Gender Norms Don’t Get Enough Attention from Funders. Here’s How Philanthropy Can do Better

Ronnie Chua/shutterstock

Ronnie Chua/shutterstock

In many ways, social justice funding stands at a crossroads. The field has traditionally been animated by a strong impulse toward racial equity, using philanthropy as a means to challenge the infinite ways that that opportunity in America continues to be stratified by race and class.

At the same time, funders themselves are increasingly aware that race and class are “not enough,” that to really address complex and intractable issues of equity, there must be more. But what might that be?

One buzzy answer to this question is intersectionalityto recognize that those living in disinvested communities often must contend with several different kinds of oppression that interact, and that one or even two-dimensional models are not enough.

An intersectional approach can be particularly important when addressing individuals who make their lives at the borders of identity—who are not just black or Latinx, but also low-income, gay or trans, living with a disability, or living without proper immigration paperwork.

And then, of course, there’s also gender. Some social justice funders interpret addressing gender to mean increased equity for women and girls; others to mean funding issues affecting LGBTQ and other gender-nonconforming individuals.

By either measure, the field has far to go. Funding specifically devoted to women and girls totals only about 7 percent of total U.S. foundation grants (about $400 million); to LGBTQ issues, less than 2 percent (about $180 million).

And then there are gender norms. While virtually ignored in the U.S. when it comes to social justice funding, major international donors have thoroughly embraced it. Institutions like CARE, PEPFAR, UNAIDS, UNFPA, USAID, WHO and the World Bank have all implemented “gender transformative” initiatives that challenge rigid gender norms, and found them effective.

USAID no longer funds new programs that lack a strong analysis of gender norms and the inequities they cause; PEPFAR has made addressing masculine norms its No. 3 priority worldwide.

Even the venerable World Bank has launched a very public multi-year, million dollar initiative to move gender norms to the center of its equity work worldwide. As one of its senior managers told me, “We’re not doing this because it’s trendy or politically correct—we’re data-driving economists—we’re doing it because the numbers show it works better.”

As funder Loren Harris has noted, “Gender impacts every issue foundations and grantees address, yet in the U.S., they are seldom challenged to do innovative work around gender norms like they are race and class.”

Gender norms may not be the biggest factor in social justice, but they are certainly the biggest factor that social justice funders are not addressing.

In fact, decades of studies have now established that challenging harmful gender norms are a key to improving outcomes in underserved communities. Young men who equate masculinity with strength, dominance, risk-taking and emotional toughness and girls who internalize the “three D’s” of traditional femininity—being deferential, dependent and desirable—have lower life outcomes across a cluster of crucial areas that include health, education, intimate relationships and economic empowerment.

Moreover, adults in systems that serve young people have often internalized the same narrow gender norms. Schools, hospitals, and juvenile justice systems are themselves deeply gendered and gendering institutions that anticipate, reward and punish specific kinds of femininity in girls and masculinity in boys.

Yet there have been few, if any, attempts to make the issue of gender norms accessible to a lay audience, much less translate the immense library of academic studies on gender norms into practical insights funders and policymakers can (and should) use.

This was the goal of my new book, Gender Norms & Intersectionality: Connecting Race, Class, & Gender from Rowman & Littlefield. It uses an intersectional approach that combines race, class and gender norms to illuminate how familiar social problems like basic wellness, economic empowerment, education, partner violence, and unplanned pregnancy are deeply affected by beliefs about masculinity and femininity.

Social justice organizations looking for the next big “drop on the meter” in maximizing the philanthropic return on their social investment should look closely at gender norms. In fact, a small but growing core of U.S. funders is now starting to do just that, often through a combination of trainings, technical assistance for grantees, and support for curriculum development.

For instance, the Simmons Foundation of Houston, Texas, initially trained both its board and staff on an intersectional approach to social justice to ensure it could really “walk the walk.” It then made this training available to all its grantees. And it has just begun a multi-year effort to provide assistance to selected grantee organizations to help them integrate gender norms throughout their work, make it part of their organizational DNA, and finally, act as local thought leaders for other nonprofits.

Applied Materials Foundation and Silicon Valley Community Foundation have jointly funded development, piloting and evaluation of a model curriculum that helps keeps girls of color in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) which is being tested in the East San Jose, California, public schools. Uniquely, it also addresses how the masculinist ways that STEM is often taught can push LGBTQ students away from such courses.

Other funders, like the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, have tried to really “walk the walk” on norms by implementing gender audits of their materials, website, RFPs and strategic plan. Aiming to go even further, one funder recently initiated a gender audit of the juvenile justice department of a major metropolitan center.

Curriculum development, gender audits, in-depth onsite trainings—there are many ideas for funders to explore to move toward a more intersectional approach to issues of race and gender norms. The question is, will foundations pick up the challenge?