Our Perspectives

Why troublemakers should work together: Ten thoughts on innovation and gender equality


women participate in trainingUNDP is fostering innovation to address complex problems in a new way. Photo: UNDP in Europe and CIS.

Pushing innovation and working for gender equality are a natural fit.

Both necessitate the combination of causing trouble, looking at internal mechanisms, and working with non-traditional partners.

Moreover, both have transformational potential.

Inspired by UNDP’s current innovation agenda, we formulated some principles on innovation and gender equality. Our aim is not just to marry gender equality and innovation but to further bolster UNDP’s Guiding Principles for the Innovation Community. These 10 thoughts can hopefully provide meaningful food for thought when designing innovation initiatives around the world.

1. Start with your partners
It’s been our experience that those most affected by society’s problems are often the ones who have the innovative solutions at hand. It is our job to unearth, enable and scale them. However, innovations, like everything else, are not gender-neutral. Who designs the latest gadget, website, or citizen feedback mechanism also plays a role in who will use it. Ensuring equal numbers of men and women are with us at the design table will help ensure everyone’s voice is heard.

2. What’s the bottleneck?

A key component of finding innovative solutions is figuring out the problem, and then trying to find out the root causes. To do this, we must get out of the office and into the streets. We have to talk to affected women and men as well as those who benefit from the situation as it is. The Development Impact and You (DIY) Toolkit is a great resource. Collecting qualitative insights from affected women and men and combining them with sex-disaggregated data can go a long way in developing a precise problem statement.

3. Think change, not technology
Our framework focuses on the process of innovation and less on developing fancy gadgets. This process – identifying bottlenecks, supporting partners in formulating ideas, prototyping and scaling – requires engaging a wide range of partners, from different strata of social life. Design this process in way that ensures that women and men both participate and consider setting up women-centric processes.

4. Take inclusion seriously
Avoid innovation jargon and the creation of an innovation elite. As in most countries, women and girls are underrepresented in technical professions, so this constitutes a real risk of exclusion.  Don’t make the mistake of excluding people from innovation because of the mistaken assumption that everyone understands what you’re talking about.

5. Go frugal
The resources available to disadvantaged and poor people are limited. We also know that women make up a large proportion of the poor. Support women and men in transforming scarcity into opportunity by creatively using available resources. Focus on innovations that have low costs to develop and realistic distribution channels.

6. Focus on both processes and outcomes
Development organizations fail at making a real difference on gender inequalities if their internal arrangements contradict gender equality principles. The same is true for innovation. To succeed in becoming a go-to partner for innovation in development, we must complement our work on the ground with similar innovations to transform ourselves.

7. Keep your perspective
Our innovation framework sets out to quickly identify what works and what doesn’t. This is a needed innovation in how we operate. However, some innovative practices take time to reach a tipping point that generates change.
This is especially true for changing (gender) norms and attitudes. Some practices to end female-genital-mutilation have all the characteristics of innovation. And they took years to kick in. Take a look at behavioural science when working to change gender norms and bring a longer-term perspective to innovation work.

8. Take monitoring seriously
Testing out several potential solutions within a short time frame is another key pillar of our framework. To identify which prototype works on a smaller scale, design thorough monitoring mechanisms from the start – and one that takes the gender perspective at its core.

9. Appreciate complexity
Empowering lives can mean changing power structures, economic conditions, and cultural norms. Our work environments are complex. A gender analysis of every context makes this clear. This means that there are no ‘one size fits all’ innovative solutions. Give up the search for ‘best practices’. Get inspiration from good and emerging practices and customize them to your context.

10. Embrace the struggle
The transfer of ‘best practices’ can lead to a simple mimicry of processes without really changing attitudes and creating long-lasting changes. Societies that achieved greater gender equality all underwent struggles – shifts in power relations on multiple levels. Design innovation processes to facilitate such struggles in a civil and productive manner instead of trying to sell a pre-cooked innovation packages.

That’s our top ten list. What do you think? Did we miss something crucial?
Drop us a line below and tell us your experience in troublemaking with gender and innovation!

A full version of this blog was posted previously on UNDP's Voices of Eurasia.

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