Living the Gender Lens: Reflections on the Fletcher Conference on Gender and International Affairs

By Rachel Porter, MALD 2017, The Fletcher School

In December 2015, The Fletcher School hosted its first annual conference on gender issues, titled “Gender and International Affairs: Avenues for Change.” The conference was student-run, organized by The Gender Initiative and Global Women, and it enjoyed wide support from the faculty and administration. Fletcher Dean James Stavridis noted in the program: “Nothing is more important to the overall potential of the world than our ability to fully develop and use the potential of everyone, women and men alike and equally.  The study of gender affords us the best chance of doing so, and deserves our strongest level of engagement.  The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy is committed to doing so with energy and enthusiasm, and this conference is a good example of our approach.” The conference drew together over 300 participants from schools across the Boston area and hailing from countries around the world. Social media activity surrounding the conference hashtag, #FletcherGender2015, resulted in the hashtag trending in the Boston area. The conference also received recognition in Foreign Policy Interrupted, a listserv of gender in foreign policy.

The first-ever conference on Gender and International Affairs at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy opened on the evening of December 4, 2015 at 5 p.m. The session was designed to encourage candid reflections and honesty from conference attendees and a panel of gender specialists. Everyone showed up ready to contribute, resulting in an electric environment driven by evidence-based conclusions. The combination of data and personal experiences aligned to demonstrate that inclusive peacemaking processes are not only more equal, but also effective in creating sustainable, non-violent outcomes.

Renowned feminist scholar Cynthia Enloe recognized that pushing for gender equality in a society that is hyper-sexualized and highly militarized, such as the United States, is no small task. To convince those that uphold the patriarchy to think differently she advised gender mainstreamers to explain their thinking, “in as subtle and as grounded a way as [they] possibly can.” Enloe admitted that adopting a nuanced and audience-tailored approach to feminist advocacy requires practitioners to be, “more skilled than ever.” Therefore, as students of international affairs we must work harder to develop our communication skills alongside any study of gender and inclusion. Conducting a gender analysis without effectively communicating findings to decision-makers is ineffective.

Linking gender mainstreaming to positive outcomes has the potential to be a powerful means of persuading skeptics. Marie O’Reilly, Head of Research at the Institute for Inclusive Security, indicated that having a balance among genders at high-level peace talks and negotiations results in more durable peace agreements. Despite the evidence, only 9% of negotiators and 2% of mediators working on high-level peace talks were women between 1992 and 2011. As O’Reilly mentioned, despite the infiltration of the term inclusion in the international peace and security field, few decision-makers have taken steps to actively restructure existing processes.

Sebastián Molano, Founder of Defying Gender Roles and a gender consultant for Oxfam America, also made the distinction between surface-level gender mainstreaming and true implementation. He cited practitioners who, “talk gender talk, but don’t walk gender walk.” An example of this phenomenon would be a decision-maker in an international NGO who supports the restructuring of policies to be more inclusive, but doesn’t make an effort to challenge their own views on gender norms in their daily lives. Molano noted that in order to truly see the world through a gender lens one must engage in a process of self-reflection. This involves taking the time to assess one’s personal understanding of power dynamics and privilege, as well as one’s overall willingness to work with others on these issues.

Throughout the opening session each speaker emphasized that learning to engender our own institution is essential if we advocate for gender equality worldwide. In this regard, the conference marks a significant milestone for The Fletcher School. As an institution, we have never been more gender-sensitive than we are today. The collective energy and passion for change, cultivated during the opening session, carried through during the panels of the conference. Enloe encouraged attendees to capture this inspiration. “Mark it down,” she said. “Don’t let it be just a cliché, remember it.”

Two months after the gender conference, the gender buzz is alive and well in many of the same spaces it was before the conference took place. However, the degree to which this buzz has permeated beyond its epicenter is less clear. Institutional level change at Fletcher has and continues to inspire individuals to incorporate gender analysis into their work. Now we must push ourselves to incorporate it into our lives. Enloe made it clear that developing effective communication skills is necessary to persuade skeptics, but this ability is equally necessary if we are to hold those already persuaded accountable.

In light of recent momentum, it is the responsibility of gender-aware individuals to make explicit our understanding of why inclusion and gender balance are important. This goes beyond mentioning gender in a paper and instead requires us to help each other ‘walk the gender walk’ everyday. This means asking for clarification if an off-handed comment catches you off guard. It means making an effort to be more aware of your bias in everyday life and not assuming that discussing gender as a community reflects a shared understanding of what a gender analysis entails. It means more humility, more conversation and more sensitivity. All of this is in our control right now.

For those curious, make an effort to explore gender analysis. Start by asking yourself why you’re curious and why you don’t know more about gender and gender analysis. The answers to these questions alone will help you begin to consider your power and privilege through a gender lens.

Learning the basics of key gender concepts and the elements of a gender analysis is not nearly as difficult as applying them in our professional and personal lives. It is a choice and a daily effort. O’Reilly remarked that studying gender is useful if you are interested in “finding dignity for as many people as possible” and learning “how to ensure that dignity.” If that is the goal, then stepping outside of our comfort zones to explore personal bias and privilege is not only a choice, it is a responsibility.

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