At the downtown Chicago offices of law firm Jenner & Block on Jan. 21, the words "bitch," "ho," "dork" and "sissy" were displayed to an audience of Chicago Foundation for Women ( CFW ) board and staff members, grantees and friends.
In explaining why the CFW chose to host a discussion on the impact of gender in philanthropy, CFW President/CEO K Sujata said, "For us, it's our responsibility to the community to identify the most pressing challenges that affect women and girls and to educate and advocate on these issues."
To that end, she introduced the executive director of True Child, Riki Wilchins. True Child is a Washington, D.C.,-based organization designed to help donors, policymakers and practitioners reconnect race, class and gender through "gender transformative" approaches that challenge rigid gender norms and inequities. "Gender norms refers to the socially constructed ideals that we all have from birth for how we are supposed to act as men and women," Wilchins explained. "Eighty percent of the compliments a girl will hear throughout her lifetime are about her appearance."
Wilchins began by noting a disparity in recently published reports that focus upon a term used by many progressive philanthropic organizations: gender analysis. "Increasingly, what I am seeing is that people are saying they are going to do a gender analysis, but what they really mean is more funding for women and girls," Wilchins said. "That funding is crucial, but it does not equal a gender analysis."
According to a True Child publication on Gender Transformative Philanthropy, among the challenges for philanthropic institutions looking at gender norms and equity is a need to recognize and explain gender. "And that doesn't count all the gender concepts related to LGBTQ," the report said. "Gender identity, gender expression, transgender. How can we expect grantees to know the difference?"
By way of example, Wilchins cited a number of reports that focus upon women and girls but seem to ignore the challenges faced by boys and men. One document claimed to offer a comprehensive study of gay, transgender and bisexual individuals but completely omitted lesbians. "We are talking the talk but, oftentimes, we are not walking the walk," Wilchins said.
Wilchins pointed out that there was intimate connection between gender equality and gender norms. "The World Bank has invested zillions of dollars in improving equity for women and girls, but they're reaching a ceiling because of prevailing attitudes about what it means to feminine and what it means to be masculine. That is not allowing them to make progress," Wilchins noted.
According to Wilchins, The World Bank talked to 5,000 people in 26 countries and discovered a universal fact: Gender norms hold back women and girls as much as the lack of equity and investment. "In science, technology, engineering and math, the leaky pipeline is still leaking," he said. "We're addressing external barriers such as a lack of role models and parent and teacher bias, but we are not addressing the girl's own attitudes; her own feelings that going into engineering and science might not be girly enough."
Wilchins then displayed the derogatory terms that, according to him, the English language has developed in order to stigmatize the least degree of gender difference. "At my daughter's school, some 5th graders were taunting some of the skinny boys as 'fags'. They didn't even know what the word meant," Wilchins recalled. "They just knew that the word was used to embarrass a boy who wasn't being manly enough."
Wilchins said that, as society has developed, there are many words in the English language used to ridicule people who don't fit gender norms. "We do not have any words to say something complimentary about gender nonconformity," he added. "We want everybody to fit and the language is a means to keep people in gender categories."
He cautioned the audience about the consequences of buying into gender norms. "You get lower life outcomes across a plethora of related areas such as reproductive and sexual health and partner abuse," Wilchins said. "Kids who are gender non-conforming grow up in a word of pain."
CFW Director of Programs Monique Brunson then introduced a panel discussion, moderated by Sujata and including Wilchins, Chicago Women's Health Center Director Jess Kane, Executive Director of Project Exploration Natasha Smith-Walker and Youth Outlook intern Anne Rickleff.
"We are expanding the boxes of gender," Kane said. "Evolving our understanding of what gender is today and working with trans communities as well." Smith-Walker said Project Exploration's programs focus upon having girls of color relate to science education in their personal lives. "We help girls develop self-esteem around their thoughts, feelings, beliefs and experiences," she said. "Girls have an opportunity to explore, to be curious and to challenge themselves in the work environment."
Rickleff said her Naperville-based organization serves LGBTQ youth as young as six up to the age of 25. "As we all know gender norms are difficult to overcome with society as a whole," she said. "But what we really try to do with our youth is coach and educate them. They have come together and learned that they are not the only one. There is a whole world out there."
For more information about the Chicago Foundation for Women's programs and activities, visit www.cfw.org .