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How Does Gender Affect Knowledge Management?

Connections and considerations for global health programs

The nuances of gender and knowledge management reveal challenges in knowledge sharing and exchange, which impact how people receive and use knowledge products. Knowledge SUCCESS’s Gender Analysis is a deep dive into gender and knowledge management for global health programs, particularly family planning and reproductive health. This post shares highlights from the Gender Analysis and recommendations for responding to some key challenges, and a guiding quiz for getting started.

“Sometimes there is a dynamic … When a man speaks up, people listen. … Being a man brings a certain power in a lot of the social constructs in the work space.” – Woman from a donor organization based in the United States

Gender, Knowledge Management, and Family Planning and Reproductive Health: What are the Connections?

Knowledge management (KM) is a strategic and systematic process of collecting and curating knowledge and connecting people to it, so they can act effectively. At Knowledge SUCCESS, we often ask ourselves: Who is accessing and using the knowledge we create and share to improve family planning and reproductive health (FP/RH) programs, and how? What are the barriers to this knowledge connection and use?

When asking these questions, we would be remiss if we did not consider the impact of gender—including gender identity, gender roles, and gender relations. Sustainable impacts in FP/RH do not operate in isolation but as part of a larger health system, which in turn is influenced by knowledge management systems and processes. It is important to recognize that gender inequality can be seen across the global health workforce—specifically, that while women make up a large proportion of this workforce, only a small percentage of leadership positions are held by women. This disparity can strongly influence how knowledge is used and shared in the global health and FP/RH fields.

Uncovering Gender-Related Issues in KM for Global Health

From May to July of 2019, Knowledge SUCCESS conducted a gender analysis to understand the gender-related barriers, gaps, and opportunities in KM among health professionals around the world. That analysis is all the more relevant now, as the COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on gender inequities in the global healthcare system. The crisis drew attention to the fact that 70% of frontline healthcare workers are women and thus more vulnerable to COVID-19 infection—to name just one example of the visibility of gender inequality today. Through a literature review and key informant interviews, we assessed how gender and power dynamics may affect:

  • The production of, access to, and use of knowledge, including access to technologies used for information sharing;
  • Participation and leadership/decision making in knowledge exchange mechanisms; and
  • Participation in KM capacity strengthening efforts.

What we found was enlightening. In both the existing literature and among our interviewees, there was a lack of awareness of gender (particularly the experiences of transgender or non-binary people) and its effects in KM. Still, some themes did emerge from our analysis that are important for FP/RH professionals to consider as they access, share, and use knowledge to improve their programs.

The Realm of Gender and KM is Riddled with Challenges

In looking at the interplay between gender and knowledge management, we discovered that gender-related barriers exist across many key gender domains, including access to and control over assets and resources; cultural norms and beliefs; and gender roles, responsibilities, and time use. Some of the most relevant barriers to KM and global health for women compared to men are:

  • Access to technology: Women have a lower likelihood of phone ownership, social media presence, and ability to access the Internet in many countries. This means women have fewer options on how they discover, share, and use evidence-based information, which is an inequity that has important implications for KM. Among healthcare professionals, this inequity affects who, and what job roles, are more likely to have access to technology for research and learning. Here, we note the intersections of other identities (race, age, class, geographic location) that play a role in how healthcare professionals can access technology.
  • Gender bias in technology and platforms: Even when women do have access to the Internet and web-based tools, platforms are prone to the same gender inequalities that we see in daily life and in the workplace. For example, the creators of digital platforms are often men and so their design and development may not be responsive to the needs of users of all genders. These (sometimes implicit) biases may affect use and interactions on the platforms and result in gender differentials.
  • Gender homophily: The preference to interact with one’s own gender creates barriers to accessing and using a diverse set of knowledge. This is especially problematic for women in male-dominated settings or partnerships, such as global health. One female respondent from our analysis shared from her experience working in a male-dominated office: “…It is also very hierarchical there. Knowledge stays among a small group of people, and it doesn’t filter down well in this hierarchical context. Often, men were at the top of the hierarchy, so not everyone on the team had the same access to information.”
  • Participation challenges: Gender norms and expectations also play a role in people’s ability to participate in trainings and meetings. For example, women often have less personal time at home than men due to caregiving and other household responsibilities that limit their ability. These gender roles are often reflected or reinforced through participants’ interactions via in-person KM platforms. These are all critical challenges to consider in KM and FP/RH.
  • Gender bias in publications: Men dominate the space of peer-reviewed scientific publications, which some of our respondents suggested as a bias toward male opinions and research that creates unequal power dynamics in knowledge production.
Images of Empowerment: Kamini Kumari, an Auxiliary Midwife Nurse, provides medical care to women at a rural health center.

Image credit: Images of Empowerment | Kamini Kumari, an Auxiliary Midwife Nurse, provides medical care to women at a rural health center.

We tend to value the knowledge more of people with more peer reviewed publications, but is that more valuable than the knowledge a midwife has with 30 years of practice? – Woman at partner organization based in the United States

Recommendations for Gender and Knowledge Management

Awareness of these challenges is the first step in shifting KM toward a more gender-equitable and inclusive system. Our gender analysis findings are all the more relevant now, as the COVID-19 pandemic has shed light to gender inequities in the global healthcare system. The crisis drew attention to the fact that 70% of frontline healthcare workers are women and thus more vulnerable to COVID-19 infection — to name just one example of the visibility of gender inequality today. To spur the process of integrating gender equity into KM, we recommend that people and organizations working in global health:

  • Intentionally seek out diverse perspectives from a variety of sources in KM activities and events: The KM community has observed success in deliberately engaging under-represented groups in knowledge sharing and discussion.
  • Promote a culture of respect in online and in-person knowledge-sharing spaces (including communities of practice, technical working groups, and conferences). To create a safe and respectful environment, establish codes of conduct (such as zero-tolerance harassment policies) and engage gender-aware facilitators.
  • Employ a variety of KM approaches and communication channels: This may help improve outreach to a diversity of audiences.
  • Support women’s authorship of peer-reviewed literature: To change norms and shift the male-dominated space to a more gender-inclusive space, women’s research needs to be promoted and their publications valued and used. At the same time, it is important to recognize that other knowledge products besides peer-reviewed publications have value and can provide important insights that can influence the FP/RH field. Therefore, we should highlight diverse perspectives from a wide variety of sources.
  • Promote and improve e-learning platforms: Our analysis showed that, unlike in-person training, e-learning platforms may be used at similar rates among men and women. The flexibility of these platforms may provide learning opportunities for people who are unable to attend in-person training, perhaps due to gender-related household responsibilities or cultural expectations.

Think You’re Ready to Start Integrating Gender into your KM Work?

As this is a developing field of study, we recognize it can be difficult to begin integrating gender considerations in KM approaches. We encourage FP/RH professionals to continue asking questions like  “Who am I reaching?”, “Who am I missing?”, and “How can my knowledge products and approaches be more inclusive of all genders and address power imbalances?”

To help you get started on this path, take our short, interactive quiz to test your knowledge on gender and KM!

Cover image from Gender Analysis (image credit © 2012 Meagan Harrison, courtesy of Photoshare)
Natalie Apcar

Program Officer, KM & Communications, Knowledge SUCCESS

Natalie Apcar is a Program Officer at the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs, supporting knowledge management partnership activities, content creation, and communications for Knowledge SUCCESS. Natalie has worked for a variety of nonprofits and built a background in planning, implementation, and monitoring of public health programming, including gender integration. Other interests include youth and community-led development, which she got the chance to engage in as US Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco. Natalie earned a Bachelor of Arts in International Studies from American University and a Master of Science in Gender, Development, and Globalization from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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