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Does Social Innovation Drive Gender Equity?

We know that girls lag behind in access to STEM education, the internet, and supportive cultural norms. But are those realities being exacerbated, mitigated, or improved by the social investments we're making? Palladium's Emma Davies and David B. McGinty write for Skoll on a new framework that links social innovation and gender equity.

The rapid development and diffusion of innovation, including digital technologies, is challenging the systems and capacity of traditional international development partners. Testing and scaling of innovation and technology requires agile thinking, continuously learning from research and continuous adaptation. Through our work leading the innovation and technology practice at Palladium, a global impact firm that strives to create positive impact and working in over 90 countries, we are tackling one of the key challenges requiring an adaptive approach: tapping into the power of technology to empower women and girls while mitigating real risks and negative impacts from the rapid scaling of technology.

The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) are pioneers in research on how innovations advance gender equality . In ‘Innovation for Women’s Empowerment’ they describe three areas of innovation that, when they intersect, have the potential to progress women’s empowerment: (1) technology use, (2) social norm change, and (3) economic resilience. ICRW’s theory is that ‘when women flourish in any of these areas—and especially when they thrive in all three—there is a demonstrable shift in gender relations’.

Through Palladium’s innovation and technology portfolio we’re testing elements of this approach and building our own understanding of the intersection between innovation and gender equity. SPRING Accelerator (SPRING) uses human-centred design (HCD) to accelerate social enterprises with products, services, and business models specifically designed to have a positive impact for adolescent girls. With an initial design narrowly targeting girls, SPRING has been able to adapt known gender equity approaches to determine whether the social innovations have improved girls’ ability to earn, learn, save, or be safe. A key part of SPRING’s approach is in helping businesses to tackle discriminatory gender norms - one of the main barriers to girls’ empowerment - to create products or services to benefit girls. For more on this join SPRING, Palladium, and other business working to empower girls for an event in London on 11 October, the International Day of the Girl.

The Human Development Innovation Fund (HDIF), in turn, was not designed as a gender-focused programme—instead focusing on testing and scaling innovation in health, education, water, and sanitation. By design, like most donor-funded programmes, HDIF considered gender in its grant evaluation criteria and monitoring. But, once HDIF began supporting its now 43 grantees, a key question quickly rose to the surface: are these technologies empowering or further disenfranchising half of our intended beneficiaries? If we know that girls lag behind in access to STEM education, the internet, and supportive cultural norms, are those realities being exacerbated, mitigated, or improved by our innovation investments?

No one wants to look back on their social investments to realize that zealousness for new technologies resulted in more girls being left outside or behind. So, with the strong backing of the UK Department for International Development (DFID), we began a series of inquiries to understand the relationship between gender and innovation from actual implementation across HDIF grantees. This inquiry has explored the relationship from two angles, which are at times two sides of the same coin and sometimes lead to different queries:

  • If and how do women and girls benefit from innovations?
  • If and how can innovations benefit from thoughtful engagement of women and girls?
Framework
Our quick desk review and interviews revealed that there is minimal experience to draw on regarding how gender affects innovation and how innovations impact the lives of girls and women. ICRW’s research study was influential in providing an initial framework. Other resources that touched on these issues included ‘Innovation and Gender’, a collaboration from Norway and Sweden on the gains of integrating a gender perspective into innovation; and Womenable’s report on Innovation and Women’s Entrepreneurship, that led us to look at the intersection from a different angle and ask the question; what is the impact of gender on innovation? Notwithstanding, we needed to develop a framework that reflected our own learnings and insights drawing on the experiences of HDIF grantees to continuously test, adapt, and learn from.
 
HDIF’s gender framework draws inspiration from the ICRW’s pyramid of innovation. It describes how innovation drives positive shifts in the lives of women and girls, illustrated as four distinctive but non-linear, overlapping areas of change.
 
  • (1) Describes how innovations improve access to quality basic services that increase women’s and girls’ well-being. For example, Shule Direct’s mobile learning platform is improving students’ learning outcomes by providing access to locally designed digital learning materials.
  • (2) Reflects a more active engagement between the individual and the innovation resulting in a growing self-determination. For example, Camfed’s ‘Technology Supported Learning’ programme is embedding e-readers into the government English orientation programme and empowering ‘Learner Guides’, adolescent girls from the local community, who provide learning support in-class to teachers and students. In doing so they gain new knowledge and skills as well as financial independence through small-business loans provided by Camfed’s Kiva initiative.
  • (3) As women gain increased decision-making power, they become ‘enablers’ advocating and changing attitudes in their community. For example, through Afya Microfinance, a loan scheme set up by the Association of Private Health Facilities in Tanzania (APHFTA), female business owners are gaining access to finance, enabling them to formalise and grow their businesses and gain economic security for them and their families. This often enables them to become positive role models for girls and women in the community.
  • (4) Underlying all of these are the key societal factors—economic, social and cultural—that shape their lives. Changes in the first three drivers will slowly contribute to changes in society over time.
 

As we started to explore the intersection of gender and innovation with grantees through the lens of the framework, we began to understand new aspects of their experiences. This included, principally:

  • (1) Skills and Confidence – In Tanzania, women’s and girls’ access to resources and opportunities are often restricted. But when girls and women are given the chance to learn new skills and gain knowledge, an important shift occurs in their self-confidence. This can be seen in the young women who learn entrepreneurship and ICT skills through Digital Opportunity Trust’s (DOT) inclusive ReachUp! Programme. A study showed that as young women overcame their initial fears, they started to engage with technology and demonstrate their ability, and their self-confidence grew.
  • (2) Relationships – Our insights show the “enabling” driver that describes women helping other women as part of a bigger dynamic of changing relationships, between women and men and within communities. For example, as the APHTA example shows, as women gain economic security they also gain status and decision-making power. This in turn positively impacts family and community dynamics as women become more influential and respected. This backs up what we heard in our consultations; that positive role models do matter and can play a powerful role in inspiring others. Earlier this year HDIF launched a series of success stories about women who push traditional boundaries through their work in the innovation and tech space in Tanzania. These have been well-received and are helping to build recognition of their work amongst policy makers and potential funders.

Initial Insights
Over the past two years we’ve collected learning across HDIF’s grantees and ecosystem programmes to distil into a White Paper with several initial insights:

  • Lesson 1 – Understand the complex lives of women and girls and adopt a more inclusive interpretation of the ecosystem to help provide everyone with access to innovation. See digital principle on ‘Understand the Ecosystem
  • Lesson 2 – Put girls at the centre of design and make them central actors to accelerate the possibility for innovations to meet the needs of women, their children, and the communities. See the Digital Principle on ‘Design with the user’.
  • Lesson 3 – Create holistic learning opportunities that combine entrepreneurship and problem-solving skills. Leverage the power of peer learning to enhance economic security and livelihoods for women and girls.

Emerging Learning
HDIF’s team will continue to explore the intersection of gender and innovation and use our insights to adapt and improve the ‘living’ framework. Through sharing our learning with other social entrepreneurs, we aim to deepen the impact of innovation for women, girls, and other marginalized groups. To read more about HDIF’s emerging gender work follow us here.

This blog was originally published for Skoll