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Gender-responsive innovation: what, how and why?

Kvinne som jobber for Norsk Folkehjelp© Norwegian People's Aid
Historically, most technology is designed by men, for men. Prevailing gender norms, roles and relations result in women and men facing different challenges, concerns and experiences. These have often been overlooked when developing new solutions. We sat down with two of the innovators from the HIP Norway portfolio that are applying a gender-responsive approach to disrupt this trend.

The UN Women project “Digital solutions for rural women's resilience in the face of disasters” is putting rural women at the heart of the innovation process to develop gender appropriate digital solutions. Through the project, UN Women is partnering with the UN Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) and private sector companies to ensure that women smallholder farmers in Mali and Senegal will have improved access to resilience-building technologies and services, with a focus on mobile-enabled microinsurance solutions, financial literacy, climate services and early warning systems that are tailored to their specific needs.

Lorenzo, you are the project lead for this projec. What is gender-responsive innovation and how is this incorporated into this innovation project?

- A gender-responsive approach to innovation means going beyond acknowledging and raising awareness of the existing gender gaps and making sure that women’s and men’s concerns and experiences are equally integrated in the design of innovative solutions and that due consideration is given to the gender norms, roles and relations.

In this project, we are applying an evidence-based approach to identify the specific needs of women farmers and the gender-specific barriers that they face to access existing solutions in the pilot countries Mali and Senegal. We are using participatory approaches to engage with the women farmers. They have been part of the pilot from the start, and throughout all the phases of the project. In Mali, UN Women’s partner OKO is tackling gender biases in recruiting processes by hiring a group of women agents to balance its workforce and facilitate access to crop insurance for women farmers. Preliminary data shows that the women agents are significantly more effective in raising awareness among women farmers about the importance of insurance. In Senegal, together with our partner Viamo, we are adapting to gender inequalities in access to smartphones and connectivity by adopting low-tech, voice powered services that are tailored to hard-to-reach women smallholder farmers.

Why is it important to apply a gender lens to innovation?

- Innovation and technology offer great promise in tackling development and humanitarian challenges and are potential engines for advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment. However, together with important benefits, they come with a number of risks of doing harm to the intended end users. This risk needs to be minimized. In addition, innovation and technology do not automatically benefit women and men equally, and a number of barriers contribute towards creating and sustaining a gender gap in innovation and technology. Hence, adopting a gender-blind approach will result in innovations that will fail to reach those most in need, leading to missed opportunities for the market and resulting in trillion of dollars lost to the global economy, but will also bear the risk to exacerbate existing vulnerabilities and gender inequalities.

Do you have any advice for other projects on how they can design their processes more gender-responsive and inclusive?

- There are a few important factors that should be taken into account to adopt more gender-responsive and inclusive processes. First, to gather robust data and evidence on the women’s needs and gender gaps through a thorough research phase. It is important not only to generate evidence about the needs, but also to use this data to highlight the opportunity – for the market and other relevant stakeholders. Second, it is crucial to identify and work with likeminded partners that recognize the benefits in investing in the design of more inclusive processes, services and products to address the needs of women and other underserved segments. Third, it is important to not only work to reinforce the offer of more inclusive products by designing them around the specific needs of women and underserved segments, but also to simultaneously strengthen the demand for such products and services, by focusing on awareness-raising and capacity building strategies that are also tailored to the needs of the end users. For example, such strategies need to take into account the different level of access that women and men have to technology and other assets, but also their different time use and work burden, which requires a deep understanding of local social norms, roles and relations.

Turning to another project in the HIP Norway portfolio that has a specific gender focus is Norwegian People Aid’s (NPA’s) project “Next generation of personal protective equipment”. The project is set out to encourage female participation and gender sensitivity in the sector by developing personal protective equipment (PPE) that is anatomically designed to be used by women. Up until now, PPE is designed for male bodies, which exposes female mine clearers to greater dangers than men.

Kyaw Lin Htut, you are managing this project - why do you think it is important to design PPE adapted for women, and why has not been done before?

- In humanitarian mine action, the vast majority of landmine removal is done by trained personnel (deminers) using metal detectors and other equipment to search for and remove landmines in a safe and efficient manner. In order to do this, the deminer is provided with personal protective equipment (PPE) such as ballistic vests and visors. Typically, a humanitarian organisation such as NPA will hire and train local national staff to conduct these activities, which are overseen by more experienced technical experts and advisors. In such a case, local nationals are not only provided job opportunities and technical skills but are also an integral part of uplifting their own communities by removing the dangers of landmines and other explosive remnants of war after a conflict.

In the past demining has been seen as a traditionally male-dominated activity, like most manual-labour professions. However, we as NPA, and the humanitarian mine action sector on a whole, have been changing these perceptions by focusing on hiring, training, mentoring and promoting female operational staff for more than a decade. Thus, we have up to 25% female operational staff who include deminers, supervisors and managers. Despite this progress, the equipment that we use have not necessarily kept up with the needs. For instance, body armour is historically produced in “unisex” models but is designed and optimized for male bodies. Likewise, visors are usually heavy and uncomfortable for both males and females. While there has been some progress made in the security and defence sectors on making more optimized PPE for women, this has not necessarily been the case in the humanitarian sector. This may be partially attributed to factors such as cost (within a humanitarian context), and current generation PPE deemed to be adequate or “good enough”. With this Innovation Norway project, we hope to advance this further by collaborating with both manufacturers and other organisations within the sector to design, produce and use lighter, better protecting PPE more optimized for women.

How do you work to include women in the innovation process?

- We included women since before the beginning of the project. From the inception of the Concept Note, we had our organisational Gender Advisor as well as our Environmental Advisor provide us with invaluable input on the project needs and pathways for implementation. The proposal phase was also led by a female staff member. During project implementation, we conducted an internal survey of field staff, focusing in particular on the ergonomic needs and concerns for female staff. This survey was designed in close coordination with our Gender Advisor in order to be gender-sensitive and respectful of cultural norms and privacy. The results of this survey are published here.

Do you have any advice for other projects on how they can design their processes more gender responsive and inclusive?

  • Include all stakeholders from project design to close-out. This includes both male and female participants.
  • Conduct thorough internal analysis on gaps and needs focused on gender-sensitivity.
  • Conduct a thorough technical analysis on current technological limitations and how these can be overcome in a cost-conscious manner.
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