Seton Hall Graduate Degree in International Affairs
Seton Hall Graduate Degree in International Affairs

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Columbia University Adds New Gender Focus to Its International Affairs School


Teenage girls in Cameroon
Teenage girls play a clapping game to break the ice at a weekly education session on breast ironing and rape, held by a community organizer in her home in Douala, Cameroon. JOE PENNEY/REUTERS

Gender is at the center of international agendas, not at their periphery. Today, plans in Sochi for the forthcoming Olympics — the emblem of international cooperation — are riven by disputes over Russia’s policies toward lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender persons. Peacemakers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo must address the needs of more than 2.5 million displaced people, whose circumstances are a result and an instigator of gender and sexual violence. Development strategists look to girls’ education or lowered infant mortality rates for multiplier effects that other changes do not seem to offer. And economists underscore the benefits to developed economies of increased female participation rates.

The examples would further highlight that peace can be made only by taking into account that sexual violence is not simply an incident of conflict but a means of combat; development can most effectively be attained if girls’ right to education is translated into policies that ensure that girls can attend schools safely and that public health requires mothers to live, not to die in childbirth.

War, development, public health — these are easily recognized as international issues today. As are the hiccuping recoveries of advanced economies: if Spain or Italy were to add even a fraction of a percentage point to gross domestic product as a result of declining intimate partner violence (which, for example, costs Australia 1.2 percent of its gross domestic product every year), the health of the global financial system would be much improved. And we need not dwell on the potential worldwide benefits of any improvement in the performance of United States political institutions should female participation attain parity. I am not an essentialist, but it is noteworthy that the government shutdown in the US ended thanks to an initiative of women in the Senate who, it seems, regularly meet across party lines.

The title of this forum is “Gender in International Affairs: From Promise to Practice,” introducing the new gender and public policy specialization at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), as well as the Journal of International Affairs‘ latest issue, focused on gender. The challenge for the specialization is to help build the educational infrastructure on which gender equality policies rest. I am sometimes asked why this was a propitious moment to establish the specialization: my answer is that we have never been in a better position to address this challenge. As the issue of the Journal shows, gender is now on the research and policy agendas of international affairs.

The case for inclusion has been made. Thirty years ago, the Danish economist Ester Boserup lamented her colleagues’ neglect of the role of women in development. Today, I am sure, she would be delighted by the vitality of the field she helped to launch. Twenty years ago, at the Fourth World Conference on Women, held by the United Nations in Beijing, Hillary Clinton famously mesmerized the world by declaring that women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights. Today, scholars and advocates alike take that affirmation as a given. A year earlier, the UN’s World Conference on Human Rights called for the UN to integrate women into all its human-rights activities. Just a few weeks ago, the Security Council passed a new resolution on women, peace and security.

Moreover, the conceptual grounds for gender equality policies have been solidified and refined. So, for example, the term “gender” — once used in the academy and by policy makers as a de facto code word for women — is recognized as pertaining to how socially mandated ways of being and behavioral canons are linked to a person’s perceived sex. Gender as a field of study or policy making regards men as well as women and the relations among them and between them. Indeed, gender regards the rigidities of these categories themselves.

At the same time, the conceptual frameworks of international affairs have become more amenable to discussion of gender related issues. The idea of “human development,” for example, allows one to unpack gross domestic product, facilitating an exploration of who, within and across states is faring how and why. At the same time, the international institutional structure relating to gender issues has been profoundly transformed by, for example, the establishment of UN Women; the inclusion of explicitly gender related elements in the crimes under the International Criminal Court‘s jurisdiction; the mainstreaming of gender in the work of many international organizations; and the emergence of a vast panorama of nongovernmental organizations focused on women’s rights and the elimination of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. I would be remiss not to mention the significant development of gender related institutions at the national and regional levels as well.

The development of this institutional structure has also fostered the creation of an impressive array of “tools” — from indicators and indexes to gender-responsive budgeting and impact analyses.

And so we have scholarship and research, policy papers and methods of intervention, experiences from which to learn and institutions and professional colleagues with whom to engage. And we have SIPA’s own, in my view, exceptional resources. These should enable the specialization to offer perspectives on gender in the several fields in which students concentrate — from energy and the environment to human rights and humanitarian policy — and provide a vantage point from which gender relations can be apprehended as a whole. The specialization can address the needs of students who want to take the full complement of requirements as well as those who simply want to learn more about gender in relation to climate change, emerging forms of warfare or new trade agreements.

But the challenge  in providing the educational infrastructure of gender equality policies also entails mobilizing SIPA’s exemplary capacity to foster what I think of as applied critical intelligence. This is a “porous” institution — systematically engaging with practitioners and the issues. Here, seeking to ensure the realization of gender equality policies means inquiring into the many ways in which equality is understood and by whom and how those understandings may shift over time. It means understanding that all stakeholders in a particular policy must be engaged — and learning about how such engagement can be fostered. But it also means understanding that the policy maker and the policy analyst are, themselves, stakeholders — participants in processes in which they have interests, to which they bring particular frames of reference and not simply neutral enablers.

So, at SIPA we do not take a “technocratic” approach; that is, assuming a predefined goal and translating it into top-down administrative interventions. But seeing the limits of technocracies should not obscure the importance of acquiring technical skills: that would be rather like telling a physician that because she knows how to take a clinical history she need not learn how to perform a physical exam. It is important, therefore, that students learn about gender analyses and gender responsive budgeting, gender indicators and the dilemmas entailed in gathering data regarding, say, contraceptive practices or sexual violence. Just as, in my view, it is important that they learn that policies are not really like arrows shot across a bow but more like waves that produce currents and countercurrents and patterns of interference.

The tools at our disposal are like so many points at which one enters the stream, and sometimes even shifts its course. Attempting to track, for example, whether the sums promised to build an HIV/AIDS clinic or women’s health center have been allocated and actually expended may lead an entity to adopt more transparent forms of accounting than line budgeting generally allows. But that will come about as a result of a negotiation, of repeated interactions in which different views are expressed, issues framed and reframed and pathways to resolution debated.

New policy arenas often spawn new educational institutions or programs of study; those institutions and programs help to inform and sometimes reshape the policy arenas from which they emerged. I think most practitioners involved in gender equality policies today agree with the Security Council’s recent observation that there is a major implementation gap. Resolving that gap will require a great deal of disciplined, thoughtful commitment from professionals working in all fields of international and public affairs. Therein lies the contribution of this specialization.

This essay was adapted from a speech given by the writer inaugurating the gender and public policy specialization at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs on Dec. 3, 2013.

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Yasmine Ergas is the director of the Gender and Public Policy specialization at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She is also associate director of the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia. A lawyer and a sociologist, Ergas has worked on gender and women’s rights issues as a policy analyst, scholar and adviser, consulting for such entities as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Unesco and Millennium Villages Project.

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