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Applying a "gender lens" to your work

THE TAKEAWAY: Different genders are socially conditioned to occupy different roles. They face different expectations and challenges. These biases are often subtle or invisible. Often, they’re not intentional or malicious. Regardless, treating all people equally does not necessarily result in equal outcomes. In order to be fair, your organisation must be prepared to treat different genders differently; to remove barriers and to encourage inclusion. You can start this process by applying a “gender lens” to your activities.

If you wear glasses, then you understand how difficult it is to see things clearly without them. The road signs along the freeway, the words in a book, the emails on a computer screen – all the information is there, but without your glasses, it might as well be invisible to you.

If you don’t wear glasses, then think what it’s like to try to see underwater without goggles or a mask.

Looking at the world without a gender lens can be a bit like swimming without goggles, or reading without glasses.

We live in a world where the default settings have been set by heteronormative men and for heteronormative men. The default gender-related assumptions that underlie our thinking are likely to remain invisible or blurry, and therefore they can mislead us, even without our realising it, unless we bring them to attention, question them specifically, and look objectively at precisely what lies before us.

It’s not just men who have blurry vision when it comes to gender. Both men and women are socially conditioned to see things a certain way.

Using a gender lens when analysing, planning, and making decisions means carefully and deliberately examining all the implications of our work in terms of gender.

A gender-wise program is one that considers the different needs and circumstances of people of all genders within the target beneficiary group.

Is this only about girls and women?

The 2015 European Foundation Centre report Grantmaking with a Gender Lens responds specifically to the question, “When you talk about gender, do you mean just women?”

It says: “No. We mean looking at the different issues arising out of our experiences of being women or men or those identifying differently.

“Effective gender analysis requires engaging with and assessing impacts for people from across the gender spectrum, in diverse circumstances and with a wide range of other social characteristics.”

What we really want to get away from, however, is the situation where words like "standard" or "natural" or "neutral" really mean "heteronormative male". For example, it might be considered unremarkable for a board or council to be composed of seven men and one woman, but noteworthy for it to consist of seven women and one man, and newsworthy for it to include transgender people.

As a result of this “unremarkable really equates to male” bias, you are more likely to need to deliberately examine your program’s effects on and openness to other groups, including to women and girls. As the largest population of the excluded, and given its roots in the feminist movement, gender lens analysis tends to emphasise understanding policies and programs primarily in terms of their effects on females.

Why does it matter?

There are two excellent reasons why not-for-profits should apply a gender lens to their work.

First, doing so will mean your work is fairer (because all potential beneficiaries are considered and included) and more effective (because your programs will be better targeted).

Second, not-for-profits are increasingly being asked by funders, and by the public at large, to demonstrate that they have taken account of the persistent biases in society – in what they are, and in what they do. In time, your funding might depend on getting it right.

Equality versus equity: what’s the difference?

Imagine a running race between a cheetah, a leopard, an elephant, a dog and a beetle. All are in good health. The starter’s gun fires, and they all take off at exactly the same time. They’ve all got an equal opportunity to win the race, right?

No, clearly not.

A report by Girls Incorporated titled What’s Equal? Figuring Out What Works for Girls in Co-ed Settings (1993) urges organisations to examine their work in terms of:

  1. Equity of access
  2. Equity of treatment
  3. Equity of outcome.

The report says: "Levelling the playing field is more than simply opening more doors for girls and giving equal treatment to girls and boys; it is transforming the way we look at gender as it relates to girls' and boys' development.

“Equity of access means that a program provides women and girls equal opportunity with men and boys to participate in programs and activities. Programs will not necessarily achieve equity of access simply by opening the door to both genders.”

Similarly, opening up the running race to five different species with different qualities is hardly a fair race – and that’s not even taking into consideration the socially conditioned biases and differences that come into play when we’re talking about humans instead of animals.

In seeking to uncover structural biases embedded within its work, a not-for-profit organisation needs to take time for thoughtful reflection.

Gender lens checklists

It is impossible to prescribe all the questions your organisation should ask itself in order to gain a better appreciation of the gender implications of your work. However, you can use the following areas as a starting point and tailor the questions to your own circumstances and aims.

Not all of the following questions have right and wrong answers. There may be very good reasons why your programs are not reaching women and girls in equal numbers (you may be running a men’s health clinic, for example). In any case, it’s still important that you ask the questions.


Does your organisation serve all genders by:


Does your organisation include women and girls as active decision-makers by:

Grants programs

When designing grants programs, does your organisation consider gender equity by:

Outcomes and evaluation

How can SmartyGrants help?

SmartyGrants is committed to helping grantmakers and grantseekers uncover and remove biases, creating fairer and more effective social change.

In 2016, SmartyGrants released a series of gender lens standard fields. When added to application forms and progress/final reports, they allow grantmakers to apply a gender lens to their work. They will also help you nudge your grantees in the right direction.

Here’s how the SmartyGrants gender lens questions help grantmakers (and grantees) to apply a gender lens to their work:

Here are some tips to help you answer those questions appropriately:

►For more help framing your answers to gender lens questions, check out the Funding Centre's Answers Bank.

Reporting on projects designed specifically to address gender inequality

The above gender lens considerations apply to all initiatives, regardless of their purpose, but some programs aim specifically to address gender inequality, or do so as an unintentional addition.

The SmartyGrants gender lens standard fields also allow grantees to describe how their proposed project will address gender inequity, and then report on their progress towards this outcome on acquittal/progress reports.

Note: There are many different ways of measuring girls'/women’s empowerment, as it is multi-dimensional. It's likely that funded organisations directly addressing gender inequality will have a good understanding of how to report on their results. These tips are aimed at providing some examples for organisations looking for guidance when reporting on partial or unexpected outcomes that address gender inequality.

Further reading

Grant Making with a Gender Lens by William Ryan, GrantCraft, 2004 (

A Gender Lens: For Inclusive Philanthropy, Victorian Women’s Trust, 2009 (

Becoming Gender Wise , Australians Investing in Women (

Gazing through a gender-wise lens: Grants Management Intelligence, November 2016 Edition (

Equitable Grantmaking: Why you shouldn't treat all grant applicants equally: SmartyGrants Helpsheet, 2020 (


Gender-wise Guidelines for Grant-seekers, by the Australian Women Donors Network, 2013 (

What’s Equal? Figuring Out What Works for Girls in Co-ed Settings, by Girls Incorporated, 1993, cited in Gender Matters: Funding Effective Programs for Women and Girls by Molly Mead, 2001

The Gender-Wise Toolkit for Grant-Makers, by Julie Reilly and Georgia Mathews for Australians Investing in Women

Clear Sighted: A Guide to Using a Gender Lens, by Chicago Women in Philanthropy, 2008