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How to set up and run a successful community of practice for gender mainstreaming

Sugarmaa Bat-Erdene August 11, 2020

Getting smart people together in a room is the fastest way to change the culture in government

This article is written by Oyuntuya Shagdarsuren, Senior Advisor at the MERIT project.


We can achieve gender equality.

To highlight one of the many examples of projects that deliver on that ambition, I want to take you to Mongolia where public servants play a crucial role in improving the lives of women and men, girls and boys.

Given the nomadic pastoral lifestyle of the rural population where male labour is in high demand, the drop out rate for boys became extremely high after the country’s transition from centrally planned economy to market economy in the 1990s. But over the past 25 years, with commitment to re-create equal opportunities for education of both urban and rural youth, the government took dedicated measures such as tracking the registration of school-age children and improving communication with parents, which today has resulted in almost 100% enrolment rates for both genders.

This is one small step towards creating a new world where gender doesn’t define what you can be in life and is testament to how serious the Mongolian government takes gender mainstreaming.

A gender lens in the world’s most sparsely populated country

The Summary Document of the 20 Year Review of Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (2015) mandates that “Gender mainstreaming must be institutionalised across government, with effective means of monitoring progress”.

This means that government organisations around the globe need to adopt an active and visible policy of gender equality with the intention of “leaving no one behind”. In Mongolia, public servants are now required by the Law on Promotion of Gender Equality adopted in 2011 to analyse the effects of policies and programmes on women and men before decisions are taken. Such an analysis examines power structures and directs decisions towards eliminating the root causes of gender inequalities.

Engaging in gender equality work offers an immense opportunity to make a positive change in one’s own life; and also in the lives of many other people

Public servants play a crucial role in making this a reality, but many lack the means and organisational buy-in to put gender on the agenda. How can public servants hone their analytical skills and expand their understanding of gender concepts? Where can they find examples of gender mainstreaming?

Creating a Community of Practice (CoP) could be an answer.

Foundations for a community of practice

A CoP is a learning platform where members can attend expert meetings and training events, exchange ideas and experiences, and organise joint projects to achieve common goals.

The Second Annual Gender Community of Practice on Gender in December 2019, Dundgovi Province, Mongolia

I have worked on one such community of practice — the MERIT project in Mongolia — which stands for Mongolia: Enhancing Resource Management through Institutional Transformation. Funded by the Canadian government, the project aims to improve the livelihoods of communities in Mongolia by supporting sustainable resource management practices. CoP helps to introduce new concepts and share methodologies of gender mainstreaming across public service so that communities benefit equally from government services.

Since 2016, the project has been engaged in improving the management skills of the staff of ten government organisations including two ministries and three agencies from the central government, four provincial governments and a research institute. Below are my top tips for how you can set up and run a successful CoP in government to promote gender mainstreaming.

1. Hold regular meetings

In the first two years we were laying the groundwork for our community practice, which was kicked off in earnest when we organised the first meeting in 2018. We invited public servants in the ministries and departments we focused on to share their experiences of gender equality in their organisations and to discuss their understanding of gender concepts. This stirred up some emotions, but also brought good laughs in the room.

Then, attendees set common goals and visions of where they wanted gender equality to be in the next five years.  A regular meeting schedule was agreed upon. Our monthly meetings take various forms: discussion with gender experts, training on gender mainstreaming in the workplaceand auditgender indicators using results-based planning, monitoring and evaluation, and events such as public panel discussions. Annual conventions have become a major draw for participating organisations to report on progress and develop joint plans.

2. Members should own the community

One of the key features of a successful CoP is that the whole process is owned by its members. In our group, coordinators are elected who often have a lead role.

Given the informal and voluntary setting of the CoP, roles often shift, and initiatives and proposals can come from anyone at any given point. A culture of teamwork has been created over the last two years which bonds the participants together. Nowadays, the CoP is developing into a permanent structure and discussion is underway for registering it as a formal organisation.

Our list of members and supporters has quickly grown, and at least two organisations have established their own CoPs as branches of the first inter-agency CoP. We should acknowledge the substantial support from the MERIT project provided in the form of sourcing technical advisors, trainers and funding for training and events. It may be a challenge to build an inter-agency CoP without such support. However, setting up a provincial level inter-agency or intra-agency CoP will require less resources, but a support from management which often links to organisational goals or local development targets.

Smaller CoPs are advisable in the beginning to maintain a manageable number of people and to ensure that each person has a chance to learn and grow as a public servant and a gender analyst. Members define our first inter-agency/sectoral CoP as “powerful” and “empowering” and appreciate that it gives the smaller CoPs a sense of direction and saves their time.

3. Rotate leadership

Everyone has a chance to be a leader. Engaging in gender equality work offers an immense opportunity to make a positive change in one’s own life; and also in the lives of many other people.

Our first coordinator is a researcher at a government institute. She simply took the task on and carried it forward by establishing the first branch CoP at her own institution. As the CoP grew, two coordinators were elected: one representing the central government and the other representing local government. Coordinators performing management roles took decisive steps, mobilised resources and influenced a large number of people within and outside their organisations.

The lack of men in gender-related activities is another common challenge. However, in our experience, engagement from men grows once all understand that gender is about both women and men and that change is needed to reduce inequalities

Representation from two levels of government proved to be an effective model. Coordinators are elected annually to balance their workload and share leadership opportunities. The project supported leadership training held internationally and domestically; and such resources would be very beneficial to motivate young and emerging leaders.

As a next step, the Mongolian Gender CoP leaders are very keen and open for a regular international exchange of practices and learning.

4. A fast-track to individual and organisational growth

Many of the CoP members were recognised as the best managers and highest performers by their supervisors. Success is contagious.

I think gender work attracts leaders who recognise its potential for transforming the workplaces and the lives of the people for whom government programs are designed. By joining the CoP individuals become inspired and motivated to make a real-life change. Recently, two provincial governments and two ministries were awarded with “Best Implementation of Gender Policy” awards by the National Committee on Gender Equality. This formal recognition celebrates the achievements at a national level and sets a mark for others. By joining the CoP members are also able to network better and can overcome the challenges of vast distances and limited travel opportunities.

They have frequent opportunities to talk face-to-face and online with colleagues from the lowest to the highest levels of government because the gender topic is applicable to any sphere of government work.

The lack of men in gender-related activities is another common challenge. However, in our experience, engagement from men grows once all understand that gender is about both women and men and that change is needed to reduce inequalities.

Gender equality can be achieved by institutionalising gender mainstreaming as a government practice where every single public servant contributes by applying a gender lens at  his or her work and seeks new solutions to eliminate inequalities

A gender audit can reveal many needs and opportunities for improvement in the workplace, and in our context these are usually brought to the attention of the management. Those who respond to them are often valued and respected by their colleagues and become better managers by engaging in gender work. Employees see and feel the change and themselves start initiatives to contribute to a healthy and safe organisational work culture.

5. Get out of the house

Visiting a successful organisation is always a great inspiration and a reason to innovate and modernise. We make a point of learning from well-performing organisations to improve our understanding of how change is being made on the ground.

Such visits strengthen our belief that public servants hold the key to the future and that it’s possible to make a change even in the harshest conditions. Last year we travelled to Dundgobi, a province plagued by desertification, approximately 250 kilometres south of the capital Ulaanbaatar, where we visited the local Department of Environment. Learning about their greening efforts, the visiting forestry expert donated 220 tree seedlings that were planted this spring by the members of the newly established branch CoP — a beautiful example of how gender equality and environmental conservation go hand-in-hand as cross-cutting themes in the work done by public servants.

In 2018, we visited a kindergarten in Dornod, the country’s eastern-most province, where educators taught about preventing child abuse and violence to children and their parents. Educators reported that the parents understood the need for offering male dolls compared to more ubiquitous female dolls in teaching about gender to children. Site visits broaden our horizons and give a chance to step out from our everyday work and understand life from a different perspective and perhaps change our own biased beliefs and behaviours.

As the Mongolian proverb goes “The power of many is like the ocean — without limits”. Gender equality can be achieved by institutionalising gender mainstreaming as a government practice where every single public servant contributes by applying a gender lens at his or her work and seeks new solutions to eliminate inequalities. — Oyuntuya Shagdarsuren

MERIT gratefully acknowledges the financial support from Global Affairs Canada.  


This article was originally published on Apolitical

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