On May 29, 2019, the Interagency Gender Working Group (IGWG) hosted their annual plenary, a space for members to come together to discuss challenges and learning opportunities they’ve faced in their gender work over the past year. This year the IGWG introduced a new plenary format in which members participated in group discussions. Following short technical presentations selected in response to members’ proposals, presenters led small, focused discussions aimed at enabling interactive learning and engagement.
Sarah Eckhoff, senior gender advisor at CARE, introduced their Gender Marker tool and initiated a conversation about how to use it, challenges the tool is working to overcome, and implementation success stories. Plenary attendees responded positively to the presentation and offered clarifying questions. Her group discussions drew many attendees.
Discussions around gender in development often feel abstract and lack practical examples of useful tools and implementation of those tools. The Gender Marker is a practical example of a tool that’s proven useful to practitioners and network members, and plenary attendees greeted it with enthusiasm and curiosity. Because of the high level of interest in the Gender Marker, after the plenary I, Laura Cooper Hall (IGWG), sat down with Sarah to ask some follow-up questions and dive a bit deeper into the tool’s use and value for members. The IGWG wanted to learn more about CARE’s experience implementing the tool and provide recommendations to members hoping to learn how to integrate gender into programming.
You can find Sarah’s presentation slides on the IGWG Plenary event page, which links to the webpage for this interview, and you can find the Gender Marker and a Gender Marker overview on the CARE website. Sarah’s remarks represent her own thoughts and opinions, not necessarily those of the IGWG.
Laura Cooper Hall: Okay so thank you for joining me today. For those of you listening, my name is Laura Cooper Hall, and I help manage the Interagency Gender Working Group, or the IGWG. I’m here today speaking with Sarah Eckhoff. Sarah presented her work with CARE at the last IGWG plenary. There she shared some of CARE’s experience integrating gender in their programming using their Gender Marker. So, thank you very much, Sarah, for speaking with me today. Before we get into the details of your presentation, I think it would be helpful to hear your perspective on what gender integration really means. So, what is your perspective on the definition of gender integration and why it might be important?
Sarah Eckhoff: Sure and thank you so much for having me! It was a real pleasure to present at the plenary a couple of months ago now. So when I think about gender integration and its importance to our global work in terms of gender approaches and international development and also humanitarian response, I think the key takeaway is that we really want to be thinking about the implications of a particular context, power dynamics for different groups. These are all things to consider when we’re implementing projects, and I think often when we hear the word “gender”, we immediately think women and girls, and that’s certainly an aspect of gender programming, but it’s not the whole picture. So when we think about gender integration, and this is sort of how we approach it at CARE, we really think about how to factor in and identify these different power dynamics and power imbalances into our programming. We take more of a “gender integrated” approach. We think about how to integrate or consider gender dynamics, power dynamics, social norms into all aspects and all sectors of our programming throughout that humanitarian to development continuum. So for CARE, it’s really important for us to think about this as a holistic approach—something that happens as part of our programming during the design phase, throughout implementation, and is a key part of how we measure the work, not only how we approach it, but also the impact thereof.
LCH: Great! Thank you for that very complete description of what gender integration means within CARE and across programming from the humanitarian to development and throughout all—across the organization—that’s very helpful to hear. Often, when talking about concepts like integration and even just gender alone, there can be feedback that these concepts can feel quite abstract and hard to make more practical, in a sense, useful for practitioners. Can you share some examples, in your experience throughout working in development, of successful approaches to gender integration and what that can look like in practice?
SE: Sure, so gender is a key approach for CARE globally. I personally work for CARE U.S., but we are a federation-style organization with CARE-member partners across the globe and CARE affiliates in CARE country offices and through our global approach to gender equality and women’s voice, as I mentioned, we take a more integrated approach, but that doesn’t mean that we’re apart from the varying degrees of understanding and interpretation of that “gender jargon” as we often hear it. And really at the end of the day, what’s really important is what I mentioned—is thinking about these different power—power and gender dynamics—that are at play in a given context and how that really plays out or works in practice, as you mentioned. So, at CARE, we really focus on trying to create practical tools and guidance for how to keep some of these things in mind when doing, for example, a gender analysis. We have some very, straight-to-the-point flow tools that walk through good practices for doing a gender analysis, how to consider the three elements of our gender equality framework, agency, structure and relations. And by keeping our framework simple and by keeping our tools simple and practical and really easy to use and approach from the perspective of non-gender specialists, I think we’ve been successful in the greater utilization of those tools across the organization. So, I think if you were to ask any program person at CARE, potentially even those that work in facilities or those that work in admin or operations throughout our federation, what the gender equality framework was or what the three aspects of gender are that CARE really focuses on, almost everyone would be able to tell you it’s agency, structure, and relations. The Gender Marker was designed and developed before I joined CARE a few years ago, but we really have kept in our minds that this is a tool for everyone and should not be so nuanced and so embedded with highly technical jargon that it becomes unapproachable and unusable for non-gender specialists.
LCH: Great! So, would you say that a successful approach needs to be that approachable and accessible to the kind of non-gender experts, though still someone working in development and having to deal with the kind of power dynamics that might come up in programming?
I think often when we hear the word ‘gender’, we immediately think women and girls, and that’s certainly an aspect of gender programming, but it’s not the whole picture.”
SE: Absolutely, and I think this is true for myriad reasons, first of which is that we really take gender to be a key approach as a part of our global strategy which means that it needs to be integrated into every single one of CARE’s projects. Every single year, we’re implementing upwards of a thousand projects globally. And while I wish that we had staffing and resources to have a gender advisor or a gender specialist in every single one of those projects, it’s much more feasible and actually yields a much more collective approach to gender integration when these tools are used by everyone that’s supporting the project and not just a gender advisor that may be providing a very specific element or amount of technical support or technical assistance.
LCH: Yeah and that’s something, I think, that came up in the plenary amongst participants in discussion—how these tools should be used across organizations who are more practitioners to recognize how relevant being aware of gender and gender integration is to their programming across all fields and themes of work. So, speaking a bit more about these tools that you mentioned a minute ago and the Gender Marker, exactly what you presented on during your presentation at the plenary, can you give us a quick 60 second intro or overview to what the Gender Marker is and how CARE has been using it?
SE: Sure! So CARE’s Gender Marker, similar to other Gender Markers that are out there in the space, is a simple assessment and learning tool that was developed to enable CARE staff, specifically project staff or those supporting projects, to assess the degree to which gender has been integrated into a given project or program. It utilizes a 2-page vetting form, the first side of which essentially looks like a rubric. There are two columns of criteria broken down into four subcategories. Those are activities, analysis, participation, and M&E, and the criteria for those difference of categories is a little bit more robust and rigorous on that right-side column and a little bit more streamlined and represents more of that minimum standards package on the left-side column. And essentially what teams are prompted to do is to walk through these different questions around these four subdomains as well as an additional leading question around the degree to which a project challenges or works within or does not even consider gender norms, roles, and relations. And as they walk through that criteria and assess the degree to which their project meets that criteria, they sort of land on this score, and that score is affiliated with a place along the gender continuum. So, for projects that are answering questions on that left-side column, the highest score that they may achieve would be “Gender Sensitive” while projects that are walking through the criteria on the right-side, more rigorous criteria could achieve “Gender Responsive” or “Gender Transformative”. And then there’s a second page where they can note down things like gaps or themes or opportunities for improvement, lessons learned—some explanation why they scored themselves the way that they did. And this is really an important tool for teams to use throughout the project life cycle. We deployed it several years ago and have been using it globally for a few years now and collecting global data, this’ll be our fourth year now.
LCH: Okay, great! So, it’s a reflective, self-assessment quiz that a practitioner would use in a sense?
SE: Yes, and the idea is that the team sits down together and engages in dialogue and reflection and some healthy debate even to share where they are in terms of meeting that criteria, what those opportunities for improvement are, and what the action steps will be. So hopefully, as they continue with implementation, the next year when they sit down to do it again, they’ll see some improvements.
LCH: Right. So, yeah you mentioned that you could share a few examples or success stories about how it’s been used at CARE over the years?
SE: Sure! So, a couple of years ago we actually did a global inquiry around the use of CARE’s Gender Marker tool, and we reached out to our different CARE member partners, CARE country offices, and some of our regional management units, just to ask some different ways and times within the project life cycle that the Gender Marker was being utilized. We found some really interesting examples. Some include, as I mentioned, using the Gender Marker to assess program design at the proposal phase, and some of our CARE member partners have set targets or set commitments, I probably should say, that they would not ever submit a proposal where the program design did not score above Gender Sensitive. So, thinking about what are those key components of gender integration and how to meet those criteria and really explicitly articulate them into a proposal and a project designat the outset has really been a key win and I would say one of the best ways that we’re seeing the Gender Marker being used across the federation.
Another example is that we have some CARE member partners that are also setting targets around the proportion of their portfolio that, in the distribution of scores across their portfolio. So, what I mean is that they may set a target that at least 25% of CARE’s programming in a particular country or CARE member partners will be “Gender Transformative” and then they identify action steps in order to actualize on that target. On the other side, we have CARE member partners and country offices that have a commitment to 0-0s, meaning that no project within their portfolio will score as “Gender Harmful”, or in other continuums, “Gender Unaware”. We have some CARE member partners as well as country offices that do some retrospective analysis looking at their portfolio over the last year. We have some other practices globally where we follow up on projects that are further to the left on the continuum, those that are maybe scoring as Harmful or Neutral, to learn more of what is happening there—is it a scoring challenge? Is it an implementation miss? And just doing more follow up and support in those areas and that’s all been made possible because of this global scoring which is pretty exciting.
Using the Marker doesn’t necessarily have to mean a huge lift in terms of the workload involved in using it throughout programming.”
LCH: Yeah, those are quite a few really helpful examples to see how the Marker has been used in practice at CARE. It sounds like using the Marker doesn’t necessarily have to mean a huge lift in terms of the workload involved in using it throughout programming, particularly considering you can integrate it or use it at different points of a project or a program cycle. And it sounds like a lot of it just has to do with being a bit more specific about targets or a bit more specific and thinking a little bit more about the details of a project and who the intended beneficiaries are, for example.
SE: I think that that’s true and I think that we’ve also, along the way, doing outreach and inquiry with colleagues across the federation, especially those that don’t necessarily wear a gender hat always or come from a gender background in terms of technical expertise, and gaining feedback and inputs from those colleagues on what is clear and what is a little bit blurry has been massively helpful in terms of finetuning and developing guidance, tools, and definition documents that help support that process and really demystify some of that language.
LCH: It sounds like that reflexivity is also required in the way that the Gender Marker is created, and on CARE’s side in terms of holding it as a tool, making sure it stays flexible and adaptable after hearing numerous or various feedback from staff. So, speaking a little bit more about the feedback you’ve received, have there been unexpected challenges that have come up as you, or as CARE, has used the Gender Marker? If so, how have they been addressed?
SE: There have absolutely been challenges, and I think that that’s really a sign that we’re taking a very inclusive and a significant learning approach to this whole process. If we weren’t hearing challenging feedback, then I would probably worry that we weren’t doing enough broad-based inquiry around this. So, receiving challenging feedback even when it takes a long time to address is a good sign in my mind.
A couple of the challenges that we have run into have certainly been around the integration of the Gender Marker questions into our global impact and reach reporting forms and mechanisms, that annual process I mentioned, and just really walking back a couple of steps once we did that because we found that the responsibility of filling those forms tends to sit with the M&E Officer for a given project. Then they may be reviewed by the Project Manager or the Assistant Country Director or the Program Quality Coordinator depending on the particular country office or how those workflows are set up. Maybe gender advisors within their program team had seen it before, they had been trained on it, maybe their project manager had been trained on it or had seen it before, but they didn’t see it in that format, in that two page vetting form format, that I mentioned at the top of the call. They were seeing it in this massively long Excel sheet that includes hundreds of other data points that they’re asked to put in. And that was a significant challenge because I think that it missed that step of really creating that space for dialogue and reflection and engaging the entire project team in that conversation and to speak to elements of the project they may not be familiar with. So that’s something we’ve really tried to work on over the last few years after observing and hearing feedback from CARE staff across the organization about that.
I think that the other challenge that we’ve faced is this expectation that all of our work must be Gender Transformative. When you look at the criteria that we have and the Gender Marker vetting form for CARE, to actualize a “Gender Transformative” score, it is incredibly, incredibly rigorous, and the elements of M&E, for example, to have all four components of that criteria met, is an absolutely massive undertaking and huge achievement. So when we think about a project that’s focused on women’s economic empowerment or girls’ education or our village savings and loan association programming, there’s potential that the design aspects in terms of activities and participation really color the perception of the entire project. On the other hand, it goes both ways, so we also have projects that are very tough on themselves on the criteria, and because this is a self-assessment tool, not something that we do global auditing around because that’s just not feasible. We do sort of spot auditing or follow up on projects, as I mentioned, that are further to the left of the continuum. There’s not necessarily consistency in the scoring. It’s not like there is a team of reviewers at CARE that review every single project every single year and assess and score. So that’s also been a challenge, so we always share those aggregate figures with a little bit of an asterisk because those are self-reporting, and we continue to see improvements in terms of the understanding of the scoring, the understanding of the tool, and the real focus on learning, not just achieving a “Gender Transformative” score at the end.
LCH: So, the Marker itself has not, the content has not shifted or been updated since it was made more public? Is that the case?
SE: That is correct. So, around 2015, I believe, is when, 2015/2016 is when the first unveiling, open global dissemination of the Gender Marker was shared out. We’re still using the same Gender Marker vetting form, the benefit of which is that we continue to increase the proportion of CARE staff who are familiar with it, comfortable with, knowledgeable about it—using it, and we have comparable year over year data for almost four years now. We’ll be collecting our fourth round of data this year, so, in that sense, that’s a positive. The challenge, as I mentioned, is that there are—there continues to be an appetite and feedback from across the federation that there’s really a need and an opportunity to make these adjustments to reflect some of these aspects of intersectionality and inclusivity, and the question remains: how do we go about doing it and when?
LCH: It does sound like there’s openness to, as the development field continues to progress and evolve, that CARE would be open to having the Marker also progress and evolve alongside it, alongside those conversations.
SE: For sure, and I think the other piece, and I mentioned this when I gave the presentation at the Plenary, the other piece that we really struggle with is the scoring mechanism, so as it currently is structured, the scoring is on a zero to four scale. You, as a reviewer or as an assessor, can give your project or the project that you’re reviewing either zero points or one point for any of those four subdomains. There’s no half point, quarter point, three-quarters of a point mechanism. So, the benefit of this is obviously the simplicity. The challenge is that it does not allow us to see a more granular view of progress along the continuum. that’s another piece that we’re really thinking through because we get a lot of feedback from users across the federation that the scoring is not—is too tough, that you can’t see progress over time and that within these different subdomains, that it’s hard to see improvements year over year.
LCH: I remember you mentioning that challenge of having more nuance in the grading system in the Plenary. It’s great to see that this is not—there is a lot of openness, at least on CARE’s behalf, to moving the Marker along to make sure that it is constantly relevant and useful for different organizations that might be interested in using it. Is it that easy for an organization to look it up on the CARE website and just start using it from the get-go at whatever stage in the project cycle they’re at, or would you recommend other steps that they should complete first?
SE: I would say at the project level, absolutely yes. there are definitely a few things that I would recommend, based on CARE’s experience, to put in place or make sure that they are in place before launching this type of global practice.
The first, and this came up in the dialogue during the Plenary, is that we have leadership across the federation at CARE who is incredibly committed—who are incredibly committed—to gender and having that support from leadership has been instrumental in being able to integrate this tool, this process, this approach into CARE’s work globally and that did not just happen because leadership decided that this was something that is important. It was definitely a collective effort across the organization with advocacy internally happening for a long time.
The other thing that I would say is that, and again this happened before I joined CARE, there was work done by so many for so long to actualize on this tool and this entire process, so I am only continuing to walk down this path based on that hard work. But, one thing that’s been really critical for us in terms of the use of the Gender Marker is a global cohort, if you want to call them that, of who we call Gender Marker Superstars, and these are CARE staff across the federation, many of whom—a majority of whom—are in programming roles, many of which are gender-oriented in their nature or expertise, who trained on the Gender Marker and have become go-to focal points within their country office, within their region, and continue to be not only a resource for capacity building around the Gender Marker for their country offices, for their program teams in their regions, but also as we develop these guidance and tools. So that has also been very critical to the success of the tool and its use across the organization.
And finally I would say that learning from our experience, we have been successful in that our resources are readily available across the organization. So, if a colleague is interested in learning more, the resources for training, those guidance materials, and case examples of project descriptions that colleagues can grade using—or score using—the Gender Marker and then see what others have scored it as and explanations. Having those types of tools and examples readily available has also been really helpful and a key part of where we are now with use of the Gender Marker, the data from it, and kind of how we’ll continue to move forward. We’ve been pretty intentional about making sure that the guidance materials and the training materials are available in CARE’s four operating languages—English, French, Spanish, and Arabic.
LCH: Thank you for going through all of that and all of those examples of how it’s used and the openness that CARE has embodied to implementing in various ways the Marker. It sounds like it helps a lot to have a culture within CARE and within the organization of being reflective of the work and being open to learning from each other and learning from these different tools that exist. Thank you! Of course, there’s so much more to learn about the Marker and how it’s been used and how organizations and practitioners can use the tool, but I know it is accessible online, and the learning you shared at the plenary is also accessible through the IGWG website. So, I won’t take up more of your time, but thank you very much for sitting and speaking with me today!
SE: And thank you, and thanks everyone for listening!