Engendering Data Blog Post

Safeguarding gender integration in research during the COVID-19 pandemic

Safeguarding gender integration in research during the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 crisis is unprecedented in its rapid transition from a localized public health emergency to a global calamity. This pandemic is shaping up to be an economic, political, and social watershed, accompanied by increased poverty and a potential food and nutrition crisis.

This post was first published by the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM).

Existent gendered social dynamics and inequalities mean that while mortality rates from the virus are higher for men, women’s lives and livelihoods are affected by COVID-19 more deeply and in different ways. The pandemic and potential responses to it may exacerbate multi-faceted gender disparities, with women from marginalized groups hardest hit. These effects will reverberate through agriculture and span nutrition, health, safety, income, education, and governance.

“The pandemic is exacerbating and deepening pre-existing inequalities, exposing vulnerabilities in social, political, economic, and biodiversity systems, which are in turn amplifying the impacts of the pandemic. The most pervasive of these inequalities is gender inequality.” (UN, 2020:3)

What does this mean for the research for development research community? How can researchers ensure that studies inform inclusive COVID-19 responses and that data collection during the pandemic avoids further marginalization?

Given the gendered implications of COVID-19, it has never been more important to attend to the quality of science by fully addressing the gendered dimensions of research. Yet pandemic pressures present risks to research teams’ ability to design effectively. These include:

  • A reliance on virtual data collection, given social distancing requirements;
  • Time pressures leading to disciplinary silos and technical bias, with assumptions that gender and social dimensions can be addressed ‘later’;
  • Unequal phone and internet access and social dynamics exacerbating sampling that privileges more powerful actors – and under-represents women and marginalized groups;
  • Bias toward ‘households’ as the unit of analysis, obscuring differences between females and males.

Here we share ideas to help researchers engage with differentiated impacts and vulnerabilities, design studies that ‘do no harm’, and inform COVID-19 responses that keep the wellbeing of women, girls, and marginalized groups at their center. Further, we hope to spark momentum toward a community of practice around effectively gender-integrated COVID-19 research and responses.

Identify who is at risk. Start with assessment of who (which women, which men) is most at risk of being affected, (further) disadvantaged, ‘left behind’, or subject to perverse consequences. Pay attention to identifying groups (overlapping identities) that are most likely to be at risk, based on the complex intersection of pre-existing health, socio-economic, cultural, and gender disparities. The UN Framework includes women, youth, and older people; indigenous peoples and minorities; migrants and internally displaced peoples; and people in informal settlements to the most at risk group in addition to the broader priority group of smallholder farmers, fishers, and informal sector actors. Assess why and how different groups are vulnerable, across multiple dimensions. Use this to prioritize research and inform program and policy responses.

Unpack diverse needs. Apply a gender lens to investigate experiences and identify different (or common) risks. Key dimensions may include: How are different women and men affected in their lives and livelihoods, including in access to assets, information, or services? To what extent do women and men have equal voices in decision-making about COVID-19 responses? When these are uneven, what is needed to ‘level the playing field’?  Prioritize identifying the short and longer-term needs of different individuals, particularly of those most at risk. Use this to inform policy and program responses.

Choose units, questions, and methods of analysis that will surface gender and intersectional differences. Contributing to gender-responsive policies and programs requires data about different groups within households, in particular women and girls. Consider when it is important to use individuals as the unit of analysis instead of households.

Approach sampling thoughtfully. Engage all genders in appropriate numbers, keeping in mind intersectional differences (such as age), with a focus on at-risk groups.  Avoid sampling bias. For example, snowball or convenience sampling risks bias toward dominant groups. Identify context-appropriate strategies to prevent such bias. Consider working through local partners and women’s groups or gathering information via women and men key informants who can reliably represent other marginalized actors.


Cleaning your groceries is a new normal during COVID-19. © ILO/Piemsuk Wanichupatumkul.


Do no harm. As well as following standard ethical protocols and processes, pay particular attention to avoiding additional burdens and risks for women. These include time burdens, clashes with care work, increased tension in the household, or sparking intimate partner violence. The UN Women guideline underscores: “never prioritize data over women’s safety” (UN Women, 2020:4). Note that UN Women currently suggest to not include questions about women respondents’ experiences of violence as part of broader rapid assessments.

Design around gender barriers and exclusions. Be sensitive to household dynamics (see above) and adapt accordingly. This might include limiting interviews to 30 minutes and syncing them with women’s daily schedule; getting agreement from more powerful household members; and employing same-sex interviewers.

Use a gender lens in local and partner engagement. Be sure that the research partnerships themselves are gender and socially inclusive. Consider working with existing women’s groups (such as processing associations or credit groups) and reliable key informants, taking care to not only get input from actors representing the most powerful women. Inclusive partnerships will support research in both making sure it is effectively responding to participants needs and amplifying the voices of groups that might otherwise be overlooked in COVID-19 responses.

Legitimate and ethical community involvement. As underscored by the WHO, during the trying times of the COVID-19 crisis – as always – women and men participating in research for development need to be treated as equal collaborators and co-owners of information and solutions, not simply as data sources.

The pressures of COVID-19 accentuate the need for effective gender integration in research for development. It is through such a commitment that research will inform policy and practice that do no harm and enable smooth and inclusive recoveries—especially for those most at risk. This represents not only ‘leaving no one behind’ during the crisis but leveraging research to create a more inclusive and food secure future.


Cynthia McDougall is the Gender Research Leader for WorldFish and the CGIAR Research Program on Fish Agri-food Systems (‘FISH’). Jayne Curnow is the Research Program Manager for  Social Sciences at the Australian Center for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR).

This story is part of the EnGendering Data blog which serves as a forum for researchers, policymakers, and development practitioners to pose questions, engage in discussions, and share resources about promising practices in collecting and analyzing sex-disaggregated data on agriculture and food security.

If you are interested in writing for EnGendering Data, please contact the blog editor, Dr. Katrina Kosec.

Banner photo: A street vendor in front of a non-essential shop temporarily closed due to social distancing instructions on COVID-19 in Hanoi, Viet Nam in April 2020. ©ILO (Flickr)