Mapping the Innovation Terrain for Gender Equality

By Freya Johnson Ross

Gender inequality remains a major global issue. Women continue to be less likely to go to school than men, still earn less than men, and still are more susceptible to physical violence and abuse.

How can we better harness social innovation ideas and methods to advance gender equality—and vice versa?

This was the question we were trying to answer with “Unequal Nation,” the first piece of research from the Young Foundation’s new initiative Gender Futures. Our research sheds light on the current state of gender inequality in the UK (which recently fell from 18 to 26 in the World Economic Forum’s global gender equality rankings), how it relates to social innovation and social finance, and some promising avenues for action going forward. And although the research uses gender inequality in the UK as its starting point, we believe our findings can apply to wider global discussions in this area.

Our research examined three dimensions of gender inequality—resources, attitudes, and power—and while we found some points of positive progress (such as the increasing number of female parliamentarians), there were many points of sticky inequality.

In terms of resources, for example, we found:

  • Unequal opportunities and pay for women in relation to paid work. In the UK, the gender pay gap is currently 19 percent, and some 27 percent of women (compared to 16 percent of men) earn less than the living wage.
  • An unequal balance of responsibility for and time spent on unpaid work. Women continue to do more to care for the home, children, and other family members. This not only limits their ability to engage in paid work, but also affects their well-being; women have less leisure time and are more stressed than men.

In terms of attitudes we found:

  • Ongoing high levels of violence and abuse predominantly perpetrated by men against women. A staggering 1.4 million women in the UK experience domestic abuse each year.

In terms of power we found:

  • Despite some progress, ongoing under-representation of women in positions of authority and influence across the political, business, and social spheres. For example, 29 percent of elected members of the UK parliament and just 23.5 percent of FTSE100 board members are women.

Gender and Social Innovation

We also looked at the gender-related social innovation work of a variety of practitioners, intermediary support organizations, and funders. Reviewing projects that meld social innovation with a gender equality perspective, we found some exciting examples: Women Like Us promotes high-quality, part-time work and offers career advice; Oguntê supports female entrepreneurs; and Fearless Futures empowers young female leaders in school. These projects draw on a nuanced, feminist understanding of how gender inequality works—recognizing that attitudes, power, and resources link together to create and sustain inequality. Each of them channels this into practical vehicles (such as workshops, materials, or mentoring plans) that have the capacity to reach broad audiences and address the roots of inequality.

Despite these green shoots, there are clear gaps to fill. For example, much work to date has focused on increasing support for women entrepreneurs and innovators. This in itself helps boost equality, but it won’t necessarily deliver innovation that addresses gender inequality; all innovations developed by women don’t address gender inequality, and it is now widely recognized that accelerating gender equality will require innovation that addresses and engages both women and men.

We also carried out interviews with UK social finance providers to assess how much they understood and considered gender in their funding decisions. Although participants showed interest in discussing the topic, many didn’t feel confident about addressing gender equality; they neither considered gender equality in decision-making nor measured it in their reporting. In the context of some of the pioneering gender-lens investing work at the Criterion Institute (and discussed in articles on gender lens investing and gender capitalism), this sadly seems to echo a fundamental problem: As the Association for Women’s Rights in Development and others have documented, there is a lack of support for many grassroots organizations that are already innovating in funding for gender equality and women’s rights work.

What Needs to Happen

Based on our findings, we see two interconnected paths forward: gender innovation and gendering innovation.

Gender innovation means innovations specifically targeted at addressing the roots of gender inequality. Where is this already happening? How can we develop and support more of these? Gendering innovation means attending to the gendered nature of existing social innovation practice, support, and funding. How does this currently help or hinder gender equality? How could we improve?

Both nationally and internationally, we need more:

  • Ways of talkingabout gender innovation that engage both gender equality workers and projects, and the broader community of social innovation practitioners, intermediaries, and funders. Language differences can mask common goals and approaches to gender equality and social innovation. Some gender equality organizations we met with during our research, for instance, were unfamiliar with the terms “social innovation” and “social finance,” and some social innovation intermediaries did not understand how “gender” was relevant to their work. Accessible texts, guides, videos, and workshops can bridge the communication gap. The Criterion Institute, for example, has been developing a toolkit to specifically work through this in the context of social finance.
  • Spaces and supportto enable the different actors—funders, intermediaries, social innovation and gender equality organizations—to reach out and connect with the unusual suspects (including organizations that may not consider their work as social innovation), and to challenge old ones. Whether physical or virtual, we need to create and promote opportunities for these groups to come together for both sides to benefit. For example, funders and intermediaries with the resources to host smaller organizations could develop workshops, forums, or “un-conferences” to help harness the creativity of unusual juxtapositions.
  • The social innovation community needs to more consistently recognize the innovation that takes place within the gender equality sector.In a bid to broaden understanding of social innovation, for example, Nesta recently highlighted 18 innovations that have shaped the world. Although this included gendered programs such as childcare and Girlguiding, it did not reference gender inequality or feminist innovation. Explicitly recognizing innovation within the gender equality sector will enrich the gender innovation already taking place. And as Scenarios USA Co-founder Kirsten Joiner noted in a recent article, it will also encourage the valuable calculated risk-taking that the private sector usually encourages.

Gender equality and social innovation actors are both known for their reflexivity–to critique and refine their own working. Both sides stand to gain from acknowledging each other, communicating, and collaborating.

Bringing together the techniques of social innovation and new insights on gender offers a potent way to address long-standing inequality. There is learning and development on offer for all parties in doing so. Social innovation that doesn’t understand how gender shapes all areas of life won’t achieve it’s full potential. Similarly, gender equality actors can learn from the exciting conjunctions, processes, and tools of social innovation to accelerate their vision for equality. The work of drawing the two together has already begun and is picking up speed; now is the time to make sure this work is linked together to make gender innovation mainstream.

Freya Johnson Ross (@freyajross) is a London-based researcher specializing in gender equality and social change. Over the past year she has been working at The Young Foundation to establish and grow Gender Futures.

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