A Revolution of the Obvious: Talking Gender Norms and Philanthropy With Riki Wilchins


Gender norms are powerful, internationally pervasive, yet culturally specific concepts that affects people of all ages. These socially constructed ideas of how to be a woman or a man have enormous impacts on kids—some of them harmful, says Riki Wilchins, executive director of the gender-focused nonprofit TrueChild, which has worked for about 10 years to improve life outcomes for youth “by helping funders and nonprofits challenge rigid gender norms.”

Inside Philanthropy spoke with Wilchins recently about the latest in research, policy, and philanthropy involving gender norms. An iconic figure and activist in the realm of transgender rights, Wilchins founded GenderPAC, the first national advocacy organization devoted to gender rights issues.

The national media routinely reports on high-profile public controversies around gender—especially lately, since the rise of the #MeToo movement—but the analysis around these issues often doesn’t integrate gender norms. In fact, decades of research have shown that when gender norms are narrowly defined, they lead to lower life outcomes in a number of spheres. These include problems in intimate relationships, sexual and reproductive health, economic empowerment, and educational success.

But, philanthropy has been catching on. In addition to the extensive work of women’s foundations and LGBTQ funders across the U.S., which we report on often, gender issues are penetrating more deeply into broader conversations about social change within the sector.

“It's taken 10 years to really put this on the map, for people to realize that intersectionality doesn't just mean race and class, it means race, class, and gender,” said Wilchins.

The research continues to reveal the role of gender norms as youth grow and mature. For example, a 2017 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health found the narrative that girls are weak and boys are strong still plays out globally, in 15 countries across five continents. These and other limiting norms were linked to numerous negative life consequences, such as substance abuse, child marriage, violence, and suicide. The findings illuminate why more funders and service providers are now embracing a gender lens in their work.

While gender norms differ between cultures, Wilchins said that funders generally understand the issues and dangers once they are introduced, because all humans experience them; she sometimes describes bringing gender norms into philanthropy as “a revolution of the obvious.”

Riki Wilchins, TrueChild, and GenderPAC

Before there was TrueChild, Wilchins founded the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition (GenderPAC—it was actually a nonprofit, not a political action committee) in 1995. Wilchins points out this was before LGB became LGBT and now, generally, LGBTQ. During the last 20 years, Wilchins has conducted gender trainings at the White House, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Office on Women’s Health. She helped to found numerous trans- and gender-related groups and events, and is credited with coining the term "genderqueer.” She was recently a keynote speaker at the San Diego Grantmakers Gender Equity Summit and has written five books on gender—her newest, Gender Norms and Intersectionality, comes out in 2019.

GenderPAC rebranded as TrueChild in 2009 when it shifted its focus to youth and gender. This was around the time it got a series of grants from the Ford Foundation to work with “issues of young black men and masculinity.” As we’ve reported, the Ford Foundation has long supported LGBTQ-related causes. Wilchins describes the group’s transformation:

We said OK, the gay community kind of gets gender now, but nobody else does. Because gender affects all kids, we need to start doing this work. That kind of became the marching orders for the organization… Once I started with the Ford grants, the whole world kind of opened up—I thought, ‘Oh my God, this affects young black men, this affects young Latinas;’ you start to see that there's so many different places and issues where this resonates, and that trans is just the tip of a much bigger gender iceberg.

Other early supporters and partners of TrueChild included the Women's Foundation of Minnesota, the Women's Fund of Central Ohio, and the California Endowment.

Thinking Critically about Gender Messages

Wilchins thinks the main challenge of working with gender norms is giving kids tools to think critically about the gender messages they receive and to make “choices to choose more constructive versions” of masculinity and femininity.

With this in mind, TrueChild offers five main services to funders and nonprofits, which sometimes overlap: gender trainings, gender audits, the creation of white papers and reports, community-based research, and curriculum development. Gender trainings can range from introductory to in-depth and can include gender concepts, research findings, and hands-on exercises exploring norms. Gender audits evaluate an organization’s online, printed, internal, and outward-facing materials with a gender lens.


TrueChild’s reports cover diverse topics like gender-informed giving, economic security, (for example, “Women: the Global South”) and are often illustrated by examples from community-based research. It partners with funders and philanthropy-related groups to create these documents, including the Association of Black Foundation Executives, the Global Fund for Women, Hispanics in Philanthropy, the Women's Funding Network, Frontline Solutions, and Women Moving Millions.

Evidence-based training

TrueChild provides several trainings designed for youth-serving organizations, including BLOOM, or Black girls Living Out Our Meaning, which was developed by a researcher at St. John’s University named Dr. Scyatta Wallace. Wilchins says it is one of the first evidence-based, trauma-informed curricula specifically designed to address black girls and gender norms in African-American communities. It was created with support from the Heinz Endowments, and was piloted by the Urban League and the YWCA of Pittsburgh.

TrueChild also has a STEM curriculum called FaST (Femininity And STem.) It was developed with support from Motorola, Applied Materials, and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and piloted at SUNY Stony Brook. A coed version is now being implemented in the East San Jose public schools, and it’s TrueChild’s first entirely school-based program. These initiatives feature a range of exercises designed to help youth think critically about rigid gender norms, such as the “gender box” activity, which encourages participants to list, reflect on, and discuss concepts relating to how to “act like a man” or a woman.

Wilchins describes most of TrueChild’s work as taking a “classic three-legged stool” approach to teaming up with a funder, such as the Simmons Foundation, and its grantees. Simmons is a Texas funder that partners with organizations that strengthen women, youth, and families; it reached out to TrueChild for a gender audit of its materials as well as a gender norms training for its staff, board, and the CEOs of its grantees.

“I have been struck by how [Riki’s] work on gender norms has been applicable to and welcomed by every area of our portfolio. We have also had a huge response from the community in terms of embracing the trainings and coaching for individual organizations,” said Simmons Foundation president and CEO Amanda Cloud. Simmons currently has over 14 grantee agencies engaged in a deep dive with Wilchins, including Montgomery County Youth Services, Bridge Over Troubled Waters, the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative, and the Thurgood Marshall School of Law’s Earl Carl Institute for Legal and Social Policy.

Cloud also says the gender audit made she and her team “more conscious of the language we were using to describe our work and the communities the foundation supports,” and that they are using it to guide their decision-making and make sure their materials are “communicating in an inclusive manner.”

Wilchins said TrueChild is planning a series of joint presentations with the foundation and developing a white paper that documents their collaboration.

Understanding gender norms helps everyone, even straight kids

Philanthropy focused on gender norms may bring to mind funding for women and girls or LGBTQ-centered causes. But, one of the main things Wilchins wants funders, nonprofits, and everyone else to understand about gender norms is that they are relevant to everyone.

Wilchins says LGBTQ kids are the “canary in the gender mine shaft” that can help us recognize more widespread gender issues. For example, she thinks if LGBTQ kids are not comfortable or safe in a certain nonprofit program, “chances are that organization has a pretty harsh gender culture under the hood,” where 90 percent of straight kids are probably also feeling stressed and vulnerable.

So, Wilchins explains, if a youth-serving organization can create a safe space where a queer boy who has been bullied can be feminine or cry, “you make it OK for straight kids who've been traumatized to cry, as well. These things are mutually reinforcing; you're helping everybody.”

The interrelation of LGBTQ youth, straight youth, and gender norms can also be observed in the way “queer kids form the boundaries for what non-queer kids can be or do,” according to Wilchins. At the borders of many feminine and masculine norms, we find behavior traditionally labeled as “gay”—often seen as too feminine for straight males or too masculine for straight females.

Wilchins says these gender boundaries can be readily found in the philanthrosphere, citing how traditional arts funding often becomes gendered with a preference toward girls once youth leave childhood. For example, she says there is little to no funding for 13-year-old boys who want to go into theater or ballet because these activities are seen as “gay.”

“All the funding goes to girls, and no one even talks about this. This is what gender's like; it's like a revolution of the obvious,” she says.

While performing arts are arguably becoming more diverse in some ways—such as the National YoungArts Foundation’s backing of young male dancers and the Victor Alexander Young Men’s Dance Scholarship—it’s true that women continue to dominate key parts of the dance world. Little grantmaking is designated specifically to counter this imbalance and usher teen boys into these expressive fields, so this is an area where an arts funder could step in and provide gender-informed giving.

Interestingly—though perhaps not surprisingly, given male dominance in leadership roles of nearly every professional field, including athletics—most choreographers are men, and a new initiative of the American Ballet Theatre hopes to balance that out.

Another example for girls that is more widely recognized and discussed is that STEM fields are traditionally saturated with men. While many funders such as the Exelon and Vodafone Americas Foundations work to engage girls in these areas, the gender gap persists. TrueChild has its own STEM curriculum, as mentioned above.

Meanwhile, Wilchins sees her 12-year-old daughter bombarded with messages pushing for what she calls “the three D’s of traditional femininity: being deferential, dependent, and desirable.” She and her partner make a conscious effort to counteract this programming by telling their daughter that girls can also be smart and courageous.

Addressing gender in foster care and juvenile probation

One of TrueChild’s most recent undertakings has been working in partnership with the Houston Endowment, which asked it to do a gender audit of the Harris County child welfare system, looking at both foster care and juvenile probation.

“I leapt at the chance because I don't think anyone's ever done that kind of initiative before,” Wilchins tells us. In the last six months, she’s conducted about a dozen trainings and personally met with about 30 people involved. When we talked, she had just returned from Houston.

Many of the youth in juvenile probation are considered “dual status” because they have also been in foster care. A lot of them have experienced trauma and receive therapeutic services along with the educational programs provided, and all of these systems contain gender norms, Wilchins says.

“It's been really fascinating,” says Wilchins. “When you think about it, just like education and like health, probation systems are highly gendered and gendering; systems that anticipate, reward, and even punish specific kinds of masculinity in boys and femininity in girls.”

In reflecting further on this project, Wilchins describes adolescence as a key time, “a pressure cooker” where gender norms are enforced, “not only from the system itself but from other kids... kids police each other fiercely in adolescence, and yet there is very little in the way of curricular tools or anything to help either the staff or kids.”

Adolescence is intensely gendered for most people, which is one reason Wilchins thinks gender norms are an accessible concept for funders. She says:

All the funders we talk to get gender—everyone went to middle school, so they all kind of get it in their bones… but they haven't thought about it in terms of their funding or what their grantees are doing, so it's really just a matter of getting them to recognize what they already know, and then the intention of putting it into practice. So it's been an exciting and sometimes challenging 10 years, but things have definitely shifted.

Major international donor institutions such as CARE, PEPFAR, UNAIDS, UNFPA, USAID, and WHO have embraced gender-norm awareness. TrueChild recently started working with its first statewide group, the Council of Michigan Foundations, and completed its first paper with a state-level agency, the California Office of Health Equity.

“Interest and awareness certainly seem to be turning a corner,” said Wilchins.

On the other hand, Wilchins knows a lot of social justice funders experience compassion fatigue and are still wrestling “with having a deeper understanding of race, let alone gender.” She also recognizes that gender is a complex and overloaded term in the English language. These are areas TrueChild’s services can help funders navigate.

Many funders and nonprofits are now going through a challenging, vulnerable, and awkward stage of growth — perhaps a bit like adolescence — as they figure out what gender norms mean to their organizations and the populations they serve, and how to apply a gender lens to their work.

“I think we're all struggling to figure out some really difficult stuff together,” Wilchins says. “It will take us a while, but that's OK, that's what growth and best practice look like. It looks like struggling and falling down, and then you get back up.”