On Gender, Identity & Intersectionality

A human perspective on exploring the potential of gender x design.

MaryBeth Bognar and Alex Nana-Sinkam—Program Manager and Design Director for IDEO.org, respectively—currently lead the Chroma Collective, alongside Partnerships Director Luan Nio. The Collective convenes cross institutional gender practitioners to leverage design innovation that can drive gender across international development systems. From their own experience with gender, MaryBeth and Alex share their stories that inform why they do this work, what it means to them, and their visions for a more equitable future.

In a world of possibility for us all, our personal visions help lay the groundwork for political action.

Audre Lorde

From the Personal to the Political

Alex Nana-Sinkam, on the Privilege of Designing for the Complexity of Identity

Alex and her brothers circa the late 90s. Lasagna on face, if you look closely.

My experiences as a biracial girl in a family of boys formed my early understanding of gender.

My father is Cameroonian and my mother was raised in a small town on the east coast of the US. It’s funny how often I start a story about myself with these facts. If you know me, you are probably rolling your eyes a bit. But, these facts have formed me more than most other reference points, and so they often set the scene for anything personal I’m about to share.

My parents gifted me with a complicated and rich foundation for identity. Raised in a family of 7 (the only woman-identifying person, save my mom), I grew up kicking and screaming in a household full of boys. Although I was never discouraged from doing or becoming anything because of my girlhood—an experience I recognise as a privilege—implicit cultural norms found comfy corners in our household, alongside the spaces and moments through which I grew.

I was different from the boys and so I forged my identity in some ways around this difference. I craved feeling like I had a self of my own, rather than a sidekick to every hobby they picked up and congregated around. I took up ballet from an early age. I insisted my room be painted bubblegum pink. I got very into scrapbooking and trips to #ACMoore (IFKYK). I was obsessed (I mean, obsessed) with fairies.

At times, it felt lonely. I grew up with a funny feeling of being “too much”, an alien-like foil compared to the siblings surrounding me. I was expected to be sensitive, thoughtful, and deferential as the only daughter. I heard often that I should be grateful for the tough skin the boys helped me grow.

It’s important to note here that masculinity is not a monolith. My brothers are complex, multi-faceted beings. Gender served them in some ways, and most certainly harmed them in others. My older brother, for example, started seeing a therapist long after that kind of support would have been useful, likely because his identity centered much less around his emotions than his success as a D1 athlete. There are countless examples of this—how the roles my brothers played were reinforced or encouraged at school, at home, through the media we all consumed.

In retrospect, the context of my childhood gave me a significant, yet simple perception of identity: I was the only girl, first and foremost. Tough skinned, whip fast in my comebacks, glaringly sensitive and “girly” in all the right ways. I aced the differentiating myself part, without much language to understand the implications of anchoring that “self of my own” to gender.

Through design, I get to build new worlds, provoke the outdated frameworks we use to understand our realities and re-imagine systems to honor the intersectionality in each of us.

Fast forward to adulthood and my understanding of identity continues to be an ongoing unlearning of the simple frameworks I fell into across the first decade of life. My 20s were marked by an anxiety disorder: a new understanding of myself, ableism, and chronic disability that is not always visible. The start of my 30s were highlighted by George Floyd’s murder, alongside a collective movement towards racial justice: for me, a reckoning around what it means to be black and bi-racial in today’s America. Currently, I think a lot about womanhood in the context of seeking healthcare amidst the shifting tides of reproductive justice, eggs (my own) that are aging towards entropy, and the misogyny of colonization present in East Africa, my current home.

“Self of my own” remains a morphing, confronting and complex thing.

I’d be lying if I said that I originally took the job at IDEO 6 years ago based on these reflections. Back then, I was young, starry eyed, and in need of an escape from my new grad job at a massive tech company ASAP rocky. But, over the past half decade, behavioral design has become a central tool in my understanding of the world, of complexity, of my own identity, and of the spectrum of ways we each come to exist in, experience, and understand everything around us. Through design, I get to build new worlds, provoke the outdated frameworks we use to understand our realities and re-imagine systems to honor the intersectionality in each of us.

Now, focusing more specifically on gender is helping me reflect on my own experiences in new and radical ways, and with a deepened understanding and vocabulary of this movement. Although a mammoth task, it’s been a personal and professional privilege to explore the role design can play across issues of identity, intersectionality, and gender equality.

Maya Angelou, Benazir Bhutto, Althea Gibson, and Carol Moseley Braun.

Working towards Walking the Talk

MaryBeth, on the Tensions of Working in Global Gender Equity

“Why should a white girl from small town Ohio be in the global gender space?”

I ask myself this often. There were gender-related issues in rural America that directly impacted me. I obsessed over my body type and tore myself down over my appearance; was mistreated by an intimate partner and harassed by others when trying to hold him accountable; supported too many friends who experienced gender-based violence; and was surrounded by political beliefs that blamed women for being attacked or abused, looked down on anyone who veered outside of traditional gender norms, and stood against basic sexual and reproductive rights. These experiences lit a fire in me to fight for something different, something better.

MaryBeth and her furry companion, Mittie.

I eventually found myself working on gender programs for global organizations. I loved the cross-country learning and relationships, and the power of movement building toward a shared vision of a gender equal world. But somewhere along the line, I realized I was working for entities based in the US despite not even running programs here. Several pivotal moments pushed me to check myself and rethink my career, role, and relationship with gender equality efforts.

While conducting a focus group with Syrian young adults who were refugees in Lebanon, one woman agitatedly said to me, “We are just lab rats in all these research experiments who get nothing, while you get your masters degree.” She was right. I realized that the lived experience expertise was not being valued nearly the same as my academic ventures. And that this was immensely unfair and wrong.

At feminist workshops, I listened as women human rights defenders shared stories of threats toward them and their families—from women advocating labor rights as domestic workers in South America to women advocating reproductive rights in abortion clinics in North America. I worked for a feminist organization, too. But would I if I knew my life was at risk every day? It was an uncomfortable question to consider, and though I’d like to think so, I couldn’t be sure that my answer was “yes”.

As I collaborated with women in Afghanistan, they were a step removed from spaces that shaped gender, women and justice agendas despite their direct experience. During the COVID-19 pandemic, as they provided services to their clients in person, I cringed behind my computer where I participated in calls shaping the program or speaking to partners and funders. Often because there wasn’t adequate interpretation, they had a time zone that didn’t align with the US or Europe, and there was little flexibility for unreliable internet. We worked on the same gender program, but when Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, it was their lives that were at grave risk. As they faced violent and financial peril, they did not have direct access to the people, systems and infrastructure to navigate emergency support or evacuation services; or documentation that permitted lifesaving travel. Because of the language I speak and my access to international networks, I was the one people would talk to instead. They fled borders and hid in shelters. I found resources for them from the comfort of my home.

    In fact, most projects I worked on in the global gender space existed within a reality where I progressed professionally while others closest to an issue continued to exist in dangerous and vulnerable circumstances. Circumstances created and perpetuated by the world’s power systems, the same systems that enable me, as a white woman in the U.S., to advance in a global career and mostly do so safely. Like women around the world, I may not have been wholly safe or adequately valued in my own community. But the fact is, I am more likely to be safe and valued while navigating a global gender career based on my skin color, location, and other privileged identities.

    Indira Gandhi, Kathrine Switzer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Frida Khalo.

    There are those who embark on a career to “change the world” because it feels like an interest or passion, and then there are those who engage in this work to fight for their rights and in some cases their lives. Of course these two realities can overlap, but I’ve found that the former face fewer barriers to decision making roles and spaces. Additionally, those on the former side are often many steps removed from the greatest impacts of gender inequity. I fall mostly on that former side. So how do I continue in a global career responsibly? Can I?

    Still, there were aspects of feminist and gendered approaches that I fell in love with, that resonated with me and served as a road map for my work and life. Aspects like meaningfully shifting power; targeting change at the root cause of systemic injustice rather than at its symptoms; incorporating care, joy and creativity; engaging as a community and recognizing yourself among a larger ecosystem; centering those most marginalized and the complexity of gender and intersecting identities to create change and amplify perspective beyond the white and male status quo. It just felt like the road I was on did not align with them—even roads with “gender” in their name. The same aspects of gender that drew me into it as a field, were the same ones pulling me away when they exposed hypocrisy and harm.

    I began to turn what I love about gender on its head. Instead of someone implementing gender in programs, how can I walk the gender talk in how I conduct the work and myself? Do I turn my efforts back to Ohio to tackle gender injustices locally, as one part of the larger global movement like other activists around the world? Or do I continue on a global career path, but be intentional and proactive about my privilege to shift power?

    Somewhere in the midst of trying to untangle this tension for myself, another area came to my attention —human-centered design (HCD). Could gender combined with HCD be a way to mitigate power dynamics, centering and amplifying diverse gender perspectives in collectively designed innovation that advances gender equality?

    The “human” in HCD is not gender neutral—if we design for humans without considering gender, we risk designing for the status quo cis-gender white man, by default.

    Gender x Representation x Design Innovation: Lessons Learned

    Alex and MaryBeth on Working towards more Equitable Futures

    Through this work, we’ve learned more about ourselves and more about how gender equality and HCD compliment one another. Through those learnings, we have begun exploring where this intersection might lead to innovation (spoiler: the Chroma Collective is just one of these pathways!). The “human” in HCD is not gender neutral—if we design for humans without considering gender, we risk designing for the status quo cis-gender white man, by default. Through IDEO.org’s practice of gender transformative design, we’re building towards more effectively impacting the systems we’ve seen and lived within. As we wrap two years since the inception of the Chroma Collective, we’re looking back in order to evolve forward.

    1. HCD’s bias toward action sat almost directly in tension with gender’s rigor.

    On the one hand, HCD thrives by trying and learning from mistakes, prototyping through iteration being one of the core tenets. However, people who work in gender often don’t have the luxury to fail without consequence. Gender frameworks have been hardfought through global movements for decades; the HCD process moves quickly and can miss important gendered and intersectional nuance, which puts it at danger of perpetuating harm.

    As we learn from this hard truth, we’re asking: How Might We bridge this tension to design solutions that are both innovative and rigorous, and ultimately serve to impact a more gender equal world?

    2. The possibility of big, new ideas sat in tension with large institutional structures.

    We deeply believe there needs to be risky, innovative, and out of the box thinking for gender equality to shift and advance in the international development sector. This is challenging to bring to life amidst the reality of international development systems that are entrenched, complex, bureaucratic, hierarchical, and powerful. And, it's critical to acknowledge that there are many folks across a variety of sectors who have for decades been doing the hard work of influencing positive change by working within these long-established systems.

    As we learn from this hard truth, we’re asking: How Might We design for what works in the current structures and honor those who have had to design for impact within this reality, while also encouraging the system towards radical change? Can we? Is international development even an answer to advancing global gender equality?

    3. If we are designing for gender equality, we must at all costs avoid hypocrisy in our own approach.

    A constant north star for our design process was to not perpetuate harmful inequities and power dynamics that already uphold white supremacy and colonialism in this space. And even with that intention, we didn't nail it. We struggled to consistently anchor to this vision whilst working within the constraints of the philanthropic sector and the realities of capitalism.

    As we learn from this hard truth, we’re asking: How Might We hold ourselves accountable to values that embody gender transformation, feminism, equality, and decolonization?

    4. Lastly from a systems perspective, we chose to engage in the design process with gender practitioners from major donor and funding institutions, recognizing their expertise, proximity and influence.

    Many strategic decisions (funding, resourcing strategy, etc.) are made at the HQ level of large philanthropies, multilaterals, bilaterals, and lending banks. With this choice, we had to acknowledge that working with actors primarily from this sphere put us at danger of perpetuating harmful inequities and missing key, often marginalized voices across the ecosystem.

    As we learn from this hard truth, we’re asking: How Might We design for impact in complex systems; engaging actors who have influence and a responsibility to make a change, while ensuring innovation is not biased to benefit only those who already hold privilege and power? Further, how might we ensure that innovation is biased towards impacting those across the system who are historically excluded from privilege and power?

    Marsha P. Johnson, Junko Tabei, Audre Lorde, Rosa Parks, and Mae Jemison.

    What’s Next? Our Ears are Open

    Chroma gave us a strong systemic picture of the gender and international development ecosystem—the stakeholders, how it operates, the complexities, the hard problems. And, as human-centered designers, we couldn’t ignore the nagging feeling that there were humans we were not centering in our process. Understanding these challenges from the perspective of those closest to development’s impact is key to our theory of change. As our practice of gender transformative design evolves, we hope to more proactively center and design alongside these humans, despite entrenched realities & power dynamics. Now that we know and understand the system, we hope we can work more impactfully to serve the humans inside it.

    No answers, just more questions. What could we be thinking about differently? What have we missed? What in this reflection inspired you or made you double check your own assumptions? As you read these words and reflected on your own experiences of identity, intersectionality, gender, equity - and where these complex issue areas intersect with human-centered design, what came up? Our ears are open, and we’d love to hear or learn from you. Find our emails at the bottom of this post.

    I believe that all organizing is science fiction—that we are shaping the future we long for and have not yet experienced... Everything [in this future] is connected. The soil needs rain, organic matter, air, worms and life in order to do what it needs to do to give and receive life. Each element is an essential component... Nature teaches us that our work has to be nuanced and steadfast. And more than anything, that we need each other—at our highest natural glory—in order to get free.

    adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

    Recommended Reading

    • A Playful Tool to Design More Gender Inclusive Programs, MaryBeth Bognar, Erika Diaz Gomez, Ademide Adefarasin

    • Freshwater, Akwaeke Emezi

    • Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

    • Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Caroline Criado-Perez

    • Women, Race and Class, Angela Davis

    Photographs provided by the authors. Collages by Alex Nana-Sinkam.

    More information about individuals pictured

    Maya Angelou was a renowned poet, singer, memoirist, and civil rights activist, whose award-winning memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings made literary history as the first nonfiction best-seller by an African-American woman.

    Benazir Bhutto was Pakistan’s first female prime minister and the first woman elected to lead a Muslim State.

    Althea Gibson was the first Black female player to win the French, Wimbledon, and U.S. Open singles championships.

    Carol Moseley Braun broke new ground in 1993, becoming the first African American woman to serve as U.S. senator.

    Indira Gandhi was the first and only female Prime Minister of India, serving 4 terms between 1966-1984, a controversial but very powerful figure, winning a war with Pakistan, which resulted in the creation of Bangladesh

    Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon despite being attacked by the race director who tried to physically pull her out of the race because she was a woman.

    Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the first woman to serve on the US Supreme Court and lead counsel for the ACLU Women's Rights Project.

    Frida Khalo was a Mexican artist who used her work to portray taboo topics such as abortion, miscarriage, birth, and breastfeeding, among other things.

    Marsha P. Johnson was an activist, sex worker, drag performer, and a central figure in the 1969 Stonewall Inn riots.

    Junko Tabei (田部井 淳子, Tabei Junko, née Ishibash) was a Japanese mountaineer, author and a teacher. She was the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest.

    Audre Lorde was a poet & feminist activist - fighting for equality on racism, women's rights, lesbian relationships, and homophobia.

    Rosa Parks was an American activist in the civil rights movement best known for her pivotal role in the Montgomery bus boycott.

    Mae Jemison was the first African American woman to travel to outer space.

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