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Gender And Market Systems Development: Why We Struggle And What Can Be Done To Tackle Common Challenges

This post was originally added to The MSDHub Blog Series and was authored by Giulia Salmaso, a Senior Associate, Economic Growth, Palladium. 

In this post, Giulia highlights the challenge of gender inequality in market systems approaches. As Giulia suggests, the issue of gender is often framed from a social or moral perspective. For many practitioners, this way of contextualizing the gender issue has created a type of push-back resulting in many projects deciding to think of gender as a secondary consideration. At the same time, from a more objective systems thinking perspective, the idea of restricting 50% (or more) of the human capital in a social system from engaging in developing and testing solutions to emergent risks and opportunities is a real limitation on a market system. Especially from complex systems understanding, it is essential that a market system actively engages as many people – regardless of gender – as possible to increase the likelihood of generating value-added solutions for a society. In this context, gender inequities are not secondary, but are of primary concern.    


It’s no news that we need gender equality to achieve sustainable growth and eradicate poverty. Yet, ‘gender’ is often found only at the end of reports, a small paragraph among the many ‘cross-cutting issues’, an add-on at best. I brainstormed about why this is the case at the Market System Symposium, earlier this year in Cape Town, with a room filled with practitioners who haven’t lost determination. We discussed issues ranging from difficulties in mainstreaming gender to more controversial aspects such as when and how to target women’s specific constraints. Overall, we all brought challenges to the table, but also many examples of how market systems development can be effective in redressing imbalances to empower women and contribute to inclusive impact.

​Here are some takeaways:

Gender, Women’s Economic Empowerment and Market Systems Development: a (mis)perception that we better fix

It seems that market systems development (MSD) programs are confronted with a significant push back when it comes to Women’s Economic Empowerment (WEE) or worse gender. Eyes start to roll, people yawn, doors could even slam shut – brace yourself, it isn’t going to be easy. It appears to be grounded in the strong perception that women’s (economic) empowerment is ‘socially’ driven and has nothing to do with markets, and that including women’s constraints in the market diagnosis and intervention design (whether it’s mainstreamed or targeted) would shift the program focus away from improving productivity and increasing incomes. When ‘gender’ and WEE come with too much ‘social’ baggage simply using a different language helps. Some of us found it very effective to discuss with staff about women and men customers, producers, employers, and employees; how women and men are currently engaging (or not) in market systems and what products and services women and men require, afford, prefer and can access.

The deal with Mainstreaming: It starts at the start (and ends at the end) …

Gender mainstreaming means integrating a gender perspective into the preparation, design, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation of projects, with a view to promoting equality between women and men and addressing discrimination. While most programs mainstream gender in their measurement systems for reporting purposes, gender mainstreaming is generally patchier across the rest of the program/intervention cycle. Essentially, it seems that although we often ‘disaggregate impact’ we miss mainstreaming in the first steps and hence miss out on generating inclusive results. The two steps of the intervention cycle that seems the most neglected are: 

  • Markets/Sectors selection: If projects can select what markets/sectors to intervene in, gender must be one of the criteria during the selection process – awareness of gender roles across sectors is key to ensure that projects have the opportunity to bring about positive change for both men and women. Male-dominated sectors today don’t have to be male-dominated sectors tomorrow but shifts of this kind often require a much longer timeline than projects have available. 
  • Products, Services and Business Model Development: One of the recurring mistakes lies in the assumption that men and women have the same capability to access and use innovations. This is often not the case as accessibility, affordability and preferences are informed by gender. Therefore, adjustments to the product/service and delivery will likely be needed to ensure both men and women are reached. 

… It generally accommodates women’s constraints but does not address them – so beware …

Acknowledging that women face additional constraints allows programs to mainstream that understanding and respond to those constraints. For instance, when arranging a training or a marketing event, programs can recognize that women’s lack of mobility and care duties often prevent them from participating in such events. As a result, the program should select a venue and timing that accommodates the needs of women. Mainstreaming in this sense doesn’t necessarily address the root causes of gender inequality nor targets women’s constraints, but allows programs to be responsive, facilitate broader, more inclusive, reach and increase the possibility that both men and women will benefit from interventions. Mainstreaming tactics, which often are essentially about ‘opening and leaving the door open’, also help when women are ‘invisible’ players. Indeed, by mainstreaming one can challenge gender stereotypes which lead the private sector as well as programs into believing that women don’t buy or sell a specific product or are not involved in a certain activity and therefore should not be engaged.

… It is simply not enough

Unpaid care, lack of mobility, limited decision-making power, and control over resources are among the challenges faced by women across countries and sectors, which systematically prevent them from engaging effectively in market systems and benefitting from growth. Whether we are attempting to improve market systems in agriculture, manufacturing, housing, health or education, chances are extremely high that gender inequality, if unaddressed, will affect the ability of programs to improve the performance of market systems sustainably and generate enduring impact. Hence, the need to act in tandem – beyond mainstreaming there is a need for programs to design and implement interventions that target women’s constraints.

Debunking (more) myths about WEE and MSD – the (not so) hidden incentives of market actors to address gender inequality

MSD programs tend to refrain from designing interventions targeted at addressing women’s constraints under the assumption that market actors lack the incentives to do so, even with programmatic support. However, it is precisely the systemic nature of market systems approaches that allow programs to understand women’s constraints as part of the wider market systems, and identify which actors have the incentives to address them (with the right support). Unpaid care, lack of mobility, low decision-making authority, lack of access to information, etc. translate into untapped labor, absenteeism, high staff turnover, unreached customers, sub-optimal supply and the list continues. This means that the business case is strong for the private sector to find solutions to constraints faced by women. Similarly, these constraints reflect also government failures, meaning that public actors have strong incentives (and mandates) to address gender inequality. Facilitation approaches are proving more and more effective, but somehow the good news still goes unnoticed. Labor-saving technologies, the provision of on-site nurseries at the workplace or discounts for workers to access public or private-run nursery facilities, as well as catering for transportation needs are just some examples of how market systems development can effectively contribute to women’s empowerment while improving the productivity of market actors. Nonetheless, programs should acknowledge that these types of interventions are mainly effective in addressing access domains of women’s empowerment, leaving the agency gap open. 

The “agency” beast and why it makes us feel uncomfortable

As it stands, women’s agency constraints, such as low decision-making power, low control over resources and incomes, are perhaps for the bravest and the most farsighted. If access dimensions of women’s empowerment perfectly fit with facilitation approaches, as an implementer I appreciate how agency can be a (different) beast. Undoubtedly, addressing agency likely requires the quintessential market systems development practitioner to step out of her/his comfort zone i.e. the private sector, the high investment leverage, the projectable results at the end of the year. How so? First, actors that generally have immediate incentives and capacity to address women’s constraints are often actors that MSD programs engage with little or even look at with suspicion – the civil society, community organizations or local governments at best. Second, the nature of these actors, implies that they are unlikely to be able to commit financially; yet, while investment leverage is of critical importance for MSD programs, it does not supersede all performance metrics. Third, it takes time and the move from outputs to outcomes to impact requires a more patient and complex pathway – which means programs must understand and target women’s agency from the onset and be able to revisit interventions as results emerge. Once again, the beauty of the market systems development approach is that it embeds great flexibility and creativity – all of the above is possible.

In conclusion – it just needs to be done (and done MUCH better)

These takeaways tell a simple message – the market systems development approach is perfectly suitable to contribute to readdressing gender inequality. Although challenges do exist, most seem to be rooted in the status quo and the perception that market systems development programs can neglect gender and disregard their mandate (as well as the business case) to improve the empowerment of women. And finally, “Well begun is half done”; programs, where gender is part of the conversation from day one and part of everybody’s responsibility, are programmed with the biggest potential to contribute to transformational impact, empower women and help rebalance gender inequality. Course correction is also possible though – if you are interested to read more about how programs can improve their impact on WEE by tackling common challenges have a look on the Beam Exchange website