The Gender Lens: A Necessary Shift in Perspective for Development and Evaluation

Maria Fyodorova
05 February 2024
Three diverse women in suits sit at a table during a meeting.
Addressing gender inequalities requires a shift in perspective among development professionals, monitoring and evaluation (M&E) practitioners, and policymakers - moving from a focus on intervention activities to a consideration of beneficiaries' needs.

Maria Fyodorova is a communications consultant at GEI.


(As part of recent events to commemorate the World Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group’s (IEG) 50th Anniversary, the Global Evaluation Initiative (GEI) hosted several conversations with experts on “Future-Proofing National Evaluation Systems.” This blog is based on one of those conversations, between Dugan Fraser, Program Manager of the Global Evaluation Initiative, and Elena Bardasi, Senior Economist at the World Bank Independent Evaluation Group.)

Addressing gender inequalities requires a shift in perspective among development professionals, monitoring and evaluation (M&E) practitioners, and policymakers - moving from a focus on intervention activities to a consideration of beneficiaries' needs. The World Bank has shown increased attention to gender issues, resulting in positive changes in training, skills development, and project design across the institution. Despite these improvements, challenges persist in the implementation phase. Policymakers also face hurdles in effectively addressing gender inequalities. These challenges include the lack of availability and underutilization of gender data, an absence of robust policy agendas, and political complexities.  GEI’s approach to addressing gender inequality centers around working with government partners to build robust national M&E systems. The goal is a system where stakeholders recognize the importance of all data and evidence, including on gender, and are able to use it for informed policy decisions.

The Gender Lens: A Shift in Perspective

Addressing inequalities on the basis of gender requires development practitioners to systematically and deliberately assess the impact of interventions on women and men, girls and boys, and assume that this impact can be different for each of these groups. This requires a shift in perspective - from a focus on intervention activities to a focus on beneficiaries - guided by a fundamental question: Whose needs are being fulfilled? This shift helps to surface systemic differences within the population that come from power imbalances and cultural norms. Recognizing gender dynamics – and the role of intersectionality in generating inequalities - is crucial for interventions to effectively address gender inequalities in the specific context and helps to align intended impacts with the complex reality of beneficiaries' needs.

Likewise, in the field of monitoring and evaluation (M&E), there is sometimes a tendency to generate and rely on macro, aggregate data that does not have enough granularity to reflect the concrete experiences of program participants and citizens at large. When gender is integrated into a national M&E system, it prompts M&E practitioners, and other system participants to engage more closely with the realities of people's lives and measure the diverse impacts that an heterogenous population experiences.

The Evolving Landscape at the World Bank

There has been a significant increase in the attention and effort devoted to analyzing and addressing gender issues at the World Bank, which indicates a growing recognition among staff and management of the importance of understanding how gender dynamics shape development. This heightened awareness was seen in the mid-term review of the gender strategy conducted by IEG in 2021, which showed a clear uptick in the institution’s adoption of gender as a strategic concern. The institution has successfully increased training and skills related to gender across its staff. This has led to more staff who contribute to advancing gender discussions within their respective global practices. Project designs have also seen positive changes - recent evaluations (such as the IEG report “Addressing Gender Inequalities in Countries Affected by Fragility, Conflict, and Violence: An Evaluation of the World Bank Group’s Support” released in 2023) indicate an encouraging shift toward approaches that explicitly aim to address root causes of gender inequality. This has included working with men, boys, and religious leaders, a new development. Overall, it's a step in the right direction, highlighting a collective effort to address gender inequalities more effectively across the institution.

However, challenges persist in implementation, where breakdowns are sometimes observed due to, among other causes, a lack of a robust system for systematic monitoring of implementation impacts. Evaluating results also face difficulties, due to weak indicator quality and, more generally, a paucity of robust evidence that illustrates the achievement of desired outcomes. Moreover, monitoring and evaluation systems often document projects activities and, occasionally – but not systematically – the benefits obtained by the beneficiaries of the project. However, how these activities and benefits translate in advancing gender equality in the country is very infrequently captured.

Outside the World Bank, a prominent critique is often directed at the institution's predominant consideration of gender equality as “good for economic growth” rather than in its own right.  The institution has traditionally been reluctant to explicitly address patriarchy and engage with a feminist discourse. However, things have been changing and the World Bank has recently taken important steps. For example, gender-based violence is systematically addressed in operations as part of the World Bank’s Safeguard Policies, but also increasingly as an objective. Since 2016, the World Bank has been developing a sexual orientation and gender identity inclusion and nondiscrimination agenda, which will be integrated in the new, upcoming gender strategy.  The evolving landscape suggests that the institution is gradually navigating these difficult discussions, perhaps in response to a changing societal and client landscape that increasingly values the economic and societal benefits of such considerations.

Lingering Challenges Around Sustainable Development, M&E and Gender

Although there has been more focus on gender data collection in response to an increased awareness of the need to address gender inequalities, in many cases, when data is available, it is not being utilized effectively. A major challenge can be a lack of a robust policy agenda that explicitly outlines how gender equality will be achieved at the project, program, and country level and defines the role of evaluative evidence. Unfortunately, this context involves politics and hinges on how individuals in power are committed to change and how comfortable they are with transformation.

In addition, the availability of data, even sex-aggregated data, remains a challenge in many countries. A recent report from Data2X highlighted gaps in gender data accessibility, indicating that many Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) lack sex-disaggregated data. Approximately one-third of cases reviewed by the report authors showed a total absence of gender-specific indicators. This underscores the need for work at this foundational level. Moreover, as seen during the pandemic, the real-time updating of systems becomes pivotal for understanding and responding to situations in health, education, labor markets, and gender-based issues. The goal is not just to produce data but to ensure its timely and relevant application.

How GEI Is Integrating Gender into Its Work

GEI’s approach to support the strengthening of national M&E systems recognizes that the gender lens enhances the authenticity and effectiveness of these systems. The adoption of a gender lens expands the attention beyond abstract results-based management to ensure the actual issues impacting people are considered. By acknowledging the differential needs, behaviors, constraints, and aspirations of women, men, boys and girls, M&E systems can capture the heterogeneity of the population and the distributional impacts of policies and programs.

GEI’s approach lies in supporting the development of functional national M&E systems rather than explicitly advocating for gender-focused data collection. The goal is to ensure that every M&E system can adeptly handle data related to gender, fragility, climate and other pressing issues, to provide policymakers with actionable information.

The perspective outlined by Global Affairs Canada (GAC), a GEI funder, in their Feminist Foreign Assistance Policy Framework has been shaping GEI’s approach. GEI’s recently launched project, the Feminist Innovations in Monitoring and Evaluation (FIME), aligns with the perspective of GAC that empowering girls and women is integral to building a prosperous, safe, and inclusive world, working towards gender equality. FIME will examine current practices surrounding gender within national M&E systems. By engaging in conversations with GEI partners, the project will aim to understand how gender is treated and integrated into their work. GEI will use this data to propose ways to amplify the role of gender in GEI Network efforts to strengthen national monitoring and evaluation systems.