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Effective way to improve gender equality
Making education more inclusive through behaviour change will deliver social outcomes that can transform girls’ lives.
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Changing behaviours to forge a gender equal world

International Women’s Day on 8 March is a call to action for accelerating gender parity.

Responses to achieve equality and better social outcomes for women and girls will only be effective and sustainable if they are grounded in systemic behaviour change, writes Khadijah Fancy of Cambridge Education, Mott MacDonald’s specialist education consultancy.

The inequalities women and girls face in education, work and life are rooted – among other constraints like poverty – in established social narratives that perpetuate differences around gender and normalise discrimination.

Interventions to make institutions more inclusive often fail because they pay too little attention to how discriminatory social norms reinforce the discriminatory behaviours of people in the system, preventing gender-inclusive policies from being implemented effectively.

To deliver the social outcomes that can transform women’s lives, we have to deliver systemic change through new behaviours that encourage and enable individuals to work in more inclusive and equitable ways.

This requires work in all the components of a system: clear policies and standards; the tools and capacities needed to implement and meet these standards; and the leadership and culture to see it through.

All this rests on the key actors in a system knowing how to implement a policy, wanting to implement it, and having the ability and power to do so. These are the three pathways to more equitable and inclusive behaviours.

Building new skills and knowledge

Deep-seated negative attitudes about gender are grounded in lack of knowledge surrounding women’s rights and the impact of violations, from forced marriage to sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment. So, new ways of working that underpin inclusive practices require new skills and knowledge.

To increase girls’ inclusion in education, for example, we pay much of our attention to building the skills associated with teaching and learning. We train teachers to deliver the curriculum in more gender-sensitive ways, we ensure head teachers can administer safer schools, and we support ministry officials to inspect schools to monitor girls’ attendance.

These are crucial skills, but insufficient to effect transformative change when it comes to gender inclusion and equality.

To build more inclusive learning environments, teachers will have to learn how to listen to girls and help them articulate their learning needs. Head teachers will need to build skills for working with parents and community leaders to ensure they believe their children will be safe at school. School inspectors must be able to collect evidence – from girls themselves – of what is, and is not, working for them.

Additionally, we can see that to bring about change, those outside the system – girls and women, parents, stakeholders, the whole community – also need to become skilled at advocating for their rights, influencing people in power, and speaking out to demand better services.

Changing attitudes and beliefs

Changing attitudes about gender is challenging because many of the people who hold power benefit from gender inequality. Typical discriminatory beliefs include low expectations and aspirations for girls, and the rightness of male power and privilege, especially in the right to exploit girls’ and women’s bodies, care and unpaid labour.

Turning around negative attitudes about gender among teachers and employers is clearly essential to achieve better outcomes and more opportunities for girls in education, training and the workplace.

To embed inclusive and equitable behaviours, people will need to see that new ways of thinking and acting will be effective, expected, rewarded and supported, especially by those in power, and that old behaviours will no longer be accepted.

A web of social support for new behaviours – including formal and informal support through peers, role models and early adopters, and new policies and procedures – will need to be built and reinforced by a system incorporating both rewards and sanctions.

Attitudinal change is often slow, but it can be accelerated when positive outcomes are highlighted, celebrated, and clearly linked to the positive behaviours that drove them. This can be supported through internal communications and media campaigns.

Shifting the dynamics of power

Who has the power to stand in the way of change? The abuse of power plays an important part in how gender exclusion is embedded in systems.

But challenging power is complex and requires an understanding of how power is operating in the first place. Recognising and examining the social and gender power dynamics within institutions, communities, in the home and between individuals is key to greater inclusion and equality in any system.

The insights from examining power dynamics will reveal who has control of resources and decision-making, and how power can be shifted.

To deliver on inclusion and equality, policy makers and those tasked with designing and delivering interventions will also need to examine the power relations between partners and between project actors and communities, and to think about how to harness these relationships.

The role and agency of self-led, women-led and community-based organisations in projects and programmes will be critical to building an inclusive system at every level; it is often these groups who are best placed to do the complex work of changing the dynamics of power in the system and around it.

Sustainable social outcomes

Many programmes fail to root out entrenched discrimination because they focus only on improving skills and knowledge, and they neglect attitudinal and power issues.

It is only by driving gender-inclusive behaviours in all three areas that we can bring about the systemic change that will lead to sustainable social outcomes and make a lasting, positive difference to women’s lives.

Cambridge Education is already applying these ideas to the development of new frameworks for strengthening systems and institutions that can be applied in girls’ education and other contexts.

It could be used to transform organisational cultures, in any industry, to enhance safeguarding against sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment. This will promote the wellbeing and safety not just of women and girls, but of everyone.

It underlines how instilling change that makes our institutions and systems more equitable will benefit all members of society.

International Women’s Day is marked worldwide on 8 March every year to celebrate women’s achievements and lobby for accelerated gender parity.

Khadijah Fancy

Senior education advisor, Cambridge Education

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