Source: Arne Hoel-World Bank

Although there have been increasingly strong efforts to combat gender inequality since the Beijing Conference in 1995, the violation of women’s rights has shown great resilience. A recent blog post from UNWOMEN pointed out that:

  • Despite efforts by many governments, women are still only 24% of parliamentarians worldwide
  • Women are underrepresented on Boards of Directors and executive positions in both private and public organizations
  • Worldwide, women receive 77 cents/$ and do three times as much unpaid care work as men.

Not surprisingly, development organizations reflect the gendered social norms of their societies. Typically, women work in a gendered organizational culture which determines who does what, who makes the decisions and what gets valued. Think tanks are not immune from these gender difficulties; many demonstrate an underrepresentation of women in senior positions or influential programs (related to, for example, economics, international relations and security) or show a bias in terms of policies regarding pay, work-related travel and leave.

Fortunately, there’s quite a bit of work underway aimed at changing this. As profiled in a TTI blog series on SDG5 we know that many think tanks have already taken important steps to address gender inequities; for example, by:

  • Considering gender across their organizational policies and practice
  • Advocating for equal opportunities for women in research
  • Integrating gender considerations in research from start to finish 

Our approach to gender action learning

In 2018, with the help of feminist consultants Gender at Work, the Think Tank Initiative (TTI) set out to take a more ambitious approach to capacity development around gender. We embarked on an 18-month action learning project to support organizational change processes aimed at adopting transformational approaches to gender in both research and organizational policies and practices.

This project built on the positive reception to other TTI action learning projects that have aimed to achieve transformation around business models, gender responsive budgeting and organizational capacity development more broadly. Through the latter project IDRC’s Peter Taylor found that change is more likely when there are “powerful ideas about the nature of change, champions to back up and promote the ideas, change processes that are nourished by empowering relationships, and capacity development undertaken within a well understood context.”  Taylor explains:

An action learning process aims to achieve change or transformation of some kind. It involves participants researching a particular problem or challenge within an organization as part of a dedicated and targeted process to help bring about desired change. It is also a way of reflecting systematically on experiences and practices, rigorously documenting what happens, and using the evidence to take action – which is itself evaluated. Communicating the results in ways that make sense (e.g. showing trends in improvements [or otherwise]) with colleagues both inside and outside the organization, and with other interested stakeholders, is an important part of the action research process.                       

Source: Action research: its nature and validity. / Checkland, Peter; Holwell, S E., in: Systemic Practice and Action Research, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1998, p. 9-21

There are, of course, challenges that come with this approach. Action learning is as much about process as it is about outcomes, and the timelines are not short given the need to build in opportunities for peer learning and reflection. In addition, participants often take this on in addition to their regular roles. Therefore, part of Gender at Work’s role involved coaching participants and encouraging them to set realistic expectations of what could be accomplished within 18 months.

Overall, the Gender Action Learning Project aimed to contribute to advancing the equality agenda in think tanks in two ways:

  1. Improve our understanding of the particular organizational dynamics of think tanks and how they work to either advance or block efforts at gender equality.
  2. Experiment with a method of change which has been used effectively in a range of other types of organizations (Gender Action Learning)

Building a peer learning community 

For over a year this project has been supporting peer learning among five think tanks as they undertake activities to reframe the research processes, and in some cases the internal organizational practices of their institutions, to become more gender-transformative. A team of change agents from each organization comes together as a cohort of peers.  These teams then build a community of peer learning and are supported by coaches who might give advice on the change process, facilitate a key meeting, or provide a needed resource.  This process happens over time and assumes that change must fit the particular context and must therefore be designed by insiders.  Examples of some of the exciting projects underway include:

What these projects all have in common is a commitment to built-in periods of reflection and peer learning. In fact, despite the geographic, contextual and organizational variance across these organizations, they identified a need to come together in Guatemala in March 2019 for a writeshop to capture and share the successes, and challenges, of the overall project. This will result in more blogging by participants, which we’ll be sure to share.


Although we will know more after the Guatemala meeting, we are impressed with progress the Think Tanks have made.  It has not always been easy.  This work has to fit into already full schedules. Key success factors seem to be the energy and commitment of the change team members, support from senior staff, conceptual presentations designed specifically for the moment, face to face meetings at key stages and the growing interest among Think Tanks in the issues of gender equality. In a future post we will describe what we have learned about supporting learning in Think Tanks regarding gender equality.