Evolving Our Understanding of Inclusivity

March 15, 2022


Photo by Jake Lyell
Photo by Jake Lyell

This post was authored by Mike Field, Vikāra Institute.

As systems thinking and lenses are increasingly being applied to the idea of social inclusion and market systems development, a shift in perception is emerging that reframes social inclusion as fundamental to both competitiveness and systemic resilience. Given this new centrality of inclusivity to market systems development, practitioners are aiming to learn more and gain insights into the interconnection and interdependence of market system change and wider social change, especially in relation to gender norms.

Market systems are open systems (interconnected to and interdependent with other systems), and their behavior patterns align with and reinforce wider social norms. If a market system exhibits patterns that result in gender biases such as limiting how and where women can participate in commercial activities, it is highly likely that the interconnected/interdependent political or social systems would also have strong patterns around similar gender bias. The key point here is that certain types of feedback are more influential, with the most influential feedback often aligning across the society and reinforcing deep-seated institutional norms or biases that provide a set of guardrails for society.

While market systems tend to stay on a path that aligns with its institutional guardrails, they can and do change in ways that even leads to the institutional guardrails shifting in meaningful ways.  This happens because market/social systems are complex with a wide variety of pressures and forces that tend to find a dynamic balance.  As external and internal contexts flux, so do pressures and forces like consumer demand, technology, level of education, gender role, etc.,- all of which alter the importance and influence of different types of feedback.  Over time, variations in the influence of different feedback (whether specific or combined) can and do have substantial effects on a deep-seated norm such as gender thus changing the institutional guardrails.

But, what can be hard to grasp in a change process is how feedback works in practice with its various feedback loops at work in any given situation. To distinguish the effects and influence of different feedback loops, it is important to interpret feedback within the context of systemic change. To do this, systems thinkers apply the idea of fast and slow-moving variables to gain insights into the messiness of change.  For example, transactions would be a faster-moving variable because an individual transaction can easily be influenced by events taking place at the time of the said transaction, such as weather, negotiating tactics of the individuals involved, social movements, stresses, or shocks.  Looking at a very small set of transactions during a specific point in time provides very little information related to if systemic change is real and durable. 

In contrast, slower moving variables often shape how a faster-moving variable responds to other types of feedback like shocks, stresses, and wider change processes. A slower moving variable, for example, would be looking at the collective demand for a product/service category.  This variable is slower because its feedback cycles take more time, but more importantly, they tend to have more influence on how the system evolves over time.  As a result, tracking changes in demand from women over time would be a better indication of a systemic shift emerging (e.g., agrodealers focusing more on women as a specific and important customer segment), but still might not be sufficient to determine if deep seated systemic change is happening such as changes in gender norms.  Feedback on gender norms can take years or decades to shift in a fundamental way, and can be hard to track outside a historical understanding of changes in norms/behaviors/attitudes.  For this reason, slow moving variables are sometimes called ‘controlling’ variables as they tend to have a greater influence on institutional guardrails – recognizing that fast and slow are just relative terms1 .

For practitioners that are keen to catalyze greater inclusivity within market systems and improve gender equality, what does all of this mean?  Taking an illustrative case in the agricultural inputs sector might be helpful. A project was able to increase sales of high-quality seeds to women in a specific region.  While a positive sign, an increase in sales to women is not necessarily a robust indication of real change in gender norms. An increase of sales to women as an indicator may be related to faster-moving variables including the short-term contexts, including the project’s intervention, that affect the decision to sell seeds to women, but does not have any influence on collective demand or underlying norms.

In contrast, if those initial seed sales are beneficial enough to the agro-dealers that they adapt how they engage women farmers (i.e., hiring a women salesperson or supporting women groups to form so they can buy in bulk) then that would be a better indicator that something systemic is happening. 

This change, while still relatively fast moving, could start to signal to other firms that women farmers are an important emerging customer segment.  So, if these few initial agrodealers catalyze even more agrodealers to adopt practices that ease access for women farmers, then there could be an emerging shift in overall demand patterns with women farmers forming an increasingly more important market segment.  At the same time, changes in collective demand might not indicate that gender norms (i.e., an even more controlling (slower moving) variable) is or has changed.  More analysis around perceptions and beliefs within the wider society would be needed to gain insights into changes in gender norms.

The Market System Symposium 2022 (MSS2022) will be exploring these emerging insights, including the various challenges in applying system thinking in relation to inclusivity. In particular, as systems thinkers have come to an understanding that inclusivity is central to competitiveness, they have also realized that there are more options to leverage market forces that can catalyze positive changes in gender norms. Central to MSS2022’s discussions will be how practitioners can effectively catalyze a change process that is likely to start with faster moving variables (like individual firm behavior/transactions), but leads to increasingly more controlling variables (like gender norms).  Session topics will include how data can counter misinformation on gender stereotypes, the importance of media to amplify emergent changes leading to systemic change in gender norms, and the role of investment as a lever for greater inclusivity within market systems. Click here for more information and to register.


  • 1Drivers, "Slow" Variables, "Fast" Variables, Shocks, and Resilience