Rombald green texture

Embedding sustainable change in gender equality: working from the inside out

13th July 2021

Authors: Dr Prudence R Brown and Dr Lee Wilson, University of Queensland


If you want to change the culture, you will have to start by changing the organisation

So stated Mary Douglas in a sentence so thoroughly abused that it has achieved the status of fridge magnet aphorism.

Wherever one sits on the structure-agency continuum, delivering meaningful change requires an understanding of the cultural dynamics that shape the ways in which we think and act. Driving the changes necessary to achieve SDG 5, gender equality and empowering all women and girls, requires acceptance that a transformation of power relations and cultural norms is needed, and for this to be driven from within. What national governments do is quite simply critical for these transformations to occur (Dalby et al., 2019: 7).

As part of a recent review of the policy for gender equity and social inclusivity in Papua New Guinea, we worked with government to develop a participatory approach to cultural analysis and policy planning rooted in both political science and anthropology. Without downplaying the critical role of conventional approaches focusing on top-down and structural issues in reform, it is also important for governments to internalise the norms of gender equity if sustainable progress is to be made (Mackay, 2011). Change happens both at the meso and the micro level, so a critical factor in institutional change is the ‘normal, everyday implementation and enactment of an institution’ (Streeck and Thelen, 2005: 11). 

Drawing on feminist methodologies, in particular feminist institutionalism and the recognition that policy institutions are inescapably gendered, we worked to identify path dependencies necessary to be disrupted if change were to be implemented. Working to understand and drive ideational and discursive shifts – the ways in which people make sense of the world and how this is reflected in policy content – requires generating deep insight into the ways in which people think, behave and relate to each other. These insights can then be used to make gender norms visible and identify the ways in which these are framed linguistically in policy. Reflecting on norms in this way helps to ‘make the strange familiar, and the familiar strange’. Methdologically this was central to our approach, which was grounded in paraethnographic enquiry.

Paraethnography is a process of discovery ‘from the inside out’. Part of a ‘revisionist’ approach to ethnography (Islam 2014: 232), it entailed collaborating with policy makers to cognitively map gender subjectivities in their department and other government agencies.

Through co-creation we sought to destabilise our own expert status as producers of theoretical knowledge 'about' them and their institutional norms, and underline their role as producers of their own organisational knowledge and forms of critical reflection. Our purpose was to facilitate joint discovery, analysis and strategic review to produce practical insights for the policy review.  This worked to address issues of legitimacy of findings as the research was driven by ‘insiders’ from within the organisation rather than external researchers. Working from the inside out also helped to drive the uptake of research findings, and turn policy makers into advocates of the action points and reccomendations laid out in the review.

The lofty ideals of SDG 5 are far from easy to achieve. Identifying and implementing the changes necessary to carry forward institutional transformation requires a genuine desire to reflect on and and disrupt enduring systems of patriarchal power and authority.

Working with government in Papua New Guinea, we have begun to develop an innovative, contextually relevant and culturally sensitive approach to policy research, development and implementation. 

Our approach deliberately blurs the boundaries between research and advocacy, domains of knowledge and disciplinary expertise. We argue that turning our own ideas of the research process 'inside out' is necessary if we are to find new ways to embed the organisational change that is needed, and if the aims of SDG 5 are ultimately to be more than words on an aspirational fridge magnet.


Dalby S, Horton S and Mahon R (2019) Global governance challenges in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. In: Dalby S, Horton S and Mahon R (eds) Achieving the sustainable development goals : global governance challenges. Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge, pp.1-18.

Islam, G.  (2015) Practitioners as Theorists: Para-ethnography and the Collaborative Study of Contemporary Organizations. Organizational Research Methods Vol. 18(2) 231-251

Mackay F (2011) Conclusion: Towards a Feminist Institutionalism? In: Mackay F and Krook ML (eds) Gender, politics and institutions : towards a feminist institutionalism. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.181-196.

Mathews H and Nunn M (2019) Women on the Move: Can We Achieve Gender Equality by 2030? In: Ohno I, McArthur JW and Kharas H (eds) Leave No One Behind Time for Specifics on the Sustainable Development Goals. Washington, District of Columbia: Brookings Institution Press.

Monkelbaan J (2019) Governance for the Sustainable Development Goals : exploring an integrative framework of theories, tools, and competencies. Singapore: Springer.

Streeck W and Thelen KA (2005) Beyond continuity : institutional change in advanced political economies. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Taylor SR and Mahon R (2019) Gender equality from the MDGs to the SDGs. In: Dalby S, Horton S and Mahon R (eds) Achieving the sustainable development goals : global governance challenges. Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge, pp.54-70.

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