Tag: gender equality

evaluationsocial systems

Baby, It’s Cold Outside (and Other Evaluation Lessons)

Competing desires or imposing demands?

The recent decision by many radio stations to remove the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” from their rotation this holiday season provides lessons on culture, time, perspective, and ethics beyond the musical score for those interested in evaluation. The implications of these lessons extend far beyond any wintery musical playlist. 

As the holiday season approaches, the airwaves, content streams, and in-store music playlists get filled with their annual turn toward songs of Christmas, the New Year, Hanukkah, and the romance of cozy nights inside and snowfall. One of those songs has recently been given the ‘bah humbug’ treatment and voluntarily removed from playlists, initiating a fresh round of debates (which have been around for years) about the song and its place within pop culture art. The song, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was written in 1944 and has been performed and recorded by dozens of duets ever since. 

It’s not hard for anyone sensitive to gender relations to find some problematic issues with the song and the defense of it on the surface, but it’s once we get beneath that surface that the arguments become more interesting and complicated. 

One Song, Many Meanings

One of these arguments has come from jazz vocalist Sophie Millman, whose take on the song on the CBC morning radio show Metro Morning was that the lyrics are actually about competing desires within the times, not a work about predatory advances.

Others, like feminist author Cammila Collar, have gone so far to describe the opposition to the song as ‘slut shaming‘. 

Despite those points (and acknowledging some of them), others suggest that the manipulative nature of the dialogue attributed to the male singer is a problem no matter what year the song was written. For some, the idea that this was just harmless banter overlooks the enormous power imbalance between genders then and now when men could impose demands on women with fewer implications. 

Lacking a certain Delorean to go back in time to fully understand the intent and context of the song when it was written and released, I came to appreciate that this is a great example of some of the many challenges that evaluators encounter in their work. Is “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” good or bad for us? Like with many situations evaluators encounter: it depends (and depends on what questions we ask). 

Take (and Use) the Fork

Yogi Berra famously suggested (or didn’t) that “when you come across a fork in the road, take it.” For evaluators, we often have to take the fork in our work and the case of this song provides us with a means to consider why.

A close read of the lyrics and a cursory knowledge of the social context of the 1940s suggests that the arguments put forth by Sophie Millman and Cammila Collar have some merit and at least warrant plausible consideration. This might just be a period piece highlighting playful, slightly romantic banter between a man and woman on a cold winter night. 

At the same time, what we can say with much more certainty is that the song agitates many people now. Lydia Liza and Josiah Lemanski revised the lyrics to create a modern, consensual take on the song, which has a feel that is far more in keeping with the times. This doesn’t negate the original intent and interpretation of the lyrics, rather it places the song in the current context (not a historical one) and that is important from an evaluative standpoint.

If the intent of the song is to delight and entertain then what once worked well now might not. In evaluation terms, we might say the original merit of the song may hold based on historical context, its worth has changed considerably within the current context.

We may, as Berra might have said, have to take the fork and accept two very different understandings within the same context. We can do this by asking some specific questions. 

Understanding Contexts

Evaluators typically ask of programs (at least) three questions: What is going on? What’s new? and What does it mean? In the case of Baby, It’s Cold Outside, we can see that the context has shifted over the years, meaning that no matter how benign the original intent, the potential for misinterpretation or re-visioning of the intent in light of current times is worth considering.

What is going on is that we are seeing a lot of discussion about the subject matter of a song and what it means in our modern society. This issue is an attractor for a bigger discussion of historical treatment, inequalities, and the language and lived experience of gender.

The fact that the song is still being re-recorded and re-imagined by artists illustrates the tension between a historical version and a modern interpretation. It hasn’t disappeared and it may be more known now than ever given the press it receives.

What’s new is that society is far more aware of the scope and implications of gender-based discrimination, violence, and misogyny in our world than before. It’s hard to look at many historical works of art or expression without referencing the current situation in the world. 

When we ask about what it means, that’s a different story. The myriad versions of the song are out there on records, CD’s, and through a variety of streaming sources. While it might not be included in a few major outlets, it is still available. It is also possible to be a feminist and challenge gender-based violence and discrimination and love or leave the song. 

The two perspectives may not be aligned explicitly, but they can be with a larger, higher-level purpose of seeking empowerment and respect for women. It is this context of tension that we can best understand where works like this live. 

This is the tension in which many evaluations live when dealing with human services and systems. There are many contexts and we can see competing visions and accept them both, yet still work to create a greater understanding of a program, service, or product. Like technology, evaluations aren’t good or bad, but nor are they neutral. 

Image credit MGM/YouTube via CBC.ca

Note: The writing article happened to coincide with the anniversary of the horrific murder of 14 women at L’Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal. It shows that, no matter how we interpret works of art, we all need to be concerned with misogyny and gender-based violence. It’s not going away.  

behaviour changecomplexityemergenceevaluationsocial systems

International Women’s Day, Every Day


Today is International Women’s Day when the attention of one half of the world’s population is brought to the entire world, suggesting that maybe this day is best honoured the other 364 days as well. Time to consider how this might look. 

People worldwide will be celebrating and honouring women as part of International Women’s Day (#IWD2107) and it’s hard to conceive of any issue that is more worthy of such recognition. The theme for this year’s day is Be Bold for Change (#BeBoldForChange) with a variety of resources and promotional campaigns set up to raise awareness of women’s issues worldwide; support women and men in advocating for positive, healthy change around sex and gender-based discrimination; and creating a climate of positive human development for everyone, worldwide.

Depending on your perspective, this celebration of women worldwide on International Women’s Day is either something to be cherished or viewed with discouraged puzzlement — and both reflect the enormity of the issues that women face.

Women make up more than half of the globe’s population, are most often charged with raising children, represent the highest percentage of caregivers in most societies, and yet are systematically excluded (at worst) or badly included (at best) from many of the levers of power to enable them to sit on par with men on many issues that matter to women. A simple and depressing Google image search of Fortune 500 CEOs will find a white male wall of images that would almost suggest that a woman’s presence is there by mistake. If this is the starting place, the end is surely worse.

The puzzlement comes not from celebrating women, rather from the fact that we still need a place to do it because it’s not part of the fabric of everyday life for far too many, despite it being 2017 (two years past 2015 as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau remarked on his gender-balanced cabinet appointments). Just as Black Lives Matter is a necessary statement (and movement) because, for many, the lives of black people are treated as if they don’t matter, we need to celebrate women because they are too often treated as if they are the furthest thing from celebration-worthy.

It’s not elsewhere

A look through many of the various campaigns and promotional material looking at advancing gender equity will find a very visible presence of images and foci on the developing world. While it most certainly the case that women in these regions face considerable gender-based disadvantages the emphasis on the ‘other’ parts of the world can take our attention away from what is happening closer to home. In Canada, the wage gap between men and women has actually increased in recent years, with women earning 72% of what men do.

Not only do women earn less, but they make far less gains than men and this is made even more so if you belong to a racial minority. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in the United States based on the current rate of change, a white women will need to wait until 2059 to achieve pay equity. For Black women, this stretches to the absurd 2124 and for Hispanic women it’s at the incomprehensible 2248. Yes. some women in the United States will need to wait for 230+ years to see their pay equal than of a man at the current rate of change.

And this is just on matters of pay. The issues women face are far deeper and beyond comment in one simple article such as this.

The point is that women are systematic disadvantaged everywhere and the solution space needs to take a systems perspective if there is any hope of making meaningful progress and making the rate of change something better than expecting something different in 10 generations from now. One of the best ways to ensure that women succeed is to engage the other half of the system: men.

Areas of action: the role of men

It has been heartening to see an outpouring of support for #IWD2017 from men, something that is notably different from past years. Too often celebrations of diversity, resistance, or change involve the group most disadvantaged, but not enough from those whose power is challenged, yet whose involvement is necessary for systemic change to happen. Men need to play a big role in the change. This is not a ‘what about me’ kind of statement from men, but a realistic assertion that systems change cannot take place without engagement of the different parts in the system and that means involving both sexes in the change process.

The matter of violence against women is one of the areas where men’s involvement is critical and starting to attract greater engagement from men. One of the attractors used to draw men to this issue is through sport. Breakaway is a soccer (football) themed online game designed for boys (and girls) aged 8-15 to educate and illustrate issues of gender-based violence. Using sport and the things that boys are interested in (like video games, playing with friends) is a clever means of upending the usual approach of simply telling people about the harms associated with gender-based violence and hoping something changes.

In Canada, many of the Canadian Football League teams have programs aimed at their fans to raise awareness of and prevent violence against women. This is providing a more constructive counter to the horrible displays of gender-based violence from football players in the National Football League in the United States in recent years. Games like Breakaway and the integration of sport leaders into the conversation starts to change the dialogue around who commits violence, what the norms are around violence, and provide positive examples for young men to follow in living a life violence-free.

Changing the narrative: A systems perspective

The matter of women’s rights, freedoms, and opportunities is not simply solved due to the conflation of social, economic, geographic, and historical factors that have shaped the institutions and norms that surround sex and gender-based discrimination. That knotting up of issues is the hallmark of a complex system and thus, if we are to make substantive progress for women (and humanity, at large) on these issues the matter is better served by taking a systems approach. A great place to start is recognizing the complexity of the matter.

Attractors are forces that draw in (or repel) energy — attention, information, enthusiasm, focus, commitment, and more — and finding those that will attract both men and women (whether together or apart) to women’s issues is key. The use of sport and games as a means of attracting men is one example. Many men and boys engage in sport for creativity, recreation, social connection, and skill development and channeling those positive qualities toward inclusion of, respect for, and support of women and their rights is one way to scaffold from one issue to the next.

Engagement of thought leaders, opinion leaders and micro-influencers can also be a tool by shifting the norms, content and tenor of the discussion. These individuals are those that are on the pulse of trends, reflecting social aspirations, or simply provide direct means to cut through the clutter of the mediasphere to deliver a message. This is not just about celebrities, but those who are listened to. This amplifies a positive attractor within the system and draws more men (and women) into constructive conversations and actions.

An attractor-based approach to systems change also requires engagement of diversity within that system. This is another reason to consider the micro-influencer: someone who is a big deal in a small(ish) social space. These might be people on Instagram or within a community of practice or a local champion that has a committed, devoted following or engaged audience. These influencers speak to niche populations, issues, contexts and media forms that resonate with small segments of the population, deeply. That deeper engagement is what will propel people to make substantive changes in their behaviour, speak out, and further push change forward rather than a wide, thin engagement strategy. This last point speaks to the role of evaluation in all of this.

Evaluating the revolution

Social change is only thus because something happened that was different than was before. The only way to tell if the present is different than the past is to evaluate (compare) and potentially to attribute what happened to something that was done. But evaluation is more than social accounting, it’s also about gathering and using information to make things better and more impactful as things unfold. We don’t want to wait until 2059 to see if whatever efforts were put in place today will lead some women to pay equity. We might (and hopefully do) want to see things amplified so that this target date is brought closer to us.

The way to do this is to develop an evaluation strategy that clearly describes what is happening, what efforts are being developed and employed to support change, articulate a theory of change, and then create a series of strategic data collection measures (*that might not all be quantitative) that can be deployed at a system level and various smaller levels within the system to monitor and evaluate what kind of change we are producing. This allows us to ensure that whatever positive attractors we have are amplified and reinforced and those that are negative are disposed of or dampened. This can only be done if we have the feedback mechanisms in place and that is what evaluation delivers.

As we recognize the strengths and wonders that women bring to this world every day and the struggles they face, let’s consider how we can build on this energy and create attractors that can last beyond a day, a month or season to being something that is part of the fabric of life every day. That would be truly something to celebrate.




behaviour changepsychologysocial systemssystems thinking

How Systems and Design Thinking Can Address Violence Against Women

The Never Ending Campaign

Twenty-two years ago a 25-year old male walked into the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal and killed 14 women in a hate crime that injured scores, devastated families and friends of the victims, wounded a school, city and country, and change my life forever. Today, men and women across Canada (and beyond) pause to take stock of the relations between the sexes, the role of violence in our society, and to honour women as they remember the events of that day.

I don’t remember where I was when I heard the news in its fullest. It came out in spurts as these things tend to do when there are so many unknowns happening and much activity. I did know that the enormity of what happened at the Ecole Polytechnique that December 6th took a long time to sink in. Reports on the news that there had been a shooting on a college campus were scary enough, but as  details emerged that it was women who were specifically targetted and as the depth of the carnage unfolded, I felt a profound sense of loss and kinship as many of the victims could have been my peers. This was not just a mourning for the victims themselves, but a loss of innocence (and ignorance) that I never regained. That day changed my life in ways that I wouldn’t come to understand until many years later.

The Montreal Massacre as it was called led me, for the first time in my life, to feel a sense of shame for what I was (a man), not just who I was or what I had done. I didn’t commit the crime, nor did I do anything to stoke the fires of hatred in Marc Lepine, but I started to question what role my society had in the killing and me by extension as male member of that society. That feeling of shame was profound, slow-building and completely opened myself up to a world that I had been too ignorant of. It raised many questions in me about sex, gender roles and my own place within both of those topics.

I was (and am) lucky. I had the fortune to be born into a family of strong women who cared for me and set great examples of what and who humans could be. From my Mom to my cousins, aunts and my grandmothers, I had a remarkable number of female role models to look up to. But I was also born into a society where sexist imagery, jokes, and patriarchal power dynamics were (and are) dominant. Without the openness to discuss these things, challenge them, and with few male role models who did, it was easy to absorb messages —  from mainstream media (movies, TV, magazines), the fashion world, professional sports, and pornography that portrayed women as subservient, sex objects (instead of sexual beings), and weaker-thans — and to hold those positions as unchallenged or taken in uncritically. It was hard to reconcile what I saw in my family with what I saw everywhere else, but somehow these poles just sat in my conscious and unconscious self.

December 6, 1989 changed that and brought those two perspectives into collision.

My world opened up that day and the role that sexism and violence plays in everyday life became apparent and obvious in ways it hadn’t before. Ever since then, the role that violence, sexism, inequality and the insidious ways that these forces are manifest has been at the front of my consciousness. I haven’t always known what to do with these issues, but I have tried to make a difference and continue to be true with myself and others in addressing them whenever I have an opportunity to. This has brought me to many moments with other men that have been uncomfortable; sometimes I’ve done the right thing and spoke out and other times I haven’t. I’m not proud of the latter moments, but I at least know what I didn’t do wasn’t helpful.

Being aware is the first step. But awareness is only a first step and as a researcher, designer, and citizen I demand more.

I have since come to understand those feelings I had that December day and channel them into something productive, but it wasn’t easy. For example, it is sometimes difficult to reconcile activities that are expressions of a certain type of masculinity with those that lead to sexist oppression or intimidation. Sports is a great example of highlighting the best and worst of masculine behaviour. It is too easy to jump towards oppressing men just as men have (sometimes unwittingly or unknowingly) oppressed women.  Attacking men isn’t the answer.

While I think I am aware of how my social position can negatively influence my interactions with others, I certainly do not have the answers for what to do. What I do know is that I need to be vigilant as the system that props up psychological and physical violence against women is powerful indeed. The White Ribbon Campaign (illustrated above) is laudable, but it is a short-burst effort to raise awareness. It isn’t 365 days long and in our minds it should be.

So what should the vigilant, conscientious man do? The following list comes from the Say No to Violence campaign which operates parallel to the White Ribbon Campaign in Canada. It suggests a series of small, but very important steps that men can tangibly take to address this issue in practical terms, but hints at a larger systems answer:

1.  Think about the kind of man you want to be: kind, responsible, one that shares equally in family life and respects women and girls.

2.  Be respectful towards women, girls, and other guys.  Sexism and homophobia hurts us all.

3. Ask first.  Whether it’s holding hands, kissing, or more, it’s important to communicate and seek consent.

4. Never use coercion, threats, or violence in your relationships with others.

5. Wear a white ribbon and pledge to never commit, condone, or remain silent about violence against women and girls. Visit our website to order ribbons.

6.  Teach your students and the youth in your community about gender equality and healthy, equal relationships.

7.  Be a good role model and share with the boys and young men around you the importance of respecting women and girls. Visitwww.itstartswithyou.ca to find out how.

8.  Learn about the impact of violence against women in your community.  Volunteer with a local shelter or a women’s organization.

9.  Challenge and speak out against hurtful language, sexist jokes, and bullying, in your school, community, workplace, or place of worship.

10.  Link your website to ours or place a banner for our It Starts With You Campaign on your website or blog and help us spread the word.

11.  Accept your role as a man in helping to end violence against women. It affects everyone.

12.  Start a White Ribbon Club or Campaign in your school or community. Visit our website to find out how.

13.  Order our awareness materials and help educate others in your school, community, or workplace about men’s violence against women and girls.

14.  Watch our collection of powerful digital stories to learn about the important connection between masculinity and gender equality.

15.  As a community leader, policy maker, funder, or NGO staff member, read our issue brief to learn about the important role that men and boys can play in ending gender-based violence.

16.  As a father or a family member, teaching the boys in your life about healthy equal relationships helps you do your part in creating healthy families and strengthening family bonds.

These suggestions all can help. Perhaps not surprisingly to readers of this blog, I would argue that there is a big role for systems and design thinking here. It’s one thing to be the change you wish to see in the world, but like Mohandas Ghandi who said this first, you need to change the system and design a strategy for doing it with others for that change to take root with others and spread. Campaigns like White Ribbon are one start. Another is to create the kind of sex and gender-positive organizations (including schools) that provide the scaffolding for allowing people to be themselves to the fullest without fear of violence, discrimination or abuse.

Yet another is to support women (and men) in being able to talk about these issues openly without judgement; design interaction spaces for dialogue just as some are trying with the occupy movement. As a man thinking back on the events of December 6th, 1989 I can remember feeling so alone in my ability to have conversations about the subject matter that didn’t resort into a guilt-trip (for being a man), seeing the event as the act of a lone, crazy individual (being dismissive), or just invoking a sense of despair at the complexity of it all (giving up). There was and is something that can be done. It’s just that it won’t change overnight and is an issue so entrenched into our society that it will be hard to untangle, but it can be done. This is a more wicked problem that it needs to be, but it nonetheless is one. In addressing its root causes and its superficial and deep consequences, we need to think bigger, smarter and act in ways that fit with a complex system.

So where to? From a systems perspective there are things we can do:

  1. Follow the list above — as many or as few items as possible — and do it as often as possible. Small, coordinated steps instill change in ways that don’t disrupt the system to create a backlash, nor does it let it the status quo rule;
  2. Share your experiences (maximize feedback, evaluate), learn from others and integrate this learning into your life and adapt your strategies based on this feedback. Keep changing, evolving and learning;
  3. Get diverse: bring in those that might have new perspectives and might not be the most obvious champions for women’s safety and gender equity and equality (improve learning). Some of the greatest insights and opportunities may come from going beyond the realm we’re familiar with;
  4. Find specific issues and topics that a wide range of people can see themselves in (create an attractor and probe) and make it something that people can self-organize around. Rather than ‘set the agenda’, throw out ideas and nurture the ones that people gravitate to and leverage that momentum into something that can emerge;
  5. Try being oblique (in your strategy). Consider indirect routes to tackling the issue as sometimes thorny, complex issues are best tackled indirectly through other channels (e.g., sports)
  6. Be persistent. Systems change doesn’t happen quickly except in times of great crisis and chaos and not always to our advantage. Steady and continuous will win the day.
From a designer’s perspective, we can help by determining the position of the problem and finding out what it really is.
  1. Spend time finding out what the problem is. Is it violence? Is it something that leads to violence? Is it a structure that leads to something that leads to violence? Asking why a LOT can help. Designers spend a lot of time problem finding.
  2. Frame the issue in the context of the people involved. Get empathic. Men, consider what life might be like living in fear of violence, being denied opportunities because of your sex, or what it would be like to have your value judged solely by how you look or what you could do for the opposite sex. Take sides — both sides — and see imagine what it is like to be a women who is stalked, abused, neglected or ignored. Alternatively, consider what it might be like for a man to get so caught up that he physically assaults someone he genuinely loves, or imagine what it would feel like not to have love at all and to hate those that do. Contemplate what it might be like to be a child to see the two people she or he loves most nearly kill one another in a rage that often feels like you caused it or growing up with the idea that another sex is inferior because that’s all you’ve been told. None of these are particularly pleasant, but only when we can see the whole issue — including that of victims and perpetrators and see them with empathy, compassion and understanding can we design solutions that might alleviate the problem;
  3. Develop solutions with those most affected –  and this might mean involving men more than women sometimes (which is the exact opposite of what we do now). The solutions might not reside in the most obvious place and maybe it means stepping out of the conventional spaces into something a little more uncomfortable, yet closer to the problem;
  4. Prototype. Try things out and evaluate what happens when you do something. Small, safe-fail experiments allow you to learn as you go rather than aim to change the entire system at once, offering a lot of options for innovation.

Today, as we remember the lives lost and damaged from the events of December 6th and the global challenge that this represents, consider taking up the challenge and perhaps together we can systems think and design our way to a healthier, more equitable world for men and women alike.

Imagine how we can create a system that makes the unthinkable truly so. As designers, envision what we could do if we engaged people in the design challenge to reimagine our sex and gender roles in a healthier image.

Yesterday, I wrote about how women are becoming the leaders in our complex world. The issue of violence against women is an area where men can step up and show some leadership too. Indeed, it is a space for all of us to take charge and lead. Let’s step it up.

And for men? Wear your ribbon proud today and carry that thought with you the remaining 364 days of the year.

White Ribbon, worn