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Originally published on ADB Avenue, 29 March 2017

Unsung gender equality hero: Farzana Ahmed

We honor Asian Development Bank (ADB)’s unsung gender equality heroes. They went the
extra mile to change women’s lives through their work in development projects. Farzana
shares insights from her work with women in Indonesia, as well as her observations on
gender equality in Bangladesh and within ADB.

Why do you advocate for gender equality in your work?

The notion that women would be held back from
opportunities is an anathema to me from a social rights
perspective. In addition and equally important, gender
discrimination against a section of a populace that represents
50% of mankind, is a total waste of productive economic
resource. I have personally witnessed the dramatic change in
Bangladesh society of the economic empowerment of women
emerging from microfinance (women are better managers of
household money) to the garments industry (women
dominate the required skill sets). Women are now permeating
all levels of the workforce, all levels of management and more
important, all levels of government.

How do you go about doing this in your work?

My work has in operations has primarily been in the area of governance, with a special
focus on Indonesia where I worked for 7 years. In Indonesia society, at least at the
government level, there is minimal discrimination against women reaching senior
levels of central government. However, at the decentralized level, there is
considerable discrimination and significant barriers to women's progression.

Through my projects, I worked to establish women as role models in leadership roles.
Leading players in the executing agencies were encouraged to be women, and when I
went on mission around Indonesia, I encouraged the government to select women to
manage the project activities at the local level. I was closely involved in supporting
women in the executing agency team to project themselves through improved
communication and presentation skills, often coaching them. In the project itself, at
the activity level, access by women to the capacity development opportunities were
strongly advocated with women also providing the capacity development.

In my own work, I seek to lead by example to show that women can take on
challenging tasks and deliver “bigger and better”. As a supervisor, I push my female
staff to deliver excellence and to show that quality and timeliness can be achieved
notwithstanding the myriad of other responsibilities they may have, for example, with
their families, etc. I also strongly support women in enhancing communication and
presentation skills. Realizing that women have to juggle a number of issues, I am
perfectly okay with staff working from home, coming late, leaving early, taking longer
lunch breaks—as long as the outputs are delivered.

Any successful case that particularly stands out?

During my work on the state audit reform project, I noted that the Indonesian women
I dealt with had a very clear perspective on governance. One particular case was
negotiating some of the more contentious clauses in the upcoming state audit law. I
supported and then admired the cogent and structured arguments of female
governance advocates persuading a predominantly male audience to support the two
contentious initiatives.

For the first time in 7 years we will be unlikely to meet our 45% -at-entry
gender mainstreaming target. What is your view about this?

This is very disappointing and essentially reflects the fact that gender equality has not
in fact been mainstreamed and discriminatory attitudes are still the norm. This is not
a question of having more women at the top, but one of an institutional
understanding or lack of understanding of where the gender constraints are. Further,
ADB has in the past been too self-congratulatory about reaching ex ante targets on
gender through mainstreaming in design, yet there is very little aggregate reporting on
performance of these projects, i.e., 45% ex ante may not result in all the projects being
successful in mainstreaming gender .

This has to be improved by: (a) advocacy by ADB senior management to our
government counterparts and keeping gender equity and equality as key features of
quality growth, (b) a better understanding of the social mores and conditions at a
country level and consulting with local gender activists, (c) not looking at gender
mainstreaming as something that holds back projects, but something that allows for
more innovative and inclusive approaches that will have wider and more positive
development outcomes, (d) ensuring that project implementation monitoring
highlights where outputs are not likely to deliver on intended outcomes, and (e)
having post-implementation reviews to better inform future projects.

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Any other comments?

It is an equal shame that gender equality in ADB is behind expectations. We need to
walk the talk, and show that as an institution, we practice what we preach.

Farzana Ahmed is Lead Evaluation Specialist at ADB’s Independent Evaluation
Department.

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