Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

Five Steps to Achieving Gender Inclusion at Project Start-Up

With strong support from project and organizational leadership, the USAID-funded Cooperative Development Program (CDP) expects to make measurable impacts on women’s earning potential and leadership in cooperative organizations in Rwanda. 

Recruiting staff, drafting work plans, conducting baseline evaluations… and the checklist goes on. We have all been there, trying to ensure we don’t miss a step in the start-up process. And somewhere among the list of to-dos is ensuring your project has a gender-inclusive approach. This usually involves conducting a gender analysis and demands significant resources to generate a list of generic and costly recommendations like recruit a gender specialist or ensure 50% female participation.

However, gender inclusion is too important to be generic. FAO estimated that women’s agricultural yields could increase by 20-30% if the gender gap in accessing agricultural inputs and extensions services were closed. This, in turn, could raise total agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5-4%, which has the potential to reduce the number of food-insecure people in the world by 12-17%. [1] Having a gender-inclusive approach can be a part of reducing this disparity for women in agriculture globally.

With strong support from project and organizational leadership, the USAID-funded Cooperative Development Program (CDP) implemented by Land O’Lakes Venture37, followed these five steps during year one of implementation and expects to make measurable impacts on women’s earning potential and leadership in cooperative organizations in Rwanda. 

Photo: Woman from Venture37  project standing in front of stone wall. Photo Credit: Land O’Lakes Venture37
Photo Credit: Land O’Lakes Venture37

1. GRO

UNDING: Do define gender and gender norms with all project stakeholders.

Traditionally, women in Rwanda are not allowed to milk cows or bring milk to market for sale, meaning they rarely own its profits. This traditional gender norm still limits women’s earning potential today. At the start of Venture37’s CDP project, staff received a gender orientation where they discussed and identified gender-based cultural norms, like women’s limited involvement in the dairy sector. Without this mutual understanding, particularly among the technical staff, CDP would not have added interventions focused on changing household dynamics and behaviors to encourage female participation across the dairy value chain. Later orientations with cooperative members also engaged men and boys to ensure the sustainability of proposed solutions and mitigate potential backlash associated with misunderstood outcomes and discomfort over perceived shifts in power.

2. ASSESSMENTS: Don’t just conduct a gender analysis; build an action plan.

Although a well-scoped gender analysis can tell us a lot about gender roles, time use, patterns of power and other important gender domains [2], the data often goes unused. To combat this issue, the Venture37 CDP, developed an action plan as part of its gender analysis scope of work. This action plan required the consultant to research evidence-based solutions to address problems identified in the gender analysis; solicit and integrate solutions provided by project participants, particularly marginalized groups of women, and collaboratively integrate these solutions into the existing CDP work plan. The results of this plan were specific, implementable interventions that fit within the budget, scope, and timeline of the project.

3. RECRUITMENT: Don’t recruit women for a quota; recruit them for technical and leadership roles.

The standard metric for success around recruiting women is a quota (e.g. 40% of staff should be female). However, even if this quota is achieved, too often, the positions given to females are predominantly administrative in nature. To achieve greater impact, we need to employ female staff in technical and leadership roles that interact with female participants. Unfortunately, recruiting women into these positions is typically not achieved by simply writing “women are highly encouraged to apply,” on job advertisements. Instead, projects should target women’s colleges, professional organizations, and associations to identify high performers in technical areas of focus; explore referral programs that specifically target women, and train and promote female staff within our current projects to take on technical and leadership roles.

4. RETENTION: Do make women feel comfortable by building safe spaces and accommodating gender-specific needs.

The UK House of Commons recently released a report that found sexual exploitation and abuse is “endemic” in the aid sector. [3] Safeguarding women from exploitation is not only a human right, it is vital to the success of development projects. In a study of the relationship between sexual harassment and women’s career attainment, targets of harassment were 6.5 times as likely as non-targets to change jobs. [4] Examples of safeguarding include creating formal and informal channels for female staff and participants to anonymously report abuse at all levels within the organizational hierarchy, establishing female mentorship programs, and swiftly acting on zero-tolerance policies.

In addition to safeguarding against exploitation, a variety of accommodations should be considered to ensure the workplace is satisfactory. At project start-up, CDP project leaders made the following accommodations to better support women’s needs: reviewed and updated compensation packages to ensure women and men with similar skill levels are compensated equally, provided sex-specific restroom facilities, provided access to clean and comfortable breast pumping/nursing facilities, updated outdated maternity leave and compensation policies, and empowered managers to make gender-specific accommodations like providing childcare. Many of these accommodations boost retention rates and are significantly cheaper than the cost to recruit new staff, which costs an average of 33% of an employee’s annual salary. [5]

5. SUCCESS METRICS: Don’t just measure female participation; measure outcomes, such as engagement and leadership.

To hold projects accountable for achieving gender inclusion, we should be building gender metrics into our project monitoring and evaluation plans. However, achieving 50% of female participation should not represent success. We need to utilize outcome indicators such as women’s level of engagement and leadership attainment within our projects. In addition to specific quantitative metrics, success can be measured through qualitative approaches like gender-specific focus group discussions (FDG) led by facilitators of that same gender which make women more comfortable to discuss topics like gender-based violence, control of finances, and self-confidence.

Venture37’s CDP achieved these five steps through a commitment from project and organizational leadership to gender inclusion that was consistently conveyed to project staff, donors, and participants. If you are looking for more resources on gender integration across project implementation, check out the Gender Minimum Standards [6], a document Venture37 co-authored and signed as our commitment to gender integration on all our projects.


[1] FAO, 2012. The State of Food and Agriculture 2010-2011; Women in Agriculture. Closing the Gender Gap for Development

[2] USAID. ADS 205- Integrating Gender Equality and Female Empowerment in USAID’s Program Cycle.

[3] UK House of Commons. Sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector inquiry website

[4] McLaughlin, Uggen, and Blackstone (2017)

[5] Work Institute. 2017 Retention Report: Trends, Reasons, & Recommendations

[6] Gender Minimum Standards website