Theory of Change: Women’s full participation in leadership will drive SDGs

In 2000, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were presented to member states almost as an experiment, “What if, we could get member states working towards the same, urgent goals for developing countries at the same time? What could we accomplish if we had that kind of coherence across the globe? Would you sign on?” All 191-member states signed (and 22 international organizations), and while we didn’t reach every goal, we saw a significant progress toward these critical issues – enough so that as 2015 approached, the UN began a process to create a new set of development goals, committing to this collective approach to development. This time around, the act of creating the next set of goals needed to be conducted through consensus, and the goals themselves to reflect goals for every country, not just developing countries. Member states saw the value of working in alignment to achieve these goals, and were able to distill 17 development goals (and their targets) to be achieved by 2030. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were presented by the Open Working Group on SDGs to the Assembly in July, 2014.

The SDGs, for all their strengths, are not a roadmap or theory of change for how we get there. They are a coherent list of items that facilitates working toward the same objectives. This is not a critique. The UN is looking to encourage member states to find their own, appropriate solutions on the ‘how we get there’ piece of the puzzle, recognizing that many are already working on these solutions. The goals and targets simply provide a framework for global alignment, furthering our momentum. Within the SDGs there are 3 cross-cutting issues: Education, SDG-Driven Investment and Gender Equality. SDG-Driven Investment influences the adoption of other SDGs, Education is a component of each of the other SDGs and can influence the degree of achievement, but it is widely agreed that Gender Equality is a required condition for achieving the SDGs and is able to influence the degree of success for achieving the SDGs. Simply put: development won’t be achieved if we’re only working for half the population.

“Despite a stand-alone goal on gender equality, there is widespread consensus that progress on any and all of the SDGs will be stalled if women’s empowerment and gender equality is not prioritized. Arguments and evidence from sources as diverse and as economically-oriented as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to expected sources such as UN Women, bolster the case that investments in women and girls impact national and global development in ways that exceed their initial scope.”

Throughout, we see both a causality link and impact to scale for achieving gender equality and achieving all the SDGs:


The challenge within development work is that it is easy to oversimplify the problem – and by extension, the solution – to an issue of access and/or education. If we can just get more girls in the classroom, we can make gains on illiteracy. If we can just train women in technology, we can get more women working. What we’re learning is that access and education are only components of the solution, but not the solution in toto. We need to address the larger systems and structures that facilitate our current environment in order to make changes that are sustainable over time.

As I’ve practiced systems change processes, I’ve typically worked to create change in three areas: local actors and beneficiaries (grassroots), national actors, advocates and champions (grass tips) and the larger operating environment, which includes other stakeholders. It’s important to also note that my own work has been deeply influenced by Robert Chambers, Whose Reality Counts: Putting the Last First, who’s Participatory Rural Appraisal approach places an emphasis on ensuring that we are moving our marginalized communities into a position where they can design their own vision of development. When I build programs with partners and beneficiaries, I always ask myself: Who is missing from this table? Whose voices aren’t we hearing? These questions have been my North Star for ensuring we are serving the most marginalized. However, as I reflected on my own work in development, I realized that I wasn’t asking those same questions about who was missing from the table as I worked within each part of the system. Instead, my focus shifted to a tactical approach when working with national actors and broad stakeholders: Will they continue to fund this initiative? Will they invest in scaling this initiative? Will they change policies to ensure support for this initiative? Will they be champions for this change? I was jumping ahead, trying to create a guarantee of sustainability, rather than putting in the work toward equality within each component of the system, thus negating actual sustainability.

To get to Goal 5 (and thus, position ourselves to reach all SDGs), we need to articulate women’s leadership as the through-line for achieving gender equality. On paper, this doesn’t seem earth shattering: if we’re going to achieve the SDGs, we’ve got to have gender equality, and if we’re going to work toward gender equality, women should be leading that change. And yet, when we look at the reality of who is sitting in those senior leadership positions globally – at who is creating and influencing national policy that will help us reach, at a minimum, the SDG 5 targets – the numbers tell us we have a lot work to do to create change at the ‘grass tips’.

Shifting our focus, resources and efforts towards supporting women’s leadership allows us to address the critical issue of the absence of women in those spaces, an often neglected yet hugely broken piece in our system that is preventing us from reaching Goal 5. We can create a work back plan for getting women into these senior leadership positions that wield the power and influence to create national scale policy change for women within their countries, building the infrastructure to help us reach all SDGs. This shift in focus also provides a lens to look differently at the other components within our system that are not currently enabling women to move into these positions of power; it allows us to solve different problems. Two examples:

  1. We know that most women make the decision to run for office because they are passionate about a critical issue that has impacted their family or themselves (in contrast to most men who envision themselves moving into politics as a profession). As we work on development projects in areas like agriculture, entrepreneurship or literacy, we should simultaneously be building the pipeline of female policy and governing experts in these areas, helping women to get into local leadership roles, setting them on the path toward national leadership. (Grassroots)


  1. We know that many women come out of leadership trainings feeling internally empowered but have nowhere externally to invest that sense of change; they have changed but their environment hasn’t. Women’s leadership also needs to encompass training and venues for men to understand the value of and become advocates for female leadership. (Operating environment)

Through this blog, I hope to interview program teams and individuals who are making strides towards parity, particularly within government, exploring what works, where we’re gaining momentum and where we’re facing common challenges. To focus our development efforts to support women leading change for their countries all the way to the national level, in the parlance of Robert Chambers, is truly an act of handing over the stick to put the last first.



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Seeing Women

I’ll begin this blog with a series of posts that frame my research going forward: Why a focus on women’s leadership as a pathway to international development?

In doing so, it’s important to discuss the perception of gender equity, as there is a wide gulf between the perception of gender equity by men and experienced reality by women. In 2015, the World Economic Forum published an article that highlighted this gulf by pulling together a range of gender equality perception data. Some data points include:

  • Former Corporate Woman columnist for the Australian Financial Review, Catherine Fox, conducted a study that revealed that 72% of male senior executives agreed with the statement that much progress had been made towards women’s empowerment and career progression. And yet, 71% of surveyed female executives disagreed with that statement.
  • Chuck Shelton’s study on White Men Leading Through Diversity and Inclusion revealed a divide in the perception of diversity effectiveness. 45% of white male leaders in their companies gave their diversity efforts positive ratings. Only 21% of women and people of color agreed with that positive rating.

Contributing to – and potentially compounding – the issue is an unwillingness of some to acknowledge women (and their experiences, perspectives, approaches, etc.) as different from men. We want to believe so firmly in equality, that “I don’t notice if  I’m working with a man or a woman” has become a statement I hear quite often these days. Slate recently published an article by Elizabeth Weingarten on why gender- and color-blindness is an obstacle to equality. In essence, ‘blindness’ to age, gender or race allows the dominant group to continue functioning as-is, “If we believe that we’re blind to identity, that absolves us of any responsibility or imperative to reflect on ways that we might be bringing bias to the table,” stated Colleen Ammerman, the director of the Gender Initiative at Harvard Business School. It also removes an obligation to reflect on the structures and systems in place that are advantaging some and disadvantaging others. Eric Uhlmann and Geoffrey Cohen’s research, “‘‘I think it, therefore it’s true’’: Effects of self-perceived objectivity on hiring discrimination”, found that the more people believed they were unbiased or blind to these differences, the more they were likely to make biased decisions.

What happens when we insist that we “don’t see” gender? An organization or individual that refuses to acknowledge gender (or race or age), is masking their own bias (purposefully or unintentionally). But regardless of intent, the end result is the same: structures and practices that promote and sustain inequality aren’t able to be raised and subsequently addressed. The cost of not ‘seeing’ women is not just the lost opportunity for equality; it is not simply a moral or ethical loss. Weingarten points to a brilliant 1996 article by Robin Ely and David Thomas in the Harvard Business Review that outlines the critical value that diversity brings to organizational effectiveness. Ely and Thomas state that bringing women and people of color into our organizations is not enough; we need to work to understand and elevate marginalized perspectives, otherwise an organization misses out on “a potential diversity of effective ways of working, leading, viewing the market, managing people, and learning.”

While this research looks specifically at these impacts on an organizational level, we should extend these concepts to our work of nation-state building and development. As development professionals, we need to think about who is and is not at the table helping to shape the programs we deliver. We are a profession grounded in the belief that equality and opportunity for all is possible and worth working toward. And yet, I’ve sat in countless meetings with ministers and national program teams comprised almost entirely of men, designing programs that lack the value of female insights. We need to elevate local women’s voices in building development solutions. To be fair, I think we do this well at the rural and village level. But when we get the national level, we seem to have a blind spot. At the policy level, the funding level, the national-scale implementation level, local women’s voices are missing. We simply don’t have the diversity we need to design, deliver and sustain truly impactful programs, so why aren’t we building programs that bring these critical voices to the table? If we are truly committed to sustainable social change, isn’t this an effective – even catalytic – use of development resources?

In my next posts, I’ll dig in to the specifics of the benefits that women bring to international development, and where we currently sit as a profession with diversity in terms of practice in the field.