How Do We Close the Gender Gap? (Hint: Ask a Social Scientist)
Why is it important to have gender as a stand-alone area of inquiry, as well as a cross-cutting theme, in agricultural research-for-development programs? In 2018, USAID launched the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Peanut as a five-year program incorporating gender as both a cross-cutting theme for research in the areas of variety development, agricultural production and nutrition, as well as crafting projects in which the main research questions focused specifically on gender. In the intervening years, we’ve seen how the cross-cutting theme keeps bioscience projects trained on the end user, but we’ve also become even more aware of the benefits of investing in stand-alone gender research led by social scientists.
Agriculture is a complex system comprising human and nonhuman elements and interactions. Research investments in the social — and, more specifically, gender — dimensions of agriculture help us better understand this complexity. Neglecting the social dimensions of agriculture, or subsuming them as side projects within biophysical research efforts, risks missing at least half the picture and won’t lead to the impacts we desire. There are countless examples of costly agricultural development disappointments linked to a failure to contend with the human dimensions of agriculture (e.g. sociocultural structures, human needs and behavior, household economies).
USAID and partnering organizations are driving towards greater impact from research investments. Arguably, achieving this goal may not lie in the development of more crop varieties, machines or agronomic strategies, but through a better understanding of the social, cultural and economic barriers to adoption of the technologies that already exist (as well as a better understanding of farmers’ actual needs, which will contribute to the subsequent development of more suitable technologies and approaches).
This also applies to addressing the severe gender inequities observed in agricultural systems worldwide. Developing technologies that better meet women’s needs requires truly understanding what those needs are. Further, we need a more profound understanding of the gendered social dynamics that lead to the deprioritization of women at all levels of agricultural development (including in funding and donor strategy), and a better understanding of how men and women react to changing socioecological and economic conditions.
Experts in agriculture work in the social sciences, not only the biophysical sciences. They focus on different aspects of agricultural systems, ask different questions and use different methods. Certain questions cannot be researched rigorously unless they are stand-alone projects headed by, and largely comprised of, experts in the social dimensions of agriculture. For example, a plant pathologist isn’t going to be able to show that increased investment in mobile money penetration could smooth the impact of rural youth out-migration on peanut production.
Positioning gender (and youth) as its own research pillar offers numerous benefits. From our experience, a stand-alone effort allows us to ask different, equally important questions that don’t fall under the pillars of, for example, varietal development, production packages and nutrition, and they cannot be answered when gender is only a cross-cutting theme. Examples include:
- How can we develop gender-responsive contracting mechanisms between smallholder farmers and private agribusiness?
- How do privatization and commercialization affect men and women differently?
- How can we slow out-migration of rural youth or use that movement to benefit crop production?
- How does time poverty contribute to gender gaps in agriculture, and what technologies (on and off-farm) can reduce men’s or women’s time burdens?
- How can local conceptions of masculinity be translated for the benefit of women, household welfare, and increased productivity?
Posing questions like these within stand-alone research projects helps ensure that gender and social science questions and concerns are adequately funded and not sidelined by the larger project (often the case when gender is only integrated as a cross-cutting theme within biophysical research efforts). And this, in turn, is more likely to lead to gender-responsive and transformative development strategies. It lets us lead with social inclusion in mind, rather than an afterthought or a side issue.
In our experience, top-notch social scientists are drawn to stand-alone research projects that emphasize the human dynamics of agriculture. The value proposition to new talent of cross-cutting gender research is weak in comparison — they aren’t as likely to produce important research findings, they receive less funding, the questions they can ask are constrained by the larger project, and they are often sidelined in practice.
At the Peanut Innovation Lab, we also found that these investments in stand-alone research on the gender/social dimensions of peanut agriculture have valuable spillover effects for biophysical and technical research. By investigating gendered preferences, needs, barriers and behaviors, we can better inform the development of appropriate technologies in other areas of peanut research — both current projects and the design of future efforts.
Here's how stand-alone social science research has helped illuminate important areas within the bioscience pillars of the Peanut Innovation Lab’s research portfolio:
Varietal development: We must understand why farmers do (or do not) adopt improved varieties, and the decision-making process associated with varietal selection. This can help to:
- Set priorities of breeding programs.
- Understand whether existing varieties (or those under development) meet the needs and preferences of the men and women expected to adopt them.
- Understand the implications of different varieties on gendered labor demands, processing needs, time use, etc.
- Understand intrahousehold decision-making and identify levers for improving men’s responsiveness to the varieties preferred by women.
Nutrition: Since women usually make decisions about household diets and consumption choices (and often spend their own money on household food), communicating with them and improving their overall welfare can have important implications for nutrition. This can lead to:
- Research into gendered sensitivity to nutrition messaging in order to increase the uptake of nutritious food, including groundnut and groundnut-based products.
- Understanding men's and women’s nutrition-related knowledge and behavior to increase uptake of nutritious foods.
- Addressing time-use constraints so women can purchase and prepare more nutritious meals.
- Understanding intrahousehold decision-making and identifying opportunities to get men on board with household nutrition.
- Knowing how commercialization can impact household nutrition.
- Ensuring improved production practices are optimized for everyone and consider gender, household size, the whole-farm economy and the embedded cost of time.
Production practices: Understanding gender, socioeconomic and cultural realities helps identify barriers preventing farmers from adopting improved practices. Intersectional social science research reveals different categories of farmers with different needs and capacities; production packages can be optimized for these groups if we know more about them. This means:
- Understanding whether practices work for female-headed households, which may work marginal land with very few inputs.
- Weighing whether production practices are (or should be) aimed at outcomes other than increased yield.
- Understanding gender and social implications if production packages are adopted as desired
Multidisciplinary research is central to closing gender gaps and achieving inclusive agricultural development. Genomic, agronomic and engineering research has made — and will continue to make — important contributions to the reduction of hunger, poverty and undernourishment; but a significant elevation in funding for, and attention to, research on the social dimensions of agriculture is also fundamentally necessary. Research-for-development programs should increase their support for stand-alone projects on gender and youth.