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Does Gender Matter?

gender |ˈjendər|

noun

1 the state of being male or female (typically used with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones)

sex |seks|

noun

either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and many other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions: adults of both sexes.

 

wo girls carve runes on the yard of the Museum of History in Stockholm

Two girls carve runes on the yard of the Museum of History in Stockholm

Hen,” the Swedish gender-neutral pronoun has stirred an interesting debate over the role of gender in our society. Even though this debate is not new, Sweden has undoubtedly been a pioneer in pushing for a “gender-neutral” education for children, by starting at the nursery school level. Sweden is the first country to establish a gender neutral nursery school. During the past few months, the media has increasingly addressed the question of gender in different spheres, ranging from gender-neutral underwear, to gender-neutral bathrooms, to using gender-neutral terms in schools, to the world’s first gender-neutral sex toy, to Veterans of Foreign Wars becoming gender neutral as well.

The Transformer - The World's First Gender-Neutral Sex Toy

The Transformer – The World’s First Gender-Neutral Sex Toy

I have always been fascinated by the concept of gender, particularly how gender is socially constructed and how it gives us an identity. It is a fact that men and women are biologically different: we define our sex based on our reproductive organs. Gender however, is different. How do we define our gender? Other than the evident biological differences that exist between men and women, our society has constructed traditional gender roles that prescribe certain behaviors based on what is considered “feminine” and “masculine.” Anthropologist Margaret Mead was among the first to distinguish between gender and sex and study the ways in which cultural conditioning plays a much bigger role than biology in shaping men and women’s behaviors. Even though every culture differs as to what these behaviors entail, there is a sense of universality, (or rather, a “western universality”) among most of them, so for instance, it is the norm for girls to wear dresses and for boys not to wear them; or for girls to play with dolls and boys to play with cars, and so forth.

boyThese might seem like pretty trivial examples, but if we analyze them closer we will soon realize that these behaviors are “taught” or “imposed” on us. I think that even if some children are given the choice to decide what toy they want to play with, family, society and school will still be responsible for shaping that child’s gender. This is why Sweden’s move to neutralize gender in schools is revolutionary in that it is challenging societal preconceived notions of gender.gender neutral 2

Foucault’s studies on power relationships, gender and sexuality, explain how we construct our social meanings of normalcy, and how these social constructions are used to marginalize and oppress behaviors that divert from the “norm.” All social institutions play a role in forming these notions, and gender is certainly one of them. Foucault encourages us to find our identities outside of the “normal” patterns established by society (Feinberg & Soltis, 2009).

The deconstruction of gender, from a woman’s perspective, I think poses an incredibly interesting challenge and question for our future generations. Gender has undoubtedly played a role in power structures around the world and throughout history. Millions of women around the world still face discrimination and violence- just for the sake of being female. For example, women in Iran are worth “half” than their male counterparts, limiting their inheritance and property rights, making them victims of “justifiable” domestic violence, and requiring the permission of their husbands to travel, among many other differences. Will deconstructing gender and redefining gender roles improve their lives? Will our world become more egalitarian, just and equitable if gender as we perceive it today changes? I don’t have the answer to these questions but I do think they are worth asking and worth exploring.gender neutral

In conversation with Dr. Mark Stern, who specializes in political economy, social theory, and public education, among others, when asked if he thinks gender matters, offered the following interesting insight: I believe that gender could represent human potentiality. Gender represents a horizon or possibility for human engagement with the world–how we express who we are, how we feel, and what we do with that. Gender represents possibility to be and to be otherwise–potential, rather than limit (the way it currently functions).” Seen from this perspective, gender becomes an enabling factor as opposed to a disabling one. It represents another dimension of freedom- of freedom to choose and feel what we identify ourselves with.

Does gender matter? I would argue that it matters as long as it empowers us, and as long as it doesn’t function as a means of oppression or “normalization” where we hinder the potentiality of expressing our identities as human beings.

 

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The Girl Effect Accelerator: Changing the global agenda for girls in developing countries?

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Photo by D. Epstein, CEO of Unreasonable, a partner org. in the Girl Effect Accelerator.

The hope of making it big in business attracts many entrepreneurs to San Francisco and Silicon Valley. The area is known for “disrupting” business and creating new products and services that challenge traditional frameworks. However, in the sea of this “disruption” there are few that focus on the most marginalized populations in the world: girls. One incubator program is addressing a global problem through the start-ups focusing on girls first. The Girl Effect accelerator aims to tackle these problems not through nonprofit philanthropy or government aid, but through social impact businesses. The Girl Effect Accelerator Program is supporting its first round of businesses with a two-week workshop that took place in early November. These new businesses address the most pertinent challenges girls and women face, such as healthcare, education, personal finance and safety. The program chose ten companies that specific focus on girls in developing countries.

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The first day of the two-week accelerator program, meeting and mentoring. Photo by D. Epstein.

So, what is an accelerator program? An “accelerator” is a program where participants apply and those who are accepted are able to start or expand their businesses. Once they join a cohort they are able receive mentorship from leaders and build their skill sets. On the last day, they get to pitch their idea or show a demo to investors. These programs have become popular for entrepreneurs since other companies like Airbnb and Dropbox have been incubator graduates and have succeeded later on. Most accelerator programs only focus on building enterprise. The Girl Effect program is a first to use accelerators for different purposes. The Girl Effect is backed by the Nike Foundation and the Unreasonable Group. They are sponsoring this not just because fighting poverty is the right thing to do, they see it as a business opportunity. As research continues to show, educating, supporting and protecting girls in the developing world can be a catalyst for creating economic growth and opportunity within developing communities.  Shaifali Puri, executive director of global innovation at the Nike Foundation, said at the opening remarks of the program, these entrepreneurs have made the impossible merely difficult.” 

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A father bringing his daughter to a Bridges school in Kenya.

One company in the Girl Effect program is specifically addressing education, is Bridges International. It is a for-profit school that costs students about $5 per month to attend. At first glance, their program is quite similar to what the Education for All Initiative (EFA), tries to achieve. EFA was first launched in 1990 by the World Bank. Upon inspection, it is hard to see how Bridges is addressing girls access to education. Furthermore,  how is their model different from EFA and other initiatives that take a top-down approach to education? Hopefully, the Girl Effect program will help them fine tune their approach to create inclusive education programs for girls.

It is inspiring to see programs like the Girl Effect are trying to take an innovative approach when tackling complex issues like girls living in poverty. In the past, this has been traditionally addressed by Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) and more recently Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs). These approaches were developed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank and their missions are to alleviate poverty through economic growth. These programs have been criticized in the past and might be able to reduce poverty for some, but they can also exacerbate inequalities for others. The Girls Effect shows promise to get things done faster, by working through the business lens, instead of aid organizations or local governments. However, there are several considerations that need to be addressed in order to distinguish these programs from the traditional approaches that have been previously implemented:

  • Beneficiary voice needs to be incorporated to find sustainable solutions.
  • Understanding and respecting cultural contexts should be taken into account.
  • Business is not a “one-size-fits-all” solution. There needs to be collaboration from different sectors.
  • Development work already exists in many of the areas where these businesses are starting. Will these projects overlap with other initiatives in the area? Is there potential for partnership and will this be encouraged or as seen as competition?

These considerations are not easy to discuss, but as the Girl Effect scales, they will need to be addressed and incorporated into the program curriculum. Nevertheless, the Girl Effect is the first of it’s kind in the accelerator space to focus on girls in developing countries, so there is promise that other businesses might want to shift their focus on girls as well.

Entering this new space in social impact and business to address real-world problems with market solutions is a trend I like to see. Hopefully, with this new approach, these new businesses will better promote opportunities for girls within the communities they serve.  The answer of “how” this will be done is not clear yet, but the Girl Effect is off to a good start. Nevertheless, I believe we as global citizens are only as strong as our weakest link, so I encourage many different stakeholders and sectors to come together to change the future for girls in developing countries.

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