Gender in Project Planning and Implementation

Research and experience over the last 20 years have shown that development projects which do not take into account the differing economic, social, cultural, civil, and political rights, access and opportunities of women and men will inhibit the ability of people to secure better lives for themselves, their families and their communities. This is particularly true for projects that are heavily based on science and technology (S&T), such as the focus areas of IANAS in water and energy. Energy and water produced by S&T-based means should be accessible to and used by the men and women who are in need of it.

It is often assumed that the application of technology is neutral, and that the benefits of a technology project will accrue equitably to all individuals in a community. In most cases, however, there are some who will have fewer prospects of benefit – for economic, education, social, political or even legal reasons. Because of their lower levels of education, socioeconomic status, and reduced opportunities outside the home, women tend to make up a majority of those without access, unless targeted actions are taken.

Research by the Gender Advisory Board of the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD), the World Bank, and UNESCO as well as the literature on the anthropology of development have shown that a strong gender dimension exists in the application of science and technology for development. Women and men contribute in different ways to the creation of scientific and technological knowledge, they have different S&T priorities, and are often affected in different ways when science and technology are applied to meet development objectives. We also know that although there have been clear advances in gender parity in education, the participation of girls and women in science, technology and innovation (STI) education and research at all levels remains lower than that of men in all regions. This imbalance persists and increases as one goes up the hierarchy in the public and private sector workforce, so that the STI system is failing to benefit from the talent, innovation and perspective of half of the global population.

Due to the separation between natural and social sciences in post-secondary institutions, physical scientists and engineers don’t receive education about human cultural behaviour and values; similarly social scientists don’t learn much about the physical sciences, and the two don't often work together in the field. But it is necessary that the scientists and engineers who design and construct vitally important projects to develop societies and improve quality of living take into account the values, norms and rules by which the people they are working with live.

Some examples of where technological aid projects failed because of lack of sufficient knowledge about the local population – and the social, economic and cultural issues in which technology is embedded – are:

  • A peace corps worker working in a small village found that most people hated the imported store bought bread… the women thought they could bake their own bread and with his help they formed a group, pooled their resources, bought some supplies and built a clay oven. Their venture was a huge success… money came pouring in… the aid worker then turned over the cash box, records of sale etc. to the women for complete management. Returning a month later, he discovered the venture had collapsed: why? The women had made a certain amount of profit, but had no place to keep the money from their husbands and kin so they shared the profit among them and closed down the operation. Also, they had not been made to understand that this was a business venture that could go on to supply a need and make them more profits1.
  • A famous incident concerning a water well in the Pacific: potable water was difficult to come by so the men, with help from foreign aid officials, constructed a well. Drawing the well water was women’s work. However, because of a taboo of concerning "uncleanliness", menstruating women were not allowed to draw water during their menses. The result was that these women would steal water from others, bringing about huge family tensions and strife in the village.

Depending on the area, region or country, and the nature of the development project, certain key questions need to be asked and answered about the local population and its cultural values.

A few of the most relevant ones include:

  • Ethnic divisions – ethnic hierarchies, who holds the power and why
  • Class divisions – power dynamics
  • Family structure and organization: do a few leading families hold the power
  • Male/ female relations:
    • Gender-based division of labour – do men make the major decisions, what role do women play beyond domestic responsibilities… if the project is technological, will men and women equally participate in its construction, its usage? Who will use the project?
  • If water wells are to be dug and constructed, who draws the water? In irrigation systems, who are the main agricultural workers?
  • Health care delivery: who provides health care, to whom, in what ways?
  • Education: Where are the educational facilities located, what level of support can be provided for technological projects?
  • Settlement patterns: Where do people live, how are residential decisions made, will the new technology involve re-settlement and if so, how are such decisions to be made? Are the people in favour?
  • New technologies: How will they be explained and introduced? Whose support in the community is vital? Which groups might be hostile and opposed
  • Access to resources such as finance, training, credit, labour and supporting technology.
  • Power relations: The history of technological and financial aid to underdeveloped regions of the world is rife with examples of how such aid goes into the pockets of the local elite, however that local elite is defined: politicians, clans, chiefs, elite families, etc. The poorer populations who need the support often do not get it.
  • And finally, the most important: technologies cannot be introduced top down…. How is the support, the engagement and empowerment of the local community to be achieved, as a partner in planning, construction, operating and maintaining the project? Do the local people, including women, really want and need the technology?

Resources and guidelines for integrating gender dimensions into development planning and projects:



See also the guidelines and toolkits sections in the Gender & Energy and Gender & Water resources pages.

*Document Updated: December 2013