How the COVID-19 Crisis Shows We Need More Feminist Evaluation

By June 10, 2020No Comments
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Myths about Feminist Evaluation and how the COVID-19 crisis shows we need more feminist evaluations 

There is broad agreement in the evaluation community that evaluators often have to be eclectic. Evaluators need to know the evaluation theory landscape and be aware that some approaches are appropriate in certain contexts and not in others. Evaluators also have to be able to implement a range of evaluation approaches and know that a single approach may not offer everything needed for a specific evaluation.

cartoon about theories

Chris Lysey – Fresh Spectrum

Feminist Evaluation is one such an approach. It is not relevant in all situations and has limitations. However, the potential of feminist evaluation may be much larger than its current use, particularly given that the vast majority of development projects focus on social issues related to vulnerability and marginalisation. For some, the name may be a hurdle. Because of this, Feminist Evaluation is not fully recognised for its flexibility, utility and relevance, and therefore likely to be under-utilised.

Myths about Feminist Evaluation

It seems that Feminist Evaluation may be misunderstood, considering some myths about the approach.

  • Myth: Only women can be feminist evaluators
  • Myth: Feminist Evaluation is only about women’s rights
  • Myth: Feminist Evaluation and gender evaluation is the same

A myth is “a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events”. Or “A widely held but false belief or idea.”[1]

Feminist evaluations are scarce

Feminist evaluations are not encountered often, and with the exception of some donors, it is extremely rare to find a Terms of Reference that explicitly asks for a Feminist Evaluation.  Considering the strong reactions elicited by the word “feminism”[2], it is no surprise that feminist evaluation is not common. And even when this approach is used, it may be presented under a different name, such as gender evaluation.

In addition to the reluctance of evaluators to Feminist Evaluation studies as such, the dearth of Feminist Evaluation studies may stem from the approach to be regarded as relatively new – although it has in fact existed for a significant period of time. Another factor that could contribute to the low profile of Feminist evaluation, is that discussions on evaluation methods often do not include Feminist Evaluation.[3]

people protesting

Core beliefs

When an evaluator who is committed to the protection of human rights, wants to ensure that the voices of marginalized people are heard, and wants to use Feminist Evaluation, they often need to master the art of diplomacy first. Some propose that evaluators should not introduce Feminist Evaluation by its name, but rather by the core beliefs that underpin the approach, as potential useful lenses to use in an evaluation. The core beliefs of underpinning Feminist Evaluation are often more palatable.

These beliefs are:

1. There should be equity amongst human beings. Equity should not be confused with equality.  Equity is giving everyone what they need to be successful. Equality is treating everyone the same.

“Equality aims to promote fairness, but it can only work if everyone starts from the same place and needs the same help. Equity appears unfair, but it actively moves everyone closer to success by ‘levelling the playing field.’ But not everyone starts at the same place, and not everyone has the same needs.” – Everyday Feminism [4]

2. Inequality (including gender inequality) leads to social injustice.

“Social inequality refers to relational processes in society that have the effect of limiting or harming a group’s social status, social class, and social circle” It can stem from society’s understanding of gender roles, or from social stereotyping. “Social inequalities exist between ethnic or religious groups, classes and countries making the concept of social inequality a global phenomenon”.

Social inequality is linked to economic equality, although the two are not the same. “Social inequality is linked to racial inequality, gender inequality, and wealth inequality.” Social behaviour, including sexist or racist practices, and other forms of discrimination tends to filter down and have an impact on the opportunities that people have access to, and this in turn impacts on the wealth they can generate for themselves. – ScienceDaily[5]

3. Inequalities (including gender-based inequalities) are systematic and structural

“Conceptions of masculinity and femininity, ideas concerning expectations of women and men, internalised judgements of women’s and men’s actions, prescribed rules about proper behaviour of women and men – all of these, and more, encompass the organisation and persistence of gender inequality in social structures. The social and cultural environments, as well as the institutions that structure them and the individuals that operate within and outside these institutions, are engaged in the production and reproduction of gender norms, attitudes and stereotypes. Beliefs that symbolise, legitimate, invoke, guide, induce or help sustain gender inequality are themselves a product of gender inequality.” – European Institute for Gender Equality[6]

power to the people protest

Checking the myths against the core beliefs

: Only women can be feminist evaluators

Feminist Evaluation can be used by evaluators who do not identify as feminists

If the evaluator identifies with one or more of the core beliefs associated with feminist evaluation, the approach can be used, if the evaluator identifies as a feminist, or the evaluation is labelled as Feminist Evaluation, or if the evaluator does not identify as a feminist and the evaluation is not labelled as a Feminist Evaluation.[7] When undertaking a Feminist Evaluation, the evaluator can use one or more of the core beliefs to shape the evaluation. What data is collected, what data sources will be used, and what critical insights and perspectives are required to address the evaluation questions at hand adequately.

Myth: Feminist evaluation is only about women’s rights

Feminist evaluation is about human rights, not only women’s rights

While the essence of Feminist Evaluation theory is to reveal and provide insight in those individual and institutional practices that have devalued, ignored or denied access to women, it also relates to other oppressed and marginalised groups[8], and other forms of inequality. What distinguishes Feminist Evaluation is its focus on the impact of culture, power, privilege, and social justice.[9]

Feminist theories and feminist research

There are a whole range of variations of feminist theories, including “liberal, cultural, radical, Marxist and/or socialist, postmodern (or poststructuralist), and multiracial feminism” (Hopkins and Koss, 2005 in Mertens & Wilson, 2012:179). Each of these focuses on different forms of inequality.

Feminist research is part of the genre of critical theory, and Feminist Evaluation has developed alongside feminist research, which followed a path from “feminist empiricism, to standpoint theory, and finally to postmodern feminism” (Seigart, 2005 in Podems, 2010: 3)[10].

Myth: Feminist evaluation and gender evaluation are the same 

Feminist and gender evaluation are not the same

The gender and development (GAD) approach evolved from Women in Development (WID) and Women and Development (WAD) approaches[11]. Gender approaches started with Women in Development (WID), which emphasises women’s economic contribution but neglects to understand how this approach put additional strain on women. Women and Development (WAD), made connections between women’s position in society and structural changes but failed to challenge male-dominated power structures.

The GAD approach:

  • Focuses on how gender, race, and class and the social construction of their defining characteristics are interconnected.
  • Recognises the differential impact of projects, programmes and interventions on men and women (necessitating the collection of gender-disaggregated data).
  • Encourages data collection that examines inequalities between men, and uses gender as an analytical category.

Feminist Evaluation views women in a way that recognises that different people (including women) experience oppressive conditions differently, as a result of their varied positions in society, resulting from factors such as race, culture, class, and (colonial) history.

The difference in Gender Evaluation and Feminist Evaluation

Maps/records women’s position. Attempts to strategically affect women’s lives as well as the lives of other marginalised persons.
Sees the world in terms of “men” and “women”, and does not recognise differences between women, based on class, culture, ethnicity, language, age, marital status, sexual preference, and other differenced. Acknowledges and values these differences, realising that “women” are a heterogeneous category.
Appears to assume that all women want “what men already have, technically should have, or will access through development interventions”, i.e. that equality with men is the ultimate goal. Allows for the possibility that women may not want what men possess. This will require different criteria, which will generate different questions and will lead to vastly different judgements and recommendations.
Provides written frameworks that guide the evaluator to collect data, but does not include critical feminist ideals in frameworks. Does not provide frameworks that guide the evaluator. Instead, Evaluators are motivated to be reflexive and are not regarded as value-free or neutral. It explores different ways of knowing and listens to multiple voices. The need to give voice to women within different social political and cultural contexts is emphasised, and it advocates for (all) marginalised groups.
Gender approaches are not challenged because of being Western concepts. Responses elicited by the word “feminist” elicits a range of responses, and it may appear that feminist evaluation proposes a biased approach. Others see feminism as a Western concept, and questions if it is appropriate in a non-Western context.

Source: Podems, 2010: 9

Feminist evaluators are advocates for human rights

A core element of feminist evaluation is that it challenges power relations and the systemic embeddedness of discrimination, as well as the recognised and preferred role of the evaluator as an activist, distinguishes feminist evaluation from principles focused evaluation.

The primary role of the evaluator is to include the marginalised, absent, misrepresented and unheard voices. The philosophical assumptions of the transformative evaluation branch, where feminist evaluation is located, form the foundation for inclusive evaluation. The evaluator does not exclude the traditional stakeholders who are usually included in evaluations (e.g. intended users, decision-makers, programme staff, implementation partners, funders and donors), but ensures that data is gathered from an inclusive group of stakeholders and that those who have traditionally been under-represented, or not represented at all, are included.[12] Feminist evaluation, like other approaches that fall under the transformative branch, is a bottom-up approach that makes change part of the evaluation process.[13]

Making Feminist Evaluation practical

All of this may sound rather theoretical, but there are ways to make Feminist Evaluation practical. Feminist evaluation does not provide set frameworks and does not identify specific processes. It does, however, have eight tenets, which provide a useful “thinking framework” for evaluators.


  1. Evaluation is a political activity, in the sense that the evaluator’s personal experiences, perspectives and characteristics come from, and lead to a particular political standpoint.
  2. Knowledge is culturally and socially influenced.
  3. Knowledge is powerful, and serves direct and articulated purposes, as well as indirect and unarticulated purposes.
  4. There are multiple ways of knowing.
  5. Research methods, institutions and practices have been socially constructed.
  6. Gender inequality is just one way in which social injustice manifests, alongside other forms of social injustice, such as discrimination based on race, class and culture, and gender inequality links up with all three other forms of social injustice.
  7. Gender discrimination is both systematic and structural.
  8. Action and advocacy are regarded as appropriate ethical and moral responses from an engaged feminist evaluator.

Feminist Evaluation can be made practical by using Michael Patton’s principles focused evaluation to re-label the tenets by mapping it to Patton’s GUIDE Framework.


The GUIDE Framework [15] is a set of criteria which can be used to clarify effectiveness principles for evaluation. It is used in Principles-Focused Evaluation (PFE). GUIDE is an acronym and mnemonic specifying the criteria for high-quality principle statements. A high-quality principle:

  • Provides Guidance
  • Is Useful
  • Inspires
  • Supports ongoing Development and adaptation
  • Is Evaluable

Principles Focused Evaluation (PFE) is based on complexity theory and systems thinking. This approach operates from the perspective that principles inform and guide decisions and choices, and maintains that the deeply held values of principles-driven people are expressed through principles that translate values into behaviours. In this approach principles becomes the evaluand, and the evaluation considers whether principles are clear, meaningful, and actionable; if such principles are actually being followed; and whether they are leading to desired results.[16]

black lives matter protestCrystallising FE Tenets into PFE Principles

It is clear from the table below how mapping the Feminist Evaluation tenets to PFE and translating it to PFE principles makes it practical, actionable and usable.

1.     Evaluation is a political activity, in the sense that the evaluator’s personal experiences, perspectives and characteristics come from, and lead to a particular political standpoint.


1. Acknowledge and take into account that evaluation is a political activity; evaluator’s personal experiences, perspectives, and characteristics come from and lead to a particular political stance.
2.     Knowledge is culturally and socially influenced.


2. Contextualize evaluation because knowledge is culturally, socially and temporally contingent.
3.     Knowledge is powerful, and serves direct and articulated purposes, as well as indirect and unarticulated purposes. 3. Generate and use knowledge as a powerful resource that serves an explicit or implicit purpose.
4.     There are multiple ways of knowing. 4. Respect multiple ways of knowing.
5.     Research methods, institutions and practices have been socially constructed.


5. Be cognizant that research methods, institutions and practices are social constructs.
6.     Gender inequality is just one way in which social injustice manifests, alongside other forms of social injustice, such as discrimination based on race, class and culture, and gender inequality links up with all three other forms of social injustice. 6. Frame gender inequities as one manifestation of social injustice. Discrimination cuts across race, class, and culture and is inextricably linked to all three.


7.     Gender discrimination is both systematic and structural. 7. Examine how discrimination based on gender is systematic and structural.
8.     Action and advocacy are regarded as appropriate ethical and moral responses from an engaged feminist evaluator.


8. Act on opportunities to create, advocate and support change, which are considered to be morally and ethically appropriate responses of an engaged feminist evaluator.

(Source: Podems, 2018)

Strengths and constraints

The potential scope for using feminist evaluation is broader than expected. Its strengths include that it is flexible, fluid, dynamic and evolving because it provides a way of thinking about evaluation, rather than a specific or prescriptive framework. Because of this flexibility, it can also be used in combination with other approaches and methods.

A distinguishing feature and a strength of Feminist Evaluation is that it is transparent and explicit about its views on knowledge. It actively seeks to recognise, and give voice to different social, political and cultural contexts, and shows how these give privilege to some ways of knowing over others, by specifically focusing on women and disempowered groups.

Evaluators who use feminist evaluation follows an inclusive approach, which ensures that inputs are obtained from a wide range of stakeholders. This enhances the reliability, validity and trustworthiness of the evaluation and makes it possible to draw accurate conclusions and make relevant recommendations.

In addition to the misconceptions mentioned in the introduction to this article, it should be noted that apart from the PFE-FE model, limited guidance is available to operationalise the approach.

By Fia van Rensburg

[1] Dictionary.com | Meanings and Definitions of Words at Dictionary.com

[2] Read more on myths about Feminism here: Resources and Opportunities

[3] Feminist Evaluation and Gender Approaches: There’s a Difference? | Journal of MultiDisciplinary Evaluation

[4] Equality Is Not Enough: What the Classroom Has Taught Me About Justice

[5] Social inequality

[6] Structural inequality

[7] Making Feminist Evaluation Practical

[8] Mertens, D.M. and Wilson, A.T. 2012. Program Evaluation Theory and Practice. A Comprehensive Guide. The Guilford Press. New York.

[9].Donna M. Mertens. (2009). Transformative Research and Evaluation. New York: Guilford Press. 402 pages. Reviewed by Jill Anne Cho

[10] Feminist Evaluation and Gender Approaches: There’s a Difference?

[11] Ibid

[12] Inclusive Evaluation: Implications of Transformative Theory for Evaluation

[13] Patton, M.Q. 2011. Developmental Evaluation. Applying Complexity concepts to Enhance Innovation and Use. The Guilford Press. New York.

[14] Podems, 2018

[15] PFE Week: Principles-Focused Evaluation by Michael Quinn Patton

[16] Ibid