In October, researchers, practitioners, donors and policy makers came together for the Cultivating Equality 2021 virtual conference, and the more than 90 hours of stimulating sessions culminated in a closing plenary that set out directions for future gender research.
Needs for systems-level change, participatory research that is responsive to women and gender inequalities, engaging with men and redefining masculinities, finding the best ways to get appropriate technologies into the hands of women, and providing equitable climate adaptation solutions were among the key themes that were addressed during the discussion.
Below we take a closer look at the agenda that panelists Bettina Bock, Professor, Wageningen and Groningen University Netherlands; Rolando Cerda, Researcher and Professor, CATIE; Nicoline de Haan, Director, CGIAR GENDER Platform; Jemimah Njuki, Africa Director, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI); Philip Otieno, Executive Director, Advocates for Social Change Kenya (ADSOCK); and Vicki Wilde, Senior Program Officer, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation laid out for gender research going forward under the lead of Seema Arora-Jonsson, Professor, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, as moderator.
Arora-Jonsson opened by pointing out the learning opportunities that exist when exploring the similarities and differences between varied geographies and the unexpected positive outcomes that can arise from the linkages between the Global North and South—a theme that was revisited during the questions and answers segment.
Change at the system level
"We can fight for ages to adapt women to the system – to enable them to play the game. Or we can change the rules of the game," said Bock.
During the closing plenary, a clear consensus was reached among the panelists that gender research needs to focus on answering the question, How should systems change to support women working in food systems?
Panelists seemed to agree that the focus should be on changing systems and not on trying to fit women into them. Njuki stressed the need for change at the grassroots level and beyond—she invited us, as gender researchers and development practitioners, to look within the organizations we work with and think about how systems need to change to serve women better. Using a term coined by Njuki, Wilde reiterated that it is all about making systems more ‘womanable’ and inclusive.
Inclusive and participatory research
"Who are we to empower? People empower themselves. And we need to listen. How can we listen in the sense of what they want and what they need?" asked de Haan.
A common theme during the entire conference, which was reiterated as a priority area for future research, is the need for inclusive and participatory research. Research should be equitable, responsive to women, and it should advance their rights.
Wilde emphasized the need to take an equity lens from the very start and work toward an institutional structure that includes and makes visible all voices. Likewise, Cerda voiced the need for more women from rural and Indigenous groups to work with scientists as they are most knowledgeable about the needs of their communities.
Community trust and engagement is critical for progress, and time and resources need to be directed toward ensuring that interventions are inclusive and not extractive at the local level. Otieno emphasized the need for researchers to share results with the communities involved in studies or potentially impacted. Along the same lines, Wilde asked the audience members to think about how science needs to change to serve women better, and Njuki emphasized the need for ensuring the move toward participatory research does not further burden women.
Finally, de Haan pointed out that all our work needs to be cognizant of the fact that there are a lot of different types of women, and we need to think deeply about how to understand and target different groups of women better.
Other areas for future research
Otieno raised the issue that gender research cannot address systemic issues without exploring how best to redefine masculinities and better engage men and boys in the process. In addition, it is also imperative to study how the current structures of male power affect women.
De Haan emphasized that the critical work to engage women to find out what they need, and then put those resources and tools in their hands, must continue. Especially, in the rapidly digitizing world we live in, de Haan said, we need to work hard toward getting technology in women’s hands such that it works for them.
For work in rural areas and with marginalized groups to matter, Wilde implored gender researchers to look at resilience building and adaptation. Climate change is hitting the poorest the hardest—and funding must thus focus on rural communities where the effects of climate change will be most strongly felt.
The questions and answers segment brought the discussion back to linkages between the Global North and South by asking the question: How can we strengthen global change toward gender equality in food systems together?
De Haan argued that having global conferences like this one, hosted in collaboration with partners, is key to bringing different perspectives to the fore. Bock reflected on an interesting paradox that is prevalent not just in the case of gender research: there is a strong demand for change coupled with the fact that change happens slowly.
In final reflections, the panelists agreed that the Cultivating Equality 2021 conference exemplified the vast distance we as a community of gender researchers have travelled over the past few decades. Wilde reminisced that 20 or 30 years ago, a handful of gender researchers would meet around a dining table. But today, she ended, we saw hundreds of participants from more than 100 countries tune in to discuss critical issues facing gender research. She implored us to continue our work such that the next generation does not have the same conversations as we are having today.