Feminist evaluation (FE) emphasizes participatory, empowering, and social justice agendas.
While all evaluation approaches are laden with their own, often implicit, values, few assert their values as openly as feminist evaluation. Unlike most gender approaches, feminist evaluation does not provide a framework or advocate a precise approach; rather, feminist evaluation is often defined as a way of thinking about evaluation. (See, for example, Podems, 2014; Podems 2010; Beardsley & Hughes Miller, 2002; Hirsch & Keller, 1990; Hughes, 2002; McRobbie, 1982).
Feminist evaluation has a strong overlap with some of the key characteristics of other evaluation and research approaches (see figure below); if you draw upon or appreciate these other approaches, then a feminist evaluation approach might be something that adds value to your practice.
What are the basic concepts that underpin feminist evaluation?
Feminist evaluation is based on feminist research, which in turn is based on feminist theory. Feminist evaluation theorists often list six basic tenets as the fundamental elements of a feminist evaluation:
- Feminist evaluation has as a central focus the gender inequities that lead to social injustice.
- Discrimination or inequality based on gender is systemic and structural.
- Evaluation is a political activity; the contexts in which evaluation operates are politicized; and the personal experiences, perspectives, and characteristics evaluators bring to evaluations (and with which we interact) lead to a particular political stance. A feminist evaluation encourages an evaluator to view her- or himself as an activist.
- Knowledge is a powerful resource that serves an explicit or implicit purpose.
- Knowledge should be a resource of and for the people who create, hold, and share it. Consequently, the evaluation or research process can lead to significant negative or positive effects on the people involved in the evaluation/research. Knowledge and values are culturally, socially, and temporally contingent. Knowledge is also filtered through the knower.
- There are multiple ways of knowing; some ways are privileged over others.
(Sielbeck-Bowen et al. 2002: pp. 3–4)
FE is particularly well suited to understanding inequities and encourages evaluators to use their empirical findings to advocate for social change:
- FE questions what it means to do research, to question authority, to examine gender issues, to examine the lives of women, and to promote social change.
- FE has as a central focus the gender inequities that lead to social injustice.
- FE views participation as a political activity and views knowledge and participation in discourse as a form of power.
- FE seeks also to ensure that the narratives and experiences of women in evaluations are valued equally to that of men’s and does not treat women as a homogenous group.
(Sielbeck-Bowen et al. 2002)
What’s the difference between gender approaches and feminist evaluation?
Feminist theorists used the terms ‘sex’ to describe anatomical differences between females and males and ‘gender’ to refer to socially constructed relationships between women and men (Podems 2010). Fletcher (2015) refers to gender as “a process of judgement and value (a social hierarchy), related to stereotypes and norms about masculinity or femininity, regardless of your born sex category. It is intimately entwined with sexuality and works alongside other social hierarchies, which most commonly form around race/ethnicity and class/caste/socio-economic status. In some countries and cultures, other hierarchies—such as those related to age or religious beliefs—are also important.” (see BetterEvaluation Blog: Gender injustice and inequality: what helps in assessing impact? and Fletcher 2015).
In a brief historical overview ‘gender approaches’, Podems (2010) refers to:
- interventions that took a welfare approach (e.g., handouts and services) to helping women in the developing world without challenging women’s status or the prevailing patriarchal structures (starting in the 1950s and 1960s but fashionable well into the 1990s)
- women in development (WID) approaches that focused on making women more efficient in what they were doing so as to alleviate poverty (starting in the 1970s)
- women and development (WAD) approaches that focused on improving the macro context (i.e., economic, political and social structures of developing nations) in the assumption that this would benefit women (starting in the 1970s)
- gender and development (GAD) approaches that focus on the interconnections of gender, class, and race and the social construction of their defining characteristics (starting in the 1980s)
While acknowledging that some gender approaches do incorporate one or more feminist elements, key differences between feminist evaluation and gender approaches may be summed up as follows:
|Gender Approaches||Feminist Approaches|
|Identify the differences between women and men in different ways.||Explore why differences between women and men exist.
|Do not challenge women’s position in society, but rather map it, document and record it.||Challenge women’s subordinate position; empirical results aim to strategically affect women’s lives, as well as the lives of marginalized persons.|
|View women as a homogenous group, without distinguishing other factors such as race, income level, marriage status, or other factors that make a difference.||Acknowledge and value differences; do not consider women as a homogenous category.|
|Assume that equality of women and men is the end goal and design and value evaluations with this understanding.||Acknowledge that women may not want the same things as men and design and value evaluations accordingly.|
|Do not encourage an evaluator to reflect on her/his values or how their vision of the world influences their design and its findings||Emphasize that an evaluator needs to be reflexive and open, and recognize overtly that evaluations are not value free.|
|Interpret gender as “men” and “women”.||Recognise other gender identities in addition to male and female|
|Collect gender-sensitive data||When collecting data, value different ways of knowing, seek to hear and represent different voices and provides a space for women or disempowered groups within the same contexts to be heard.|
Advice for using feminist evaluation
You don’t need to be a feminist to use feminist evaluation. While there are different schools of thought, feminist evaluation should not be exclusively for those that identify as feminists. The belief that only feminists conduct feminist evaluation keeps the approach out of mainstream evaluation and prevents non-feminists from exploring its potential use in their own evaluation activities. Choosing a feminist evaluation approach, like choosing any evaluation approach in any part of the world, needs to be done with careful consideration of multiple factors. Feminist evaluation should be applied based on its cultural, social, and technical appropriateness to a given context and should lead to a feasible, useful, appropriate, and credible evaluation (Podems, 2014).
Be knowledgeable about what feminist evaluation is, and is not. Many people have a strong reaction to feminist evaluation and yet few can explain what the approach entails. If appropriate, engage potential users of the evaluation in a discussion around how elements of the approach (or all of it) could enable a credible and more useful evaluation within the particular context it going to be used.
Consider removing the label while sticking to using the approach. Having two words (‘feminist’ and ‘evaluation’) that often elicit strong reactions together in one approach can be a challenge. If you believe that elements or the entirety of FE are appropriate to the evaluation process, explicitly introduce each element that you will use, or clearly explain the approach in its entirety, and provide the reasons for choosing it.
Adapt as needed. Feminist evaluation can provide a useful complement to, and intermingle with, other evaluation approaches such as democratic evaluation, empowerment evaluation, transformative evaluation, and others. Consider which elements of FE would fill important gaps or help to emphasise important ways of working or diversify results.
- Get involved and take it one step further. Peer support can be invaluable when practising evaluation. This is particularly important for feminist evaluation which is currently not widely practised.
Examples of feminist evaluations
Beardsley, R. and Hughes Miller, M. (2002). 'Revisioning the process: A case study in feminist program evaluation', New Directions for Evaluation. 96:57-70.
Brisolara, S., Seigart, D. and SenGupta, S. (Eds) (2014) Feminist Evaluation and Research: Theory and Practice. The Guilford Press.
Fletcher, G. (2015). Addressing gender in impact evaluation. A Methods Lab Publication. London: Overseas Development Institute & Melbourne: BetterEvaluation.
Hirsch, M. and Keller, E. (1990). 'Conclusion: Practicing conflict in feminist theory'. In: Hirsch M, Keller E (eds). Conflicts in feminism. p370-385. New York: Routledge.
Hughes, C. (2002). Key concepts in feminist theory and research. London: Sage Publications.
McRobbie A (1982). The politics of feminist research: Between talk, text and action. Feminist Review 12:46-48.
Podems, D. R. (2014). 'Feminist Evaluation for Nonfeminists' in Feminist Evaluation and Research: Theory and Practice. Edited by Sharon Brisolara, Denise Seigart, and Saumitra SenGupta. Guilford Press: New York.
Podems, D. (2011). 'Feminist evaluation and gender approaches: There’s a difference?', Journal of Multidisciplinary Evaluation, 6(14): 1-17.
Sielbeck-Bowen, K., Brisolara, S., Siegart, D., Tischler, C., and Whitmore, E. (2002). 'Exploring feminist evaluation: The ground from which we rise', New Directions for Evaluation 96: 3-8. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ev.62/abstract
Sielbeck-Mathes, K. and Selove, R. (2014) 'An Explication of Evaluator Values: Framing Matters'. In S. Brisolara, D. Seigart, and S. SenGupta (Eds) Feminist Evaluation and Research: Theory and Practice pp. 143-150.
Whynot, J. (2015) Integrating Gender into the Canadian Federal Government Evaluation Function. Presentation at The Evaluation Conclave 2015.
'Feminist evaluation' is referenced in: