Interview with a development worker: reflections on the impact of gender equality
To mark Canada's second Gender Equality Week, MEDA is highlighting important issues and voices around women’s empowerment and gender equality in the area of economic development. This is the third installment of our #EveryoneBenefits blog series. This blog is an interview between MEDA Project Manager (Gender), Calais Caswell and Carl Asuncion - Program Manager (Monitoring and Impact Management) on how a gender equal world benefits everyone - including men and boys. This interview has been edited for clarity.
At MEDA, we believe that achieving gender equality and the empowerment of women and other marginalized individuals requires the support and active engagement of men and boys. This is because gender equality is not just about women and girls and gender diverse people, but about addressing and dismantling a social system (patriarchy) that is also oppressive to men, boys, and others that express a masculine identity
In our programming, we do this through our work with Men Gender Champions as well as other community-based social dialogue activities including working with community and business leaders as allies to influence positive change.
Within our MEDA offices we have many men allies that support and endorse the message that gender equality benefits everyone, including one who has volunteered to chat with us today!
Carl Asuncion is one of MEDA’s Monitoring and Impact Measurement (MIM) Specialists who recently took on the role of Gender Equality Lead for MEDA’s new project in Senegal entitle AVENIR.
For our third blog of the week, I took the opportunity to gain his perspective into this year’s Gender Equality Week theme.
Calais Caswell: Thanks for joining me Carl! The theme for Gender Equality Week 2019 is “Gender Equality (GE) Benefits Everyone”, and the Ministry’s website includes intentional imagery in terms of showing men doing childcare, etc. So, to start us off: Do you feel that GE benefits everyone, why or why not?
Carl Asuncion: I definitely think gender equality benefits everyone, but I don't think gender equality is going to benefit everyone right away. There's going to be discomfort from different parties. For example, we might undertake an intervention to foster gender equality for women working in agriculture, but the community surrounding those women may block progress or not be supportive. This means there are going to be barriers that we need to find solutions for.
The same goes for those not involved in the intervention. Some men may not know where they fit which may cause hardships. As I've been working in this this space, and reflecting on readings and conversations I’ve had, I’ve come to realize how important it is that we manage the transition from gender inequality to gender equality. In the long run, GE will benefit everyone and the way I summarize it is that people will be able to dream of what they want to do, be supported with resources to achieve their goals, and have role models that they can look up to, as opposed to second guessing whether they belong there.
CC: Before you came to MEDA, how much did social justice theory or GE issues play a role in your life?
CA: My thinking and reflecting on these issues came more from me identifying as an ethnic minority, not so much from me identifying as a man. I was acutely aware growing up that I liked to do certain things that were more 'feminine' like cooking that I didn't see many men around me doing. This made me reflect on the division of work in a household.
I also grew up in a household where my mom was a stay-at-home mom who gave up her career until we were much older. Then I moved into the world of economics where there were definitely more men than women when I was in university.
CC: Do you think that familial patterning around gender roles is different between generations? Have you noticed among millennial men or your peers if patterns are shifting away from more gender stereotypical norms, or with more awareness of movements like #metoo?
CA: To me, gender equality means bringing women into spaces where men are, and vice-versa, like employment for example. During my bio-med degree, I lived with two women nurses and we spoke about the lack of men in nursing. Those conversations pushed me to question why men or women are more represented in certain fields. Why aren’t there more men in nursing or stay-at-home dads who aren’t the primary breadwinners? I think these roles are shifting which is the case with people like myself who don't feel they need to be the primary breadwinner or make more money than their spouse.
I also think the transition toward greater gender equality will be different for diverse groups. Everyone has different experiences and cultural perspectives. For example, the life of a Caucasian man that grew up in Canada is very different from those of us that are first generation immigrants or other visible minorities that have lived in Canada their whole life.
Although I believe there is more awareness of gender inequality, identity still plays a large role in determining whether that individual believes in traditional gender roles and other forms of understanding about power and privilege.
For example, more men are connecting to cook and are less expectant of their wives or girlfriends to do that for them. They're finding joy working in the kitchen. On the flipside, I know women in my life that don't like cooking. Within my family, my brother and I are the ones who like to cook, and my sister prefers to bake. I think it took some time for my mom to understand that my brother and I were interested in learning Filipino cuisine and wanted to work in the kitchen with her.
CC: When you were recently in Senegal doing a gender equality assessment for AVENIR, did you encounter people who justified different types of inequality as being cultural or religious traditions? If so, can you tell us a bit about your reaction to that?
CA: Definitely. In Senegal most (if not all) of the traditional leaders or elders in the community were men who said that their role in the community was to maintain social cohesion. They conveyed that if our gender equality intervention pushed against or endangered that social cohesion then they could not allow gender equality training to happen for the good of the community. In those situations, I found it valuable to meet with different people in the community, like having women of various ages express what they want to see happen in their community, and then compare their responses with those from younger and older men.
CC: Did you find that in the field you had moments of self-reflection while you were in the field regarding your own identity?
CA: I often reflect on my MIM role because I think it is important to reflect on my biases, privilege, and power. What hit me doing this work, is that we ask a lot of very personal questions, and these questions get even more personal when they are GE-related. It made me question – how can we expect people to be so open with a stranger, let alone someone who is not the same sex as them? This increased my appreciation for approaches that are sensitive to gender differences (like using same-sex interviewers).
Building trust is also critical and that takes a long time. No lengthy consent form or introduction will really get us to the point where respondents are comfortable speaking about some of these issues. Doing this work, you must have empathy and approach each conversation with humility. You have to be able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. I also think you need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. I had to lean into this discomfort to have any chance of getting down to the real crux of the problem or what people felt were some of the most challenging issues that they were experiencing.
CC: What do you think are important attributes of a male ally, in your work as a development practitioner and as a co-worker and colleague?
CA: I think listening is important – entering conversations with open ears and lots of empathy while also seeking to understand where people are coming from and what they want. Then, when people give you an honest answer to your question, it is important to respond to the needs that are presented to you as opposed to assuming what their needs are or what is best for them.
Checking your perspectives routinely is key to this work. For me, many of those come from a North American context. This work has prompted me to think about my ethnic minority status and how it shapes the work that I'm doing, as well as the preconceived notions or cultural lens I'm bringing to the work, both here in Canada and abroad. While researching and reflecting on this topic, I noticed that there is a lot written and documented on white experiences working within international development, but not on the experiences of ethnic minorities especially men, and/or Asian men, working in this field.
Moreover, coming from what is arguably a more gender equal context when you're going abroad, being an effective ally entails being open and sharing your own experiences. For example, in Senegal the younger men I spoke with don't cook, and they get made fun of if they do. At the end of one session, I shared with some of them that I do a lot of cooking which took them by surprise. I thought it was important to demonstrate that there are changes happening elsewhere, and that it might be a more foreign notion now but that it doesn’t need to be that way forever.
Lastly, as I reflect on my role as a co-worker at MEDA, I want to help build our internal gender equality capacity and collaborate on shared projects like the gender equality indicator bank that supports the mainstreaming of gender equality practices across all areas of MEDA's work so that we can influence change more effectively.
CC: You were recently asked to join the gender audit committee as MEDA undertook an audit of our operations to see how we can improve our work environment to be more equitable and inclusive. Did you have a personal motivation or rationale for supporting that effort?
CA: I think I was asked, in part, to bring more gender diversity to the conversation, and I was happy to contribute. That said, I also had a vested interest because MEDA talks a lot about gender equality and wanting to mainstream it across our programming, so I wanted to be a part of the conversation that assessed and evaluated whether we "walk the talk" at our North American offices. I also hope to eventually start my own family and so I was curious from that perspective as well about the types of policy and practice recommendations that might come from it. I think the audit was embraced by many MEDA colleagues and hit a personal nerve because I think that many really believe in the importance of creating or supporting the development of gender equal communities, environments, and market systems. I feel like many of our colleagues don't think that is possible unless everyone at HQ appreciates that as well. I think we want to ensure that we aren't just focusing on gender equality in our projects for donor funding but instead living it out as one of our values. I think it's important for all of us at the organization that what we believe aligns with what we're doing.
Thanks for your insights and contributions Carl!