IDP Conflict Forum

How to Do a Gender Analysis: Practical Guidance for the UN Community

The UN mission in South Sudan holds a conflict management forum with internally displaced persons. (UN Photo/JC McIlwaine)

Feminist activists have long called for the United Nations community, including member states and UN agencies, to incorporate a “gender perspective” or use a “gender analysis” in their work. In particular, there has been a link between the women, peace and security (WPS) agenda and policies on countering violent extremism (CVE). For example, UN Security Council resolution 2242, the WPS resolution focused on CVE, advocates for a “gender analysis,” “gender perspective,” and “gender-sensitive research” throughout the resolution. Though the inclusion of such language in resolutions is important, many within the UN community are not clear on what a gender analysis entails. While a general understanding of gender as having to do with men and women exists, this is not enough guidance for conducting a gender analysis or gender-sensitive research.

I frame a gender analysis as a mapping exercise with multiple steps occurring at the same time. The mapping exercise can be applied to understanding gender dynamics within environments where violent extremist organizations (VEOs) are operating. These steps include: asking questions; tracing power dynamics; recognizing intersectional identities; accounting for context; and challenging existing knowledge and conventions.

Asking Questions

Gender analysis involves asking questions about the different experiences of an environment for men, women, boys, girls, and sexual and gender minorities (SGMs). These questions focus on experiences, expectations, and relationships. Some examples of questions related to CVE policies are, how does this policy affect men differently than women? How does the policy affect boys and girls differently? As part of a gender analysis, one should think beyond intended effects of the policy and consider cascading effects that, for example, cross into the private sphere, have economic impacts, or affect the security of individuals differently.

Power Dynamics

Gender, according to Carol Cohn, is a way of “structuring power,” and so it is important to understand who has access to different forms of power as a result of their gender identity. In contexts of conflict where VEOs are operating, a common mistake is to only see power in terms of who is leading a violent group or who has access to weapons. It is useful to take a broader view of power and to recognize power differentials not only between men and women, but also between women, between men, between boys, and between girls.

Intersectional Identities

Gender analyses also recognize intersectional identities. Gender is one way to structure power, but one’s access to power, in all of its forms, differs based not only on one’s gender, but also on one’s religion, class, education, race, ethnicity, age, and many other factors. A gender analysis does not treat women as a monolithic group, but asks questions about different experiences of women, men, boys, girls, and SGMs. For example, when thinking about violence by Islamist extremist organizations, someone conducting a gender analysis might look for information on expectations or norms for Muslim individuals. However, this question is more useful when considering instead the expectations and norms for Muslim men, women, boys, and girls, and how these expectations differ across contexts.


A gender analysis also depends on context. Although different countries, states, and VEOs have similarities and influence each other, it is important to avoid assuming that different contexts will have the same gender dynamics. Expectations about femininity and masculinity vary based on different environments, time periods, and social groups. This is why scholars often refer to “masculinities” in its plural form to capture an array of different forms of masculinity in a context.

While it is useful to make comparisons across contexts, it is also essential to recognize where contexts diverge in gendered expectations. For example, hegemonic masculinity, as explained by David Duriesmith, is the form of masculinity that is most privileged and enjoys the most benefits and power in society. Usually, hegemonic masculinity has some consistent traits, such as being able to provide for and protect one’s family. However, what this provision looks like and what type of protection a man is expected to provide will vary across contexts. A gender analysis also examines patterns over time and recognizes that ideas about gender are changing and co-dependent.

Challenging Existing Knowledge and Conventions

A gender analysis requires a researcher to look for new or innovative sources of information. This is because, as J. Ann Tickner notes, “much of our knowledge about the world has been based on knowledge about men.” One way to incorporate different data would be to speak to women in a society who might be ignored because they are not in positions of public power.

Researchers might also have to be creative to get information about women and to hear from women. For example, in my own work on the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda, in addition to interviewing women and men in northern Uganda, I also gained an understanding of how women in the LRA interpreted events through reviewing memoirs written by two women— Evelyn Amony and Grace Acan—who were abducted and forcibly married in the LRA. Another tool I used to understand women’s roles in al-Shabaab was to review the court transcripts of two women convicted in Minnesota for fundraising for al-Shabaab.

Research Guidelines

When trying to conduct gender-sensitive research, there are a few approaches that are particularly useful to incorporate during the research process.

The first is to avoid stereotypes or assumptions. This is not just because stereotypes are politically incorrect or offensive. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains, “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” When doing a gender analysis, researchers should be prepared to be surprised or proven wrong. When researchers rely on preconceived ideas, they miss key patterns (e.g., the use of women as spies or new ideas about masculinity focused on resisting VEOs).

The second is to be willing to see different forms of power, particularly of women. In my own research on gender and al-Shabaab, I had preconceived ideas about the ways in which Somali women were denied power in societies under the group’s control. However, when I actually examined the dynamics in Kismayo, Somalia, a society ruled by al-Shabaab for five years, I realized that al-Shabaab saw women in Kismayo as powerful and threatening. In particular, al-Shabaab saw businesswomen as uniquely powerful and therefore tried to recruit, exploit, and extort them. A gender analysis reveals the complexities of power dynamics in an environment and reveals the common flaws in simplistic and binary assumptions.

The third is to approach gender analysis with an open mind. Open-mindedness is especially important for anyone seeking to understand gender in a foreign context. As an outsider, researchers should be aware of their own positionality and biases and the ways in which ideas about power, masculinities, and femininities are inherently part of the way they see the world and understand other environments.

The WPS community frequently critiques gender analyses for being simplistic and for thinking gender equates merely to the inclusion of women. To actually see actors across the UN adopt a more nuanced and thoughtful gender analyses requires not only modeling what a gender analysis looks like, but also explaining it in a way that empowers others to adopt the tool.

Phoebe Donnelly is a research fellow at the International Peace Institute (IPI), helping to lead the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) program. She is also a research fellow at the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard Kennedy School. This piece is based off her recent chapter entitled “Demystifying Gender Analysis for Research on Violent Extremism,” published by RESOLVE Network.