Gender Training: A Transformative Tool for Development

by Lucy Ferguson, Palgrave Pivot, 2019

Reviewed by Ines Smyth

This slim volume explores a radical topic: the potential gender training has for contributing to the transformation of gender relations. Radical, given the barrage of criticisms targeted at both gender training and gender mainstreaming as being tokenistic, technocratic, and slave to neo-liberal thinking and institutions.

For this reason, it is a real pity that the appearance of the publication is not more attractive, imaginative, or reader friendly: its paragraphs are dense, with few breaks to encourage pause and reflection despite claiming to be in ‘an accessible format’; and its figures are almost totally unreadable (see Figure 1.1 on page 3 and Figure 3.1 on page 57 as examples). This is particularly disappointing in a book that points to the need for gender training to encourage creativity, empathy, and action, at least among trainees (p. 118).

Part of the same weakness is the dry introductory chapter, mostly dedicated to the professionalisation of gender training. The exploration of the topic has interesting aspects, lying chiefly in the warning that processes of professionalisation in the context of gender politics can contribute to reinforcing established Western dominant hierarchies of knowledge. However, for a book that wishes to promote the use of training for disruption, contestation, and ultimately transformation, and that dedicates one of its core chapters (Chapter 4) to the tensions between technocratic demands and feminist politics and practice, professionalisation hardly seems an appropriate point of entry, though not an irrelevant issue to explore. In fact, had the topic been raised later, it would have become much clearer that professionalisation is indeed among those very tensions.

The focus on professionalisation so early in the book also ushers in an exaggerated reliance on a small number of references and examples, primarily from the UN Women Training Centre, along with one or two more. While it is legitimate to recognise and value one’s institutional positionality and inspiration (the author being closely linked with the UN Women Training Centre), it is less so when this happens to the exclusion of other important sources of information and training material, and perhaps of more radical voices. An obvious gap here is the limited reference to the many attempts by women’s rights organisations in developing countries to produce and undertake highly professional gender training inspired by feminist principles. A further gap is historical, since there are many publications which well predate those mentioned in the book and that explore the potentials and limitations of gender training as a tool for long-lasting social change. One example is the Oxfam experience related in ‘Gender training for development practitioners: only a partial solution’ (Porter and Smyth 1998) from as early as 1998, which stressed that without profound structural and policy change within development institutions, gender training cannot give desired results (the very point made in this book on p. 50).

However, these points notwithstanding, the book does ask many essential questions, such as, importantly, ‘how can gender training be developed so that it can allow for disruption and contestation?’ (p. 12). Other very pertinent questions are dotted throughout the book, for example: ‘what are the methodologies to maximise the potential of gender training to be transformative?’ (p. 29); ‘should all gender training be feminist?’, and ‘what can be done when institutional setting is inimical to them?’ (p. 85).

These questions are valuable to both practitioners and theorists of the subject (if the distinction is possible, but this is a separate issue). Particularly for practitioners, the questions echo and clarify the dilemmas they often encounter, and provide them with useful theoretical underpinningsThe book also endorses more broadly some of the practices practitioners test and adoptas it uses practical examples of training methodologies and exercises to illustrate the four feminist pedagogical principles which – according to the author – help overcome the tensions of gender training: that of participatory learning, the validation of personal experience, social justiceactivism and accountability, and the promotion of critical thinking and open mindedness. 

The book is not blind to the weaknesses of gender training: on the contrary, it is through pointing to some of its major gaps and problems in order to ‘reclaim optimism in what gender training can do (p. 2), that the book is at its best.  

Its attention to the limited application of an intersectional approach – both in the training content and in its methods – is timely and should certainly be heeded.  Similarly, the book points to poor reliance in gender training on theories and tools that consider issues of privilege (rather than powerlessness)Useful theorising can be drawn from anti-racism and intersectional feminism dealing with white male privilege, and can be adapted to encourage reflection on the privilege or marginalisation of both trainees and trainers themselves, depending on context. 

At a more technical level, the book points out the weaknesses that exist in monitoring and evaluating gender training, which tend to focus on the training itself, rather than its impact. Here, the book summarises the contents of a UN Women Training Centre paper to highlight the key aspects of an effective approach: a different way of thinking about evaluation that explicitly engages with power dynamics at different levels; a focus on results; participatory methods; and follow up to endoftraining evaluations. Practitioners may find it useful to see how far the tools and guidelines contained in the paper go towards solving persistent structural problems in this field. 

As the book states, the relationship between gender training and transformative change is not being articulated at the present time (p. 66), and there are still many unresolved and unfinished issues in this  fieldIn addressing some of the problems and gaps, the chapters of this book do not claim to offer complete and totally effective solutions, but they do assist   deeper exploration in order to increase the transformational potential of gender trainingmore exciting, inventive and challenging look and tone, would have much better reflected this aim and would have provided greater  support  for achieving it. 


1 Fenella Porter and Ines Smyth (1998)’Gender training for development practitioners: Only a partial solution Gender & Development 6(2): 59-64