Getting Better Faster, Together – Part 1

Gender at work 1

The issues feminist activists and organizations work on are sticky, entangled, and opaque. The deeply embedded dynamics that hold gender discrimination and inequalities in place make our work unpredictable, and the way forward hard to see. Gender at Work, a transnational network of individuals and organizations, aims to build knowledge and practice to end discrimination against women and advance cultures of equality. Although we place a deep value on shared reflection and learning—and as a core part of our work we facilitate Gender Action Learning (GAL) processes described in Aruna Rao’s  April 16 blog for Fem2.0—we know firsthand what a challenge it is to embed intentional, evidence-based learning in our day-to-day work.

But learning as we go is not a luxury; it’s a necessity. In other words, learning isn’t something we need to find time to do in addition to our strategies.  Learning is itself a strategy. If we can more effectively learn within organizations, across organizations, and throughout the feminist movement as a whole, we can aggregate our collective insights to get better faster, together.

The weak link in an action learning cycle is usually the connection between reflection and planning. How do the insights we’ve generated from our reflection on data and experience actually translate into and affect sound decisions about what to do next?  We’ve witnessed countless groups reflect on their experience or other kinds of data (including evaluation findings), then come to conclusions about what the data might mean for their own context, and yet fail to adapt their strategies or tactics in ways that improve their results. And even though we specialize in supporting groups with Gender Action Learning processes, we also struggle to build systematic ways of learning into our work in an ongoing way. So Gender at Work is experimenting with approaches to embed strategic learning into our individual projects and our network as a whole. We’d like to share what we’ve tried in this blog post and a sequel, with the hopes of illustrating a concrete approach that other organizations and networks can also test and refine.

Our Experiment with Emergent Learning in Action

Rather than designing and implementing an elaborate, network-wide learning “system,” as many organizations do, we decided to test learning approaches in localized projects to work out the bugs before we try it in other settings or network-wide. Our first localized experiment with a systematic learning approach is occurring with a team of Gender at Work Associates working in the Vaal region of South Africa. With a FLOW grant ( from the Dutch government, the team is convening a multi-stakeholder Gender Action Learning process to address gender-based violence (GBV) in the area.

The challenge is that despite the best efforts of many feminist activists and NGOs who have been raising awareness, providing programs to support survivors, and advocating for improved legal and criminal justice, rates of gender-based violence in the Vaal aren’t diminishing. This is unsurprising, as violence against women and non-conforming genders emerges from a deeply unequal society where violence has become normalized in everyday life. And the women and men who generally have less structural power (e.g. those from low-income, working class communities) bear the brunt of the violence. Yet they seldom participate in—much less lead—the analysis of the problem or the development of strategies to address it.  Nor do most GBV change strategies focus specifically on the underlying norms driving the problem.  As a result, the Gender at Work team wondered:

How can we build a more sustainable gender action learning process that is rooted in working class perspectives, is less resource-intensive, and addresses existing gender ‘deep structures’ in society, particular norms underlying violence against women?

In response to this question, the team developed a provisional theory of change for a Gender Action Learning process that would bring together community members in the Vaal from a variety of sectors (such as trade union members, NGO staff, faith groups, and the public sector). Acknowledging that this kind of strategy is complex and unlikely to unfold in a predictable way, the team’s theory includes a few key propositions:

  • Transformative solutions to GBV cannot emerge unless a wide variety of stakeholders from across the community have an opportunity to collaboratively diagnose and address the norms that underlie the high GBV statistics.
  • By building on our existing relationships and then broadening stakeholder participation to reflect a diversity of community interests, we will see enough critical mass (i.e., collective strength, common vision, bringing together of passions) to create momentum for working collaboratively in the Vaal area in a new way.
  • An open space design and participant-led process will build ownership and increase the likelihood that the work on GBV will continue even after the FLOW grant period has ended.

The team isn’t  sure whether—or under what conditions—these propositions hold true, or how crucial they are to achieving their goal.  As a result, the propositions serve as the scaffolding of the team’s long-term strategic learning practice. They will focus on observing and collecting data that signals whether these propositions are, in fact, holding true and under what conditions.  Are they seeing signals that stakeholders feel an increased level of ownership and inspiration due to the participatory nature of the collaborative design? Does the presence of a broader and more diverse group of participants seem to create a context where people see beneath program-level treatment of GBV to the underlying cultural norms that drive it? Does the breadth and size of the convening seem to be generating momentum for a different way of working together across silos in the Vaal?  And most importantly, for all of these questions, what seems to be driving the results that we see, whether positive or negative?  If we answer this last question, we can adapt our tactics mid-stream to increase the likelihood of success.

Based on these kinds of forward-looking, action-oriented learning questions, the Gender at Work team in the Vaal is now using a semi-structured action/reflection approach called “Emergent Learning,” developed by US-based organizational development consultant Marilyn Darling, to find answers to these questions, focus their evaluative lens, and adapt their strategies and tactics in response to what they learn.

Our next blog post will focus more deeply on the Emergent Learning process and describe the experience of the Gender at Work team in the Vaal as they have gone through the process.  In the meantime, to start generating a more meaningful learning agenda for your own organization or network, consider what forward-looking, action oriented questions could have the most powerful impact on your own work.  Ask yourself:  What would it take to….?  That’s the start of getting better together, faster.

(To be continued…)

Tanya Beer is an Associate at Gender at Work ( and the Assistant Director of the Center for Evaluation Innovation (

Photo Credit: Gender At Work Facebook page

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