An insightful conversation with three IDinsight leaders on how championing opportunities for women has been a throughline in their personal and professional lives. Frida Njogu-Ndongwe, Divia Nair, and Linda Zuze share how challenges to women’s equity are manifesting in India, Nairobi, and Zambia and why data and evidence can help or hurt public policies.
Emily: Welcome, everyone. Thank you so much for joining us today for our IDinsight women’s months roundtable. My name is Emily Coppel. I’m the Director of Strategic Communications for IDinsight, and I am joined today by three exceptionally impressive IDinsight leaders.
First, we have Frida Njogu-Ndongwe. Our East Africa Regional Director based in Nairobi, Kenya. Frida is a medical doctor and public health specialist, entrepreneur, as well as a development and management consultant. Prior to IDinsight, Frida was the director of programs at the Center for Health Solutions – Kenya and a consultant for McKinsey & Company’s Africa Delivery Hub. She served most recently as CEO and co-founder of Afyakit Technologies. A Kenya-based startup that built and operates a health analytics platform for health managers and service providers. Afyakit Technologies was named by WHO as one of the top 30 innovations with the highest potential for health impact in Africa.
Next, I would like to welcome Divya Nair. Divya is a Senior Director at IDinsight, based in New Delhi. Divya has worked with governments, multilaterals, funders, and NGOs for almost 15 years. Notably, she has led work at IDinsight, to implement flexible and innovative evaluations of some of India’s most exciting women-focused initiatives, such as a grassroots accelerator to support women’s social enterprises with SEWA Bharat and Imago Global Grassroots and the SWAYAM project with IWWAGE. She is also closely working with state governments to amplify their engagement on a range of issues aimed at women and girls empowerment.
And our newest member of the team. Linda Zuze is the Southern Africa Director at IDinsight, based in Lusaka, Zambia. Linda has over 15 years of experience in policy research across Africa. Before joining IDinsight, she worked as a resident researcher at UNESCO, as a university academic, as the director of a research consultancy, and as a research specialist in Zambia and South Africa. Linda’s sectoral areas of focus include education, women’s employment, financial inclusion, and persons with disability. Her most recent projects have focused on improving women’s access to both formal and informal financial services and in social enterprise efforts to advance Africa’s female entrepreneurs. Linda is committed to reversing the acute shortage of women in policy research and is involved in training and mentorship programs that target young female professionals.
So, welcome everyone. Thank you for joining this discussion today. I know how busy you all are. I’ve seen your calendars. So, I’m really pleased that we were able to find time to connect and to talk. I have some questions to kick us off, but I’m hoping that this will be more of a conversation in which you can ask questions of each other in true round table style.
Divya, I’m going to turn to you, and I know this is a loaded question, but I think it is a nice starting place for us. Was there a moment for you when you knew that focusing on women would be a through-line in your work?
Divya: Hi, Emily. And hello everybody. It’s so nice to be here. Really excited for a lively conversation going forward.
You know, when you asked me this question, it really makes me worry in terms of how long the story here could potentially be. But, to start off, I’ve always wanted to challenge gender stereotypes. It’s been something that I kind of bristle against. I grew up in Uttar Pradesh in, India. This is this large state in Northern India where, social norms are very strong about what girls and boys do. And I grew up in many smaller towns in this state. So, it was always fun to kind of question the status quo. I would love to play cricket with the boys or kabaddi, you know, have these inter-gender sports activities. And, I was kind of precocious. I was reading feminist literature quite early, and it also happened that my mother was working in a feminist NGO that focused on women’s collectives in the nineties. It was one of the early NGOs that was looking at the space. So, there was this sense of seeing strong women and the need for strong women in a very patriarchal space.
But I think it became very clear that I wanted to work in this space when I became a mother and after my Ph.D., where I felt like I actually had to start making some choices. And also, when I was working in terms of my jobs, I experienced what people talk about, you know, the mansplaining. Even though I had a Ph.D., there were these young people explaining to me things that seemed pretty obvious. But there was also this kind of lack of confidence that I was experiencing, having taken a little bit of a break. And all that kind of came together, making my sense of my gender identity even stronger in the sense that we have to fix this. The biases just became more apparent to me, and I feel like I’ve always wanted to again, you know, question them. And, I’m very privileged in terms of where I am, so I wanted to question and readdress this for India, given the strong social norms.
And the last point on that is that I’ve been looking at where India is currently in terms of gender norms, and all the data shows that there’s a lot of exciting work happening. There are a lot of strong women, strong movements, but also a lot of regressive social norms that continue. And so, this mix makes me feel like this is a topic I’m truly passionate about, and I feel that it’s so important for us to kind of grow and enable 50% of the population to have its voice heard and enable them to achieve their true potential.
Emily: Linda, I’m going to turn to you. I’m curious if any of Divya’s past experiences also resonate with you? Notably, you have also put quite a bit of your life’s effort into empowering the next generation of female professionals. I’m curious if you could tell us a little bit about what draws you to this work?
Linda: Thanks, Emily. It was wonderful hearing Divya’s description because I was nodding furiously. There are so many parallels. Although I obviously was born and raised halfway across the world from her and like Divya, my story starts really in that I could pick up from very early on in my life that there was something different about being a girl compared to being a boy. And, it was the small things, right. People seemed a little bit happier when someone had a son compared to someone having a daughter. So, there’s a lot more celebration around that. And kids pick up things very quickly. Or it could be something like, for example, asking an adult why a girl is not attending school and being told that, well, the parents didn’t have enough money, so they sent the sons to school, and the daughter stayed at home to help with the housework. So as a child, I was already seeing that.
The message really was that it wasn’t just enough to be a girl. If you were a girl, somehow, you had to be exceptional for your family to invest in you, especially financially. Especially if you are from a poor household, you have to be exceptional somehow, or you didn’t really count.
But I’d like to say that what keeps me in the space is that I’m convinced that good policies make a difference. I’ve seen that. It’s not easy, but it is possible. And I think that Emily, we’ve become really good at gathering the data and the evidence to show what works. We’re still learning, but we’re getting better at it. In some sectors, we’re also really good at having those conversations about what the data means and how we translate that into transforming lives. But just like Divya said, that mixed messages, there’s progress, and then we take a few steps back. Some people seem to think that, you know, once you see the success, you shouldn’t talk about it anymore. As if somehow, we don’t have any issues around gender to worry about.
I’m also really driven by that sense that we can’t take our foot off the pedal – that we need to keep moving and keep that conversation going. Seeing the successes of things across the board, from improving girls’ school attendance by putting something simple, like toilet doors in a school, or having textbooks where girls can see themselves reflected or as in Divya’s work, improving financial services that make sense for women. Being part of that process for me is what really keeps me motivated in terms of seeing lives transformed.
But in academia, where I spent the early part of my career, there were very few women and very few black women in terms of senior roles as economists. So, one did feel isolated in some ways. And I think that women are still really underrepresented when it comes to policy discussions, especially technical ones. Even when you are in the room, you can be actively ignored. So, I think that we have a lot of work to do to get more women at the table and empower them to have those conversations because it does take time to work out how to navigate those spaces effectively.
Emily: So many fascinating things to build on. I think we’re all nodding along as well. We have seen some of these stories play out in different places.
Frida, I’m going to turn to you. It would be wonderful to hear your story and where your focus on women’s issues started because it has also been a through line in your work.
Frida: Yes, thanks. I agree. I think our stories have a lot of similarities. Growing up in Kenya, I grew up in a family where gender was never an issue. We could do what we wanted. I really credit my parents for that. But we still live in a society where girls probably are less valued.
In my culture, when a girl is born, we ululate three times, and when a boy is born, we ululate five times. It may not be a big issue, but when you hear about it, you think, why don’t we ululate more times for our own? But through the years, I’ve seen women having a lot of responsibilities and getting very little of that credit. For example, being responsible for childcare and providing medical healthcare – In pediatric medicine, we always say, ask the mother, tell the mother. We never think that a child could be brought to the hospital by the father. It is always a mother taking care of the child, the mother bringing the child for vaccinations etc. So just being aware of these additional expectations on them.
I have seen relatives being disinherited because maybe they had marital issues. I’ve seen widows and their children thrown off their property because the husband died, and so it made me really uncomfortable. Closer to home, I remember some of my male peers in college would share their expectations about what their wives would be, including career choices and what their wives would do. It was just extremely unfair. The expectations reinforced what I had seen growing up.
I was quite uncomfortable for change because I’m thinking if it didn’t change with our generation, then when was it going to change?
When I got an opportunity to work in health and gender – I was trying to advise on how to address the gender-related barriers to diagnosing TB in women. A lot of our diagnostics were really are focused on a man. You might be aware that, for instance, some of the symptoms of a heart attack are really not that common in women who may have had attacks, and it presented differently. So, a lot of things are really biased. So, when I started to work in that area, I was like, this is an area I want to work in more. You know, just to see what else beyond health, could I be doing in this area. And I think we can make a big difference, and we really are making a difference.
Emily: You know, it’s interesting that you mentioned the health space and how so many things are based on a man –whether it’s their vitals or something else. This brings me to something I’ve been thinking about lately, and you have probably all see in your own work all the time. I think it gets a little bit at the core of what IDinsight does because a lot of people see research or evidence and data as the great equalizer – if we have data on everyone, then everyone is being included and equally represented to policymakers. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how you’ve seen power dynamics and power asymmetries that manifest in real life, also reflected in the data that you’re collecting. Can you help a broader audience understand what that looks like and what it takes to purposefully push against these norms?
Frida: I can start. Because I just wanted to talk about a little bit about that human in medicine, who’s, you know, a 70 kilo 1.7-meter tall man. So, we base a lot of our dosing regiments and a lot of other things on that person. But women are different: we are usually shorter, less muscular, with more fat tissue. So, I think when there isn’t a lot of research based on the diversity of the human race. It’s always a problem. I mean, do we know how safe some of these drugs are in women?
There have been a lot of strides made to ensure that it’s diverse in terms of whose research, especially with gender a bit more, and a little bit with race, but we’re not really fully there. And when we fail to do that, then we could harm populations. There’s a need to always ensure that our research doesn’t leave anybody out. Or that we also don’t over-research a certain kind of population who become the researched, and then the people with power will become the researchers – Study subjects versus the people studying.
But I think we need to ensure that we are doing a gender analysis, not just gender, but also the various relevant identities. We look at the various gender, ages, social economics etc. – and ensure that whenever we do relevant policy analysis, we are actually looking at all these things. For example, we could be saying we’ve increased transition from primary school to high school – but has it increased for everybody? Unless we do this analysis and actually look at the various subgroups and see how they are affected, then we will definitely be leaving some people behind.
Unless policies have a very specific gender lens, women and girls have a harder time benefiting from them. So, even if the policy is sound neutral unless the specific gender angle is analyzed and even developing, then the benefit does not accrue equally to women and girls. We continue to leave them behind for that reason.
Emily: Yeah, absolutely. Linda, over to you.
Linda: Sure. To follow up on some of Frida’s points, you know, absolutely the research, the data, and the evidence – they lay the foundations for understanding the inequalities and how we can reverse them. But you need a lot more to really see this as a real equalizing force.
I sometimes think what happens is we forget that it’s people who design the research, people who write up the results, and who decide on the policies – they all have inherent biases as well. We haven’t even asked the women in the communities what they want and how they view things. So, I think that definitely, we’re in the right direction when we focus on that. But there are a few more ingredients that go into it.
If I can just give a quick example of one project where I think the pieces came together in my work. In 2018, I was part of a team that did an agenda audit of all of the financial institutions that our central bank, The Bank of Zambia, regulates. It was your commercial banks, building societies, and digital financial service providers. And really, they wanted to find out, first of all, do these institutions even collect data disaggregated by sex? Can we even track the extent of their problem? Do they have gender-related strategies? How many men and women work are in the financial sector at different levels?
So, what that did was really clarify the extent of the problem, and some of the results were absolutely surprising even for people who had worked in the space for a while. For example, we found out that the financial sector is largely male-dominated, especially at the board level and senior and middle management levels. At the junior levels, there is more of a balance. But certainly, at the senior levels there are huge imbalances across the board. And women had better repayment behaviors. Women were paying back the loans, but men had far more unsecured loans. But, there was a lack of gender-focused products and services. It just wasn’t happening in these financial institutions.
But why it worked is because we had the commitment of the regulator and the leadership. They were fully bought into it, and they had a long-term outlook. They were thinking, well, let’s get the information clear. And then let’s develop a framework, which is what they’ve done, to standardize how we can collect the data and really track this issue. So we had champions at the top who were willing to see this, not just as a report that collects dust, but something that really changes the way that they – as a regulator – track and understand the issue over time.
Emily: That’s so interesting. And I have a quick follow up question, and then I want to move to Divya because you’ve also done so much work in this space, and it will be interesting to hear it through the lens of working in India and some of the dynamics there.
But Linda, I’m curious if you could speak a little more about why those leaders were so bought into figuring this out in this instance. What do you think was their core motivation for taking on this project, but then very much internalizing and being willing to look honestly at the results and suggest changes?
Linda: Part of it is the policy that we had a financial sector development plan that talked about these issues. So, it was clear that these were the priorities of the government. Part of it was just having champions at very high positions who were willing to use their position and champion the cause and really stick with it.
But what I’ve also seen is there’s definitely a ripple effect. It’s almost like these types of successful studies feed into each other. And we’ve had similar studies around pensions and insurance authorities and among other areas as well. So that is, the success that you see when you have leaders who really are willing to voice the importance of these issues and how to ensure that they stay in the spotlight.
Emily: It’s really interesting and such a fascinating example to look at all of the contributing factors.
Divya, I’m going to turn to you. I know there are a lot of entry points here.
Divya: It’s really fascinating, you know, to hear what everybody’s saying, and it really resonates. Data and evidence are useful to shine the light on what the problem is and also quantify it.
One of the challenges we are having, for example, in some of the work that we’re doing, is we are being told, “We knew that.” I think intuitively, people know some of this, but to actually have a number, to know the extent of the problem and then prioritize it. Because from a policy perspective, you want to understand where you want to focus – understanding where the most important gaps are. As Linda said, is it at the middle level or is it at the more senior levels, etc. it gives you a sense of how to target your energies.
Linda, we should talk because at IDinsight, we are also doing a project on women in leadership and economics, and it really does resonate. We are looking exactly at this.
Going back to the pipeline, we are also worried that there are many people who don’t enter the pipeline at all. So, there’s a question of the denominator here, that very often when you’re looking at this group of people, it’s true that there’s a pyramid that there are less women in leadership, but we still don’t know who didn’t enter the system at all.
And so, we’re trying to understand, especially if it’s economics or STEM etc., we know across many of our countries that the proportion of girls who actually continue, even though they might take the courses increasingly, they then don’t opt into the professions commensurately. I think one is the data helps you track progress to help you understand where to prioritize. I really agree with Linda that it really is just a starting point and you need that leadership, you need that buy-in, to move the needle on any of this. I’ve also been on the other side where we are looking at the data, and we’ve not been getting that traction to actually move or change the situation. And I just want to give one example.
We conducted these seven household surveys during COVID across India. These were focused on rural households. One number that really stood out was around food security. The questions are often asked at the household level, but here we were looking at intra-household allocations. And I think that’s important when you’re looking at gender differences. And what we found was that within a household, there was a 10-percentage point in terms of food security between men and women. So, women were 10 percentage points, more likely to say that they had missed a meal. Or that they had gone to bed hungry. That’s jarring because you’re holding constant social, economic status, etc., and then you see these differences.
So, I think kind of teasing apart and using data to understand what the challenge is, then after that. There’s the problem of how do you address this? I think that’s very complicated. There is a lot of really interesting work going on in terms of opening bank accounts for women, getting women to have more direct linkages with the economy etc. I think the data is just a starting point, and then there’s a lot more to be done to actually move the needle.
Emily: So true and really fascinating examples as well from IDinsight’s work and the initiative to look at that data and disaggregate it. And to even just think: these answers could be different and ask how they could be different? That takes purposeful action and insight into what these [household] dynamics might look like.
You know, Linda and Divya, you both touched on there needing to be larger political will to look and to care. Frida, I’m going to turn to you because you recently reviewed Kenya’s Women’s Economic Empowerment Policy. I’m curious if this or examples of policy changes or shifts that you’ve seen recently give you energy in thinking about progressing forward. Or maybe there are indications of more political will in Kenya or elsewhere in East Africa towards looking at this data and being interested and acting on some of the findings.
Frida: Thanks. To be clear, I was part of the team that was reviewing the policy that was being developed and hopefully launched soon. It’s a really exciting engagement, especially to see not only women driving it but also the ownership among the men. We often think of gender issues as issues that need to be led by women. But there’s some turning of the tide.
As Divya and Linda were talking, I was thinking; we need data to trigger this engagement, this activity, but also to keep us checking if we are doing the right thing. We have developed these policies, etc., so how are they being implemented? Are women actually represented? What are the outcomes or even impact indicators that we are looking for? Then we can go from there. I think it’s a good first step that Kenya is developing its national policy on women’s economic empowerment, and soon we’ll be developing one on unpaid care work.
For me, this is a really exciting time. Kenya has been at the forefront of some gender issues. For instance, we were among the first country to scrap taxes on menstrual hygiene products. But we made this progress, and then we are lagging behind in representation in some areas, for instance, in the legislature.
While I do think that the tide is turning, it’ll turn slowly, but it will turn. Increasingly people recognize that policies – We often think of gender as the second order of things, after health, education, then we will address gender. But gender cuts across. So, as we’re developing a policy on education, or as we are designing a program, we need to think about how gender will play out and how we will track those impacts across the board.
We are seeing much more involvement. I think the President in Kenya is very supportive of the work that’s being done by this sector. But I think even in other areas, you’re seeing the Regional Global Women’s Empowerment Hub – at IDinsight, we will be joining the global one as well. There is a lot of effort to ensure that data and evidence are being used to advance this agenda. As long as there is clear evidence to everybody, then well-meaning people can actually be convinced to do something about it. But when all that is not clear, that’s something that we need to advocate for: increasing the use of data and evidence to actually change these positions.
Emily: Yes, absolutely. Linda, you’re nodding. Anything to add here? And I know you also had a question for the group too, so happy to segue to that as well.
Linda: I fully agree with Frida that there is that loop of the data speaking to helping us be accountable for the commitments we’ve made.
One of the questions that I had for Frida and Divya was that sometimes we have these great policies or interventions, but we find that at times they actually hurt women rather than help them. And, I wondered if there were any instances that you had come across where you had a policy that had unintended consequences for the women that were intended to help?
Frida: I was really thinking about this, figuring out which ones [instances]. I think if they [policies] were well-thought-out, the incidents of that would be lower. However, I’m also aware that, for instance, in some cases where we have very expensive maternity leave policies, people have pushed back, stating that then do you want to hire women? Because it looks expensive to do so. I think that’s really the short view and not the long view of things. When you think of the long-term contribution of women in the workforce, even of specific women who’ve been on maternity leave, based on anecdotal evidence, they actually work very hard to catch up when they come back. But I have heard that, that if you increase this [cost] beyond what it is in various countries, there has been a bit of reluctance. Because [employers] are then thinking it will become more expensive to hire women and it will be a disincentive.
Another thing I have noticed, and I don’t think it’s really evidence pointing towards this policy backfiring. But one of the things that Kenya’s current constitution is putting in place is to expand women’s representation in parliament. So, we have quite a few women parliamentarians, and often they get asked, “what have you legislated?” “What is the impact of having you there?” I think representation in and of itself is a goal. Because women have a right to be represented, and that could be an end in and of itself. However, I think we, people working in the evidence space, also have a responsibility to come alongside them and help them, with data and evidence, to further help them identify what their agenda is or to help identify what are the gaps in areas that may be of interest to them. It could be water or energy, but that also impacts women. So, I’d be able to support them to succeed in this area so that we no longer have people being told that “It makes no difference that we have more women now.” I think it is extremely important to have them there, even if there was no more additional gender legislation. I think we can help them succeed in those systems, and that’s one of the things we are hoping to do through some funding that we got from the Hewlett Foundation. But I think as people in the evidence space, we need to actually see how to counter that sentiment by providing solutions.
Divya: I just want to jump in on a couple of things here. I think Frida mentioned that we expect change to be almost a bit linear in the sense that things will improve, and it’s inevitable. But actually, we have not seen that in many cases.
In India, for example, unfortunately, we’re seeing that the female labor force participation has actually reduced over time. And currently, only about a quarter of women are working in the formal sector. So, of course, there is a discussion about how this is being defined and measured. But still, it is worrisome that, given if you measure the same way, over time, it [female labor force participation] has actually reduced. So that is a concern, that these things actually are quite complicated. And one of the reasons is that, as people get potentially wealthier or even more educated, they [women] are sometimes being asked to opt-out of the labor force because there is the sense that you don’t need to work anymore. That now you can stay back. And now you have that choice. But the question, in this case, is, do they have a choice? And what is this measure, this data point actually telling us? There’s been a lot of interesting discussions around that, and some good books recently that talk about what is happening to the Indian woman. Does she really have more choice? Or is she being forced to make some of these choices because of the strong social norms about going out of the house? What kinds of jobs are left for women given COVID, for example, and mechanization in agriculture? And so, I think it is very complicated, and data gives you some hints of what’s happening, but then we really need to kind of dig deeper and also be cautious about the sense that things will always improve because sometimes things can go backwards. And that was one of the main points. In terms of when policies have backfired, recently, India legislated, raising the age for marriage for girls. Traditionally it was 18 years for girls and 21 for boys, and now they’ve also made it 21 for girls. The challenge there exactly is that if women want to get married or men want to get married earlier, it’s criminalized. And so this law is often being used, for example, to go after young people who are making choices of their own and reiterating more traditional social norms, in the sense of late marriage and later consensual relationships. So, it’s actually taking away power from women.
Emily: Great question, Linda. Thank you. I feel like there are so many things we could talk about for quite a period of time, but I know that we’re actually short on time, so I think we should move towards closing remarks. You know, there are probably a lot of hopefully young professionals, young female professionals in particular, who might be considering career paths in similar directions as you all have taken. And I’m wondering if you might want to share any kind of sentiment with women who are considering this? I think everybody kind of hit on this idea. You know, maybe there’s never really a tipping point, and it is always kind of a push. And when it’s something that you’re personally invested in as well, because you see the value, I imagine it can be quite trying over time. So, I’m curious if you have any. Kind of sentiments that you would you would like to share about this work for others who might be considering it?
Divya: I think what’s been really useful for me personally is comradery and allyship with other women in the sector, but also beyond. It’s been really powerful, and I feel that it’s been so important to connect with women within the org and also outside the org. Because the stories we heard amongst just the three of us and beyond are so similar. Also, opening doors for others. Being conscious of these challenges, these inherent biases that different people face to different degrees and being conscious of these biases and privileges that some of us have and trying to consciously help others talk about it is really helpful. For me, in fact, I would say that it was really empowering to be able to talk about these things because I experienced it, but then articulating it openly and collectively is very important and useful.
Emily: Absolutely, especially when there’s a lot of stigmatization around talking about women’s issues as well and feminism and post-feminism and all that sort of thing, creating those spaces is important.
Linda: One of the things I try and encourage young women professionals, when they come to me and sort of feel a bit despondent about the work that they’re doing or just sticking with it, especially for those who have had to overcome quite a lot to get to where they are, you know, maybe they’re the first in their family to have finished university. They thought that they had played it right. And then, suddenly, they see that the rules aren’t quite what they expect. I always try and encourage them to continue taking themselves seriously. Even if those around them don’t. To take their work seriously. Even if those around them don’t really see the value of what they’re doing, but also just to encourage them by saying that nothing they’ve gone through is wasted because we’re storytellers. What they have experienced, if anything, will enrich the way they approach their research and their interpretation of results. And that’s a good thing, and their stories matter. Being able to see that every day is sometimes what you need to get through difficult periods.
Emily: Thank you for that.
Frida: When you asked the question, I thought, why only women. I think honestly, that work around gender must be done by everybody. I would encourage men as well to get into this space. I agree with getting allies and men, women, and people of various backgrounds into this space. I think we must help everybody see that. Advancing gender equity is not a zero-sum game. It’s not taking away from men. It’s actually helping the whole society to move forward. And I think maybe we need to rethink how we message it [gender equity]. Because we often have many people pushing back, thinking we are taking away from men’s successes or rights. So, I think that if the messaging is there, you should connect with other allies, don’t be afraid to challenge – I think in the early years, you’re afraid because you’re seen as a feminist, but there’s nothing wrong with being a feminist. I think it’s the same experience as you challenging other systems, whether it is racial or gender. So just be convinced that this is the right thing to do and then go for it.
Emily: Wonderful. Thank you for this fabulous and enriching discussion. I’m so grateful for your time. I know you’re exceptionally busy people, so very much appreciate it.
11 November 2021
3 April 2020
22 March 2022
1 March 2019