Doing Gender Sensitive Research: Project Background

An Initial Approach: Getting to Sufficiency

GENDER.ED’s materials on gender sensitive research have been developed through a multi stage project, drawing on the knowledge of staff at genderEd, funding from the Scottish Funding Council and the University of Edinburgh’s College for Arts Humanities and Social Sciences, researchers from across the University of Edinburgh and in international partner universities especially in so-called Low and Middle Income Countries (LMICs), and practitioners in international development.

GCRFScottish Funding Council

Responding to a New Challenge: GCRF/UKRI’s New Gender Equality Statement

The project was originally stimulated by new funding requirements. In 2019 UKRI announced that all new applications to the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) and the Newton Fund should provide a Gender Equality Statement demonstrating they have taken meaningful, proportionate consideration as to how the project will contribute to reducing gender inequalities, as required under the International Development (Gender Equality) Act 2014. The 2014 Act requires that aid spending must be “likely to contribute to reducing poverty in a way which is likely to contribute to reducing inequality between persons of different genders”.

UKRI’s 2019 GCRF Gender Equality Statement asked researchers to address five criteria:

1. Have measures been put in place to ensure equal and meaningful opportunities for people of different genders to be involved throughout the project? This includes the development of the project, the participants of the research and innovation and the beneficiaries of the research and innovation.

2. The expected impact of the project (benefits and losses) on people of different genders, both throughout the project and beyond.

3. The impact on the relations between people of different genders and people of the same gender. For example, changing roles and responsibilities in households, society, economy, politics, power, etc.

4. How will any risks and unintended negative consequences on gender equality be avoided or mitigated against, and monitored?

5. Are there any relevant outcomes and outputs being measured, with data disaggregated by age and gender (where disclosed)?

Whilst this kind of attention to gender impacts of development research projects is to be welcomed, the requirements of the GCRF gender equality statement downloaded significant conceptual work onto PIs who might be unfamiliar with gender and it’s relevance in international development or technology. This is particularly challenging for researchers working in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics and Manufacturing (STEMM), who lack social scientific expertise and who were unused to integrating questions of gender into project design.

The ‘Getting to Sufficiency’ Project​

In order to support researchers to meet these new requirements, the University of Edinburgh’s Research Office (ERO) commissioned genderED to create a toolkit, guidance, and evidence-based resources, as part of a project entitled ‘’Integrating Gender into GCRF Bids: Getting to Sufficiency’. The project was funded through the Scottish Funding Council GCRF Fund.

To create the evidence base for the toolkit and guidance, the project team reviewed best practice on the integration of gender into the planning and implementation of both development projects and scientific research projects. We also conducted briefings with research professionals and PIs associated with GCRF projects. Below we provide a brief summary of the key findings emerging from that research.

GCRF projects require researchers to combine development and scientific research goals into one project, so that outcomes such as cutting edge research and academic excellence are blended with outcomes such as poverty reduction and inclusive, fair and equitable partnership working. In this way, GCRF projects bring HE researchers into contact with unfamiliar concepts, priorities and practices that predominate in the development sector, such as: Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) compliance, partnership working and goals to ‘leave no one behind.’ 

Achieving these latter development goals usually requires drawing on local knowledge to tackle problems embedded in social context. For STEMM researchers who have been trained to distance themselves from the object of study and the human factors surrounding it (Collins, 1990, p. 205), this approach can challenge their preconceptions of what constitutes reliable knowledge and good research. Our briefings also showed that concepts such as fair and equitable partnership working are particularly new to those working in STEMM and that many PIs are unsure how UKRI expects scientific and development goals to be combined, delivered and evidenced within GCRF and Newton Fund projects. In essence, many in the Higher Education (HE) sector were unclear what ‘development research’, or ‘research for development’, might mean.

Development practitioners and HE researchers also have differing definitions and understandings of apparently common concepts such as impact, excellence and risk. Participating in GCRF projects therefore challenged HE researchers to engage with the politics of development and the priorities of that sector. The design and implementation of gender sensitive projects is one of these challenges.

Our evidence base demonstrated that GCRF and Newton Fund projects bring with them risks that people of all genders may not equally benefit from the research and related activities. Experience in the international development sector shows that structural gender inequalities shape people’s experiences of poverty in areas as diverse as agriculture, health and climate change. As a result, development practitioners have learned that interventions need to target the most impoverished and carefully consider local social and economic inequalities, in order to be effective (Ginige et al 2014; World Bank 2009; WHO 2002).  Carefully integrating gender concerns into project design is essential to target the most acute needs and ensure that the benefits of development interventions are not co-opted by richer and more powerful groups in society. Development concepts such as Theory of Change and ‘leave no one behind’ which respond to these challenges, have emerged from over 30 years of international learning and consensus building within the development sector.

Research in STEMM, or indeed any research discipline, also brings potential risks to gender equality (Felt, 2017). Science and Technology Studies (STS) has long documented that new technologies and knowledge can negatively affect people, if they do not take account of the ways that sex and gender structure people’s lives or when they entrench structural inequalities by reproducing sexist assumptions in their products, models or theories (Harding 1986, 2015). As GCRF projects fuse development goals and practices with scientific research these risks to gender equality need to be taken into account when responding to the new GE Statement.

GCRF projects also need to take account of the barriers to gender equal participation in research projects, throughout the project, including dissemination. In both the Global North and so-called LMICs, participation in scientific research is marked by strong patterns of vertical gender segregation, whereby women’s participation in research and decision-making reduces with each step up the career ladder (European Commission, 2018; UNESCO, 2018). Barriers to women’s participation in STEM can be very acute in LMICs and vary widely across different cultures. In LMICs, these gendered barriers often sit within wider context of under-funding in the HE and technology sectors and colonial legacies that undermined pre-existing cultures of knowledge and education systems (Ogbu 2008; Rodney 2018; Sherif 2008; Wawasi Kitetu 2008). Outside the Research and Development sector gender hierarchies also often affect access to technology (Wawasi Kitetu, 2008). Dissemination strategies that do not seek to overcome these hierarchies in access to technology are likely to inadvertently entrench them (Carr and Hartl, 2010).

The Challenge of Taking Gender Inequalities into Account in GCRF and Newton Fund Projects

The findings of our research highlighted that the integration of gender issues into GCRF projects must go beyond consideration of gender balance on research teams. However, our briefings with PIs at the University of Edinburgh showed that most were aware of ‘women in science’ agenda but felt uncertain about how gender could be relevant to the content of their own GCRF or Newton Fund projects.

Most PIs were not familiar with the global consensus in the development sector, demonstrated for example by gender mainstreaming in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) or the 1979 UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which legitimates attention to gender inequalities in development interventions. We also found some evidence of STEM researchers underestimating the knowledge and expertise required to tackle the social scientific aspects of their projects, such as incorporating gender into their project. This took the form of STEMM researchers, for example, only involving social scientists in project development processes very late in the proposal development process, asking them for example to ‘deal with impact.’ This is understandable given the lack of prior experience of many PIs in thinking about or tackling these issues.

However, considerable expertise is present within the development sector on the relevance of gender in development and the best practice techniques to deal with it. Many of these high quality resources are easily accessible on line. Similarly, some excellent toolkits are available to help PIs ‘gender proof’ scientific research projects (for example, Stanford Gendered Innovations, the GARCIA toolkits). Taken together, these resources highlight that HE researchers from the Global North cannot reasonably assume that gender inequality is irrelevant in their GCRF project or that their own personal understandings of gender in/equality are relevant in LMICs. Development practitioners point to ‘Gender Sensitive Situational Analysis’ as the best practice approach, to ensure that projects do not exacerbate gender inequalities or create new ones.

Gender Sensitive Situational Analysis tools provide a structured approach to help practitioners and researchers to unpack the local relevance of gender in target countries. These often emphasise different domains of society where gender inequality can be salient in different ways (e.g. access to resources, access to decision making, and gendered divisions of labour). Most of these toolkits provide examples of participatory exercises, which can be used to: collectively identify relevant gender inequalities; collectively establish priorities; and collectively identify risks to gender equality. These toolkits emphasise that this kind of locally specific analysis is essential to develop locally relevant and culturally validated development interventions. We noted however that their recommendations emphasise engagement over the long haul, and aspire to a ‘gold standard’ of development, delivering ‘transformative’ outcomes. These may not be realistic goals for one-off research projects delivered by HE researchers, rather than International Development organisations.

These toolkits published by the International Development Sector also emphasise that projects can incorporate concern for gender inequalities to differing degrees, moving along a continuum (see Figure 1, below), ranging from completely gender blind (deemed unacceptable) to ‘gender transformative’ where the reduction of gender inequality is a project’s core goal (Oxfam, 2019).

Figure 1: Oxfam Rubric for Integrating Gender in Research Planning. Source: Oxfam, 2019, p.2.

Reviewing this rubric, The Edinburgh University Working Group on Gender in International Development Research collectively decided that the Toolkit and Guidance produced as an outcome of our project should aim, in the first instance, to enable University of Edinburgh GCRF and Newton Fund projects to fulfil the requirements of ‘gender sensitive’ and ‘gender responsive’ approaches.

The Role of Partnerships in Tackling Gender Inequalities in GCRF and Newton Fund Projects

Our review of evidence also showed that most countries and partner institutions have policies that demonstrate clear rhetorical support for gender equality. This provides opportunities for projects to link up with and contribute towards locally defined, STEMM specific, gender equality goals. We also found many international and local gender equality organisations focused on STEMM or specific subsets thereof, such as agriculture, ICT, construction or Disaster Risk Reduction. These organisations can supply highly specific expertise to help PIs identify the relevance of gender in STEM research projects. They can also provide networks to facilitate gender sensitive dissemination strategies. This makes them important partners to include in GCRF and Newton Fund projects.

Conclusions: Elaborating a Sufficient Response

The Getting to Sufficiency project, drew together insights on ‘gender in development’ and ‘gender in science’ to provide a succinct tool which includes a simplified model for Gender Sensitive Situational Analysis and then takes PIs through four steps, so that they can design a gender sensitive research project. Changes were also made to several internal funding application forms at the University of Edinburgh, to prompt and support PIs to consider gender equality issues early on in their project’s development and to begin building institutional awareness.

Our GCRF focused tools aim to support PIs in elaborating a sufficient response to the new requirements of UKRI’s Gender Equality Statement in their applications. This ‘sufficient’ response (i.e. one that is gender sensitive or gender responsive in its approach see Figure 1 above) takes into account the fact that the new gender equality requirements in GCRF/Newton Fund research are nested within the wider challenges of fusing development and scientific goals within one project.

Recognising these challenges, the University of Edinburgh aims to support PIs in building these capacities in the medium term. Our ‘sufficient’ approach is also premised on recognition that GCRF/Newton Fund Projects typically have short timespans. These projects are often formulated in response to Calls published by UKRI with tight deadlines. This can make the use of participatory tools to establish research aims unrealistic and disproportionate.

In addition, most projects’ timespans are insufficient to deliver visible changes in gender relations or impacts on gender equality, which can be robustly evidenced. The University of Edinburgh recognises that those kinds of ‘transformative’ outcomes (See Figure 1 above) are more realistically produced by long term, strategically planned programmes of activity, than they are by single projects. Such a programme could certainly be elaborated by the Department for Business Industry and Strategy and/or UKRI.  However, the University of Edinburgh plans further work to build institutional capacity towards excellence in gender sensitive GCRF and Newton Fund Research. This will include reflection on the University’s capacity to take a programmatic approach to the integration of gender in GCRF/Newton Fund Projects and to link these efforts to existing strategic partnerships and our wider commitments to the SDGs. These actions may take the form of legacy or wrap-around initiatives that aim to build on GCRF/Newton Fund projects or to transcend the limitations of project based funding.

Post Script

In April 2021 the UK government announced significant cuts to the International Aid budget, which provides funding for the GCRF, effectively ending the scheme, at least for the time being.

In this context, and given that other schemes such as the European Commissions Horizon scheme are increasingly emphasising gender sensitive research approaches, the Research Office and GenderEd took the decision to adapt materials generated through the project, so that they can  be applied to research funded through any funding scheme in any context.

Our GCRF specific materials are still available in the section marked ‘GCRF specific resources’ on our resources page.


The Principal Investigator of the Project ‘Integrating Gender into GCRF Bids: Getting to Sufficiency’ was Prof. Fiona Mackay, Director of genderED, the University of Edinburgh’s hub for the study of gender and sexuality. The project was managed by Dr Rosalind Cavaghan, Independent Academic Consultant and Visiting Scholar.

Edinburgh University’s Working Group on Gender in International Development Research and the University of Edinburgh Research Office oversaw the project. The team included Dr Sarah Ssali, (Makerere University Uganda), Dr Tefide Kizildeniz  (Niğde Ömer Halisdemir University Turkey), Loise Maina (Practical Action Kenya), Boel McAteer (University of Edinburgh), Dr Aoife McKenna (University of Edinburgh), Dr Romina Istratii (Independent Academic Consultant), Dr Kate Newman, (Director of Research Evidence and Learning, Christian Aid). Media assistance was also provided by Calista Utomo and Erica Niebauer.