrimination. While most programmes mainstream gender in their measurement systems for reporting purposes, gender mainstreaming is generally patchier across the rest of the programme/intervention cycle. Essentially, it seems that although we often ‘disaggregate impact’ we miss mainstreaming in the first steps and hence miss out on generating inclusive results. The two steps of the intervention cycle that seems the most neglected are:
… It generally accommodates women’s constraints but does not address them – so beware …
Acknowledging that women face additional constraints allows programmes to mainstream that understanding and respond to those constraints. For instance, when arranging a training or a marketing event, programmes can recognise that women’s lack of mobility and care duties often prevent them from participating in such events. As a result, the programme should select a venue and timing that accommodates the needs of women. Mainstreaming in this sense doesn’t necessarily address the root causes of gender inequality nor targets women’s constraints, but allows programmes to be responsive, facilitate broader, more inclusive, reach and increase the possibility that both men and women will benefit from interventions. Mainstreaming tactics, which often are essentially about ‘opening and leaving the door open’, also help when women are ‘invisible’ players. Indeed, by mainstreaming one can challenge gender stereotypes which lead the private sector as well as programmes into believing that women don’t buy or sell a specific product or are not involved in a certain activity and therefore should not be engaged.
… it is simply not enough
Unpaid care, lack of mobility, limited decision-making power and control over resources are among the challenges faced by women across countries and sectors, which systematically prevent them from engaging effectively in market systems and benefitting from growth. Whether we are attempting to improve market systems in agriculture, manufacturing, housing, health or education, chances are extremely high that gender inequality, if unaddressed, will affect the ability of programmes to improve the performance of market systems sustainably and generate enduring impact. Hence, the need to act in tandem – beyond mainstreaming there is a need for programmes to design and implement interventions that target women’s constraints.
Debunking (more) myths about WEE and MSD – the (not so) hidden incentives of market actors to address gender inequality
MSD programmes tend to refrain from designing interventions targeted at addressing women’s constraints under the assumption that market actors lack the incentives to do so, even with programmatic support. However, it is precisely the systemic nature of market systems approaches that allows programmes to understand women’s constraints as part of the wider market systems, and identify which actors have the incentives to address them (with the right support). Unpaid care, lack of mobility, low decision-making authority, lack of access to information etc. translate into untapped labour, absenteeism, high staff turnover, unreached customers, sub-optimal supply and the list continues. This means that the business case is strong for the private sector to find solutions to constraints faced by women. Similarly, these constraints reflect also government failures, meaning that public actors have strong incentives (and mandates) to address gender inequality. Facilitation approaches are proving more and more effective, but somehow the good news still goes unnoticed. Labour saving technologies, the provision of on-site nurseries at the workplace or discounts for workers to access public or private-run nursery facilities, as well as catering for transportation needs are just some examples of how market systems development can effectively contribute to women’s empowerment while improving the productivity of market actors. Nonetheless, programmes should acknowledge that these types of interventions are mainly effective in addressing access domains of women’s empowerment, leaving the agency gap open.
The “agency” beast and why it makes us feel uncomfortable
As it stands, women’s agency constraints, such as low decision-making power, low control over resources and incomes, are perhaps for the bravest and the most farsighted. If access dimensions of women’s empowerment perfectly fit with facilitation approaches, as an implementer I appreciate how agency can be a (different) beast. Undoubtably, addressing agency likely requires the quintessential market systems development practitioner to step out of her/his comfort zone i.e. the private sector, the high investment leverage, the projectable results at the end of the year. How so? First, actors that generally have immediate incentives and capacity to address women’s constraints are often actors that MSD programme engage with little or even look at with suspicion – the civil society, community organisations or local governments at best. Second, the nature of these actors, implies that they are unlikely to be able to commit financially; yet, while investment leverage is of critical importance for MSD programmes, it does not supersede all performance metrics. Third, it takes time and the move from outputs to outcomes to impact requires a more patient and complex pathway – which means programmes must understand and target women’s agency from the onset and be able to revisit interventions as results emerge. Once again, the beauty of the market systems development approach is that it embeds great flexibility and creativity – all of the above is possible.
In conclusion – it just needs to be done (and done MUCH better)
These takeaways tell a simple message – the market systems development approach is perfectly suitable to contribute to redressing gender inequality. Although challenges do exist, most seem to be rooted in the status quo and the perception that market systems development programmes can neglect gender and disregard their mandate (as well as the business case) to improve the empowerment of women. And finally, “Well begun is half done”; programmes where gender is part of the conversation from day one and part of everybody’s responsibility are programmes with the biggest potential to contribute to transformational impact, empower women and help rebalance gender inequality. Course correction is also possible though – if you are interested to read more about how programmes can improve their impact on WEE by tackling common challenges have a look here.
About the Author
Giulia is an international development practitioner with a strong background in economics and expertise in the fields of market systems development, monitoring and result measurement and women’s economic empowerment. She has extensive field-based experience managing, implementing and evaluating private sector development programmes, in programme reporting and building the capacity of local staff.
Co-Authored by Anoushka Boodhna, Consultant, EcoVentures International &
Devi Ramkissoon, Acting Division Chief, USAID
In this post, Devi and Anoushka start an important evidence-based discussion about why diversity and inclusion are central to addressing complex challenges. Central to the rationale for taking a market systems approach is that market systems are complex systems, which means that they are dynamic, evolving systems that are influenced by many factors all at the same time. Because there are many factors influencing a market system at one time, traditional approaches that assumed away all the factors except for one technically solvable factor have not worked. As donors have become more comfortable with recognizing that development is complex, they have also had to realize that the process for addressing complex challenges is different to traditional approaches. Specifically, complex challenges need teams that can engage in a learning and creative problem-solving process that emerges of overtime. Organizationally, best practice for such challenges includes teams that are diverse and inclusive of as many perspectives as possible. Diversity and inclusivity are not only a nice thing to have, but are necessary characteristics of teams that are effective at generating results in complex environments.
In this blog series, we examine the ways in which the concepts of diversity and inclusion apply to market systems programming. We hold that diversity in complex adaptive systems is one signal of a healthy market system. To this end, embedding these principles in programming will contribute to successful market systems activities whose results will ultimately be more sustainable in the long run.
The concepts of diversity and inclusion are increasingly becoming integrated into workforce management across the public, private, and non-profit sectors. According to George Washington University (GWU), the term “diversity” is commonly used to describe “individual differences (e.g., life experiences, learning and working styles, personality types) and group/social differences (e.g., race, socio-economic status, class, gender, sexual orientation, country of origin, ability, intellectual traditions and perspectives, as well as cultural, political, religious, and other affiliations) that can be engaged to achieve excellence in teaching, learning, research, scholarship, and administrative and support services.” GWU defines inclusion as “the active, intentional, and ongoing engagement with diversity -- in people, in the curriculum, in the co-curriculum, and in communities (e.g., intellectual, social, cultural, geographical) with which individuals might connect.” Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) are now seen as a crucial aspect of increasing productivity for organizations, no matter what their goal.
Diversity is an important characteristic of a healthy market system. In particular, there are three ‘capacities’ in market systems that are bolstered or enhanced as a system becomes more diverse:
Within international development programming, D&I is integral when working in market systems and navigating complexity. A diverse and inclusive team is more likely to bring about the variation needed to catalyze market system change through individual and social differences in perspectives, viewpoints, and ideas. When aligned around core principles such as poverty alleviation, they are better able to support market actors to explore different pathways for business growth and inclusion as well as generate innovation where needed. A diverse and inclusive team is also more likely to support market actors to navigate risk in constantly changing environments by thinking ‘out-of-the-box’ when observing signals, making adaptations, and finding creative ways to solve problems.
From program design through implementation, learning, and adaptive management, and monitoring and evaluation, diversity in staffing and perspectives can be invaluable to the market system change. For example, by cultivating an inclusive, diverse team and hiring staff with diverse backgrounds, one program in Kenya was able to advance its goals. Specifically, the program hired a marketing expert to support inputs distribution strategies for smallholder farmers. Not only did she fit a diversity profile as a young Kenyan woman, she also was from the private sector and introduced new cross-cutting interventions in ICT and media, which became a new space in MSD and agriculture. She also linked the program to a young, creative, tech startup scene in Nairobi. This is just one of the ways that programming responds positively to applying D&I concepts to MSD.
In Part 2 of the Diversity and Inclusion Blog Post Series, we’ll dig deeper to explore how D&I plays out at some of the key junctures of MSD program design and implementation.
The MSDHub Blog Series is authored by respected implementers and donors of market systems projects globally.