06/24/2015 04:49 pm ET Updated Jun 24, 2016

Gender Mainstreaming Matters

Just this month FHI 360 hosted its second Gender 360 Summit -- a day-long meeting to examine how we can achieve gender equality within international development.

The event included a series of "gender lounges" to explore strategies for realizing gender equality, and I led a discussion on gender mainstreaming as one such strategy.

Gender mainstreaming is the process of assessing how an international development policy, piece of legislation, program, initiative or any kind of planned action will impact women and men. The underlying principle is that women and men are often affected differently, and seemingly gender-blind actions can reinforce the very inequities international development assistance is designed to fix. But when women's concerns, experiences, and know-how are considered just as men's are, we're on a path toward striking down gender inequality and promoting equitable benefits for women and men from efforts to economically and socially advance their communities.

Organizations that mainstream gender equality into their internal processes and policies and external programs see a host a very tangible results.

Examining gender internally can lead to better policies for everyone, such as more balanced staffing patterns in technical and managerial positions, improved maternity and paternity leave, and fairer salary brackets. Take, for example, how Reddit CEO Ellen Pao has done away with salary negotiations for new employees.

Externally, gender mainstreaming can mean, for example, greater income for whole families because a job training program is held at a time that's convenient for both women and men. InterAction's research reveals the connection between internal gender mainstreaming and effective program outcomes.

With such potential, we should all be running as fast we can to our HR and organization leaders to ask how we can be the best gender mainstreamers we can be. But there are some real obstacles to effective gender mainstreaming, even for organizations with the very best of intentions.

I've seen firsthand many of the obstacles, such as skepticism from already busy staff, or lack of commitment from leadership, or not enough funding. Because I've been there to help dozens of organizations with their gender mainstreaming initiatives, I have some advice:

Set your goals.

Gender mainstreaming is about promoting gender equality, but each organization will come to this through a different lens. What gender equality looks like in a water and sanitation program is quite different from an economic opportunity program. Think long and hard about the strategies you will use to achieve gender equality -- is it through parity in staffing? More female agriculture extension workers or more male health trainers? Or re-focusing your programing with a gender "do no harm" requirement by monitoring for unintended consequences that reinforce gender inequality? Set your goals and be specific.

Take stock of challenges.

For many organizations, this can be the hardest part of putting gender mainstreaming into action. Some staff may see adding a gender lens to their work as an extra task on their already full plate. Some will (wrongly) see gender mainstreaming as only benefiting women. Some organizations will face a lack of champions for gender mainstreaming in their leadership ranks. Funding may be another hurdle.

These are very real, and common, challenges organizations face. And, honestly, challenges to gender mainstreaming are hard to identify because no one likes talking about why something may fail. But it's a necessary step if you're to get a workable gender action plan together.

Gauge your competencies.

The flip side to looking for challenges is looking for ways to take advantage of the competencies your organization has, and how you can create behavioral and cultural changes within your organization in support of your gender mainstreaming efforts. Creating processes that allow for participation across and among staff levels will help build buy-in and build technical capacity as well.

Follow through.

Follow through can be the biggest challenge. Organizations must look at the long term and plan for regular capacity strengthening to continue to build staff skills needed for effective gender mainstreaming. Building a focus on gender equality in organizational accountability systems, such as performance evaluations and program guidelines and monitoring and evaluation processes, help keep gender equality on the organization's long-term agenda. But most importantly, remember that you don't need to recreate the wheel. Recognize the progress your organization has made and plan to build off of it.

For a second consecutive year, FHI 360's Gender 360 Summit reminded us that gender mainstreaming matters. The Summit offered an important opportunity to explore progress on making gender equality worldwide a reality.

To truly achieve this goal, we will need many more international development organizations to recognize that gender mainstreaming matters because it is about the global well-being, and global well-being matters to everyone.