05 March 2012

Carefully Wading into Gender and Development Blogging

The 2011 edition of the ABBAs were a success, but not in the way I anticipated. My intention for doing them was to spark conversation in the aid blogging world and hopefully bring forward some lesser known bloggers. Conversation was sparked this year, but it was because of the failing to include a significant portion of the community: women.

Using an open nomination process, I hoped that people would help me out with narrowing down some finalists. I took the most nominated 5 or 6 per category and short-listed them in the final vote. Trusting the system would work, I paid no mind as to who made the final cut. A silly mistake.

It should not have been a surprise when the finalists tilted towards white male academics from Europe and the US. Commentators gave me flack for this disparity. I openly admitted that my system for finding finalists was terribly flawed and I missed on the opportunity to provide an additional check on the short-list. As I try to be more aware of these issues, I also have to recognize that these disparities, as much as I abhor them, are not a constant part of my consciousness. I hope to change that, but the fact that I did not think twice about checking who was a finalist illustrates this personal gap.

In my wrap up post of the ABBAs, I wrote, "As I have noted before, the contest continued to tilt towards men. I really have little idea as to why. Possibly it has something to do with it being a largely academic field and maybe there are more men in the social sciences that deal with poverty alleviation (I have absolutely no data on hand for this and could be entirely wrong). There could be a gender bias. I am not sure."

Duncan Green of Oxfam wrote in the comments section, "There could be a gender bias.' NSS (no shit Sherlock). A platform designed for people who love the sound of their own voice and think the rest of the world is dying to hear their opinion? Dominated by men? Well who'd have thought it... Even on the comments, I routinely get female colleagues emailing me their comments, rather than posting them. Drives me crazy."

Duncan and I proceeded to exchange a few quick emails about it, but it was his post last week on the subject that brought it to the forefront. He leaned on other female bloggers to help understand the disparity and facilitated what turned out to be an excellent discussion in the comments section of the post.

Jennifer Lentfer (aka @intldogooder aka blogger at How Matters) had a great comment:

In the U.S., 80-90% of OpEd pages are written by men, 84% of guests on Sunday morning political talk shows are men, and 85% of Hollywood producers and directors are men. In short, despite advances in the women’s movement, public conversations exclude many people. 
Why is this a problem? Clearly as a result of the lack of women and minorities in key forums, the public and our leaders are not getting the best information to make the best decisions.
Thus, we have to ask—what is the cost to all of us when so many of the best minds and perspectives from the community-level are left out of navigating the paradox of development? Female or male, this is where we clearly need all the help we can get. 
Robert Chambers talks about the strong centripetal forces that draw resources and educated people into the ‘core’ where there is mutual attraction and reinforcement of power, prestige, resources, professionals, and the training to generate and disseminate information. What happens to the periphery then, especially when it’s those in the periphery that the development industry is trying to serve? 
This is a much bigger issue than whose aid blog is most popular.
Tobias Denskus joined the comments and pointed to his response post where he argued.
Many of my favourite development bloggers are female – Saundra Schimmelpfennig, Jennifer Lentfer, Whydev (e.g. Lucy Daniel's recent post on children, education and disability), Linda Raftree, Shana Johnson, Erin Antcliffe, or Akhila Kolisetty among others - and one of the issues that combines their writing/sharing is a qualitative, reflective and self-reflexive voice that talks/shares/cares about things like professional development, qualitative insights into their work, mental well-being, feelings, personal struggles, mindfulness or creative writing/spaces. In short, just because Chris Blattman doesn’t share poems or Stuff Expat Aidworkers Like would probably make fun about ‘liking poetry/stories’ they exist and I believe they are often great starting points to think and write about development and its people differently.
Though others offered ideas as to why the gender gap in aid blogging exists, I am not going to make any guesses. This blog is actually skewed slightly towards a female audience. Given that fact, it is noteworthy to point out given that the majority of nominations for the ABBAs were male. The 'why?' is the hard part.

Aaron Bady (aka @zunguzungu) wrote an excellent post on the Fluke-Limbaugh fiasco this weekend that illustrated some of the challenges of gender and privilege. Bady, started the post with an interesting quote from David Graeber's article "Beyond Power/Knowledge: An Exploration of power, ignorance and stupidity."
A popular exercise among High School creative writing teachers in America is to ask students to imagine they have been transformed, for a day, into someone of the opposite sex, and describe what that day might be like. The results, apparently, are uncannily uniform. The girls all write long and detailed essays that clearly show they have spent a great deal of time thinking about the subject. Half of the boys usually refuse to write the essay entirely. Those who do make it clear they have not the slightest conception what being a teenage girl might be like, and deeply resent having to think about it.
This story gets at the way that privilege can make one oblivious to others. I would venture to guess that I would have done poorly with that assignment when I was in High School. Heck, I still don't think I would do all that great of a job. This is a subject matter that is still relatively new to me and I am in the process of learning as much as possible. It is why I use this blog to engage in conversation rather than just spout out ideas with the belief that I am inherently correct.

It was suggested that next year's ABBAs include a separate category for women bloggers. My instinct is to say no, but I can be convinced otherwise. There are many high quality aid bloggers (Tobias lists a few above) who are not white Western academics that are deserving of recognition.

I would be remiss not to point out what is missing from this conversation. Gender is very important, but so are race, culture, sexuality, location, income level and so on. I believe part of the challenge to development is reflected in the problem highlighted in this very discussion. A minority of people have a disproportional share of power and influence over the sector and the lives of over 1 billion people. It is why I wrote that Jeffrey Sachs should not be the next head of the World Bank. There will be little chance for fundamental change as long as an American holds the seat. The same criticism applies to Clinton.

To end, I want to point to this list of "20 Empowered Women that You Should Be Following on Twitter" as compiled by the Center for International Private Enterprise. Many on the list are writers, academics and bloggers.

Please add your ideas and comments here. Suggested resources are also great as I selfishly want to learn more, but can expose others to differing ideas and opinions.