Think gender, do better

malhautra_200By Akanksha Malhautra

Default setting: Men? 

Consider this:

  • In 2014, 2 in 5 schools in India didn’t have a toilet for girls.[i] Incidentally, 23% of girls drop out of school in India once they hit puberty, in large part due to this lack of toilets.[ii]
  • Most medical research is biased towards male symptoms and experiences.[iii] Studies of emergency room workers assessing heart-attack symptoms suggest they really rely on their knowledge of men’s symptoms, effectively leaving many women undiagnosed and untreated.
  • Only 5% of the CEOs of the world’s largest corporations are women, despite overwhelming evidence to show that women leaders boost financial performance, often outperforming the boys.[iv]

Men are from Mars, women are from Venus. Gender lens anyone?

For anyone trying to fix the world’s problems, disregarding (consciously or unconsciously) the specific and unique needs, circumstances and skills of both women and men is a missed opportunity.

Millions more girls would finish school, fewer women would die of heart attacks or other diseases because of medicines appropriate for their bodies, and organizations would perform better by tapping into the benefits of gender diversity – if decision makers decided to use a ‘gender lens’. That is, if they appreciate the profound impact on our lives of gender, or socially constructed norms of how men and women ought to live and behave.

It’s important to note that, although more often than not, ‘gender-neutral’ tends to reflect the male point of view, this isn’t always true. For instance, masculine notions of strength or shame often come in the way of men’s willingness to access healthcare, or seek psychosocial therapy in the case of victims of sexual violence. A gender lens is thus as crucial for men.

Whether for women or men, the key for funders and implementers, in corporate parlance, is to ‘know your customer’. Gender differences are real, and a gender lens is a tool that acknowledges and seeks greater clarity on what different people (men/women/boys/girls) need and want, where they’re coming from (metaphorically and physically!) and how best to reach and help them.

This is about being strategic. This is good economics. Ultimately, taking a gender lens is about making the best use of limited resources to maximize impact.

Getting started: Insights from the ground

Driven by this conviction, Dasra’s whitepaper ‘Insight: why grant-making in India needs a gender lens’, hopes to demystify the idea of a gender lens, and push grantmakers and social organizations to realize the critical role of gender analysis and programming in creating deeper impact and improving social returns. It encourages self-evaluation and serves as a practical guide for those who would like to use a gender lens more actively in their work but are unsure where to begin – by drawing on insights from enlightened funders and nonprofits on why and how to use a gender lens.

The paper offers strategies for grantmakers that center around the 4 Ps – Priorities (identify women and girls as a high priority beneficiary group), Processes (develop and institutionalize gender sensitive policies, frameworks, toolkits and impact indicators), People (have leaders to champion the cause; promote gender diversity and equality across leadership, staff and board) and Portfolio (influence grantees and partners to adopt a gender lens across priorities, processes and people).

It also includes results from a first of its kind survey of 328 social organizations to understand how widely and to what end a gender lens is being applied in India. Some of the findings are instructive for grantmakers.

  • For example, organizations were at least twice as likely to collect gender-disaggregated data for their programs or train their staff on gender when asked by a funder to do so.
  • Women champion diversity. Women-led organizations were more than five times as likely as those led by men to have a higher representation of women in managerial positions.

Start small, start now.

It’s time to move ‘gender’ from a place of ambiguity and impassioned rhetoric to a permanent fixture in strategy and decision-making. A gender lens brings reality into sharp focus, helping us to let go of assumptions and see clearly what needs doing. This gives us our best shot at success.

Akanksha Malhautra is one of the lead researchers on Dasra’s report ‘In Sight: Why grant-making in India needs a gender lens’. She has also led research and authored several of Dasra’s reports across topics such as domestic violence, good governance and technology for health.


[i] Joshua, A. (2015). Corporates ignore Clean School call. The Hindu.; Swachh Bharat Swachh Vidyalaya

[ii] A.C. Nielsen and Plan India (2010). Sanitation protection: Every Women’s Health Right



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