July 18, 2013

The inaugural director of SIPA's new specialization in Gender and Public Policy talks about students' role in developing a new specialization, why it's a valuable addition to the curriculum, and more.

SIPA has created a new specialization (or minor) in Gender and Public Policy for its two-year MIA and MPA programs. Beginning this fall, lecturer Yasmine Ergas, who is also the associate director of the Institute for the Study of Human Rights, will serve as the inaugural director of the new specialization. She recently spoke with SIPA News about the process of starting a new specialization and gender as a public policy consideration.

What does it mean to study public policy in the context of gender?

There is a growing awareness that policy is often predicated on implicit assumptions about gender, and that policies lead to gendered outcomes.

You can examine these assumptions in many different realms of public policy. For example, educational policy that concerns post-elementary school education will in fact encode certain assumptions about gender — who’s going to be learning what — that have consequences for placement in the labor market.

It’s important to know how to analyze assumptions and outcomes, and to understand existing tools and develop new tools to promote equitable outcomes — not just in education but in health, in human rights, labor markets, and other areas. And you can’t develop more equitable policies until you understand how existing policies are operating.

What are some considerations in studying gender and policy in the real world?

It’s extremely important to be conscious of the different patterns of both gender relations and policy-making frameworks in different places and also to note how, when you look more closely, policies affect particular people as a function of a whole host of factors like economic class, educational status, ethnic and racial identities, and so on. So it’s essential to be able to use more fine-grained analyses.

Another thing that’s important in my view is to look at the way policies become factors not just in individual lives but also collectively. There’s an interactive process in which individuals and collectivities experience the impact of policies differently. We need to make use of our available resources to take an active role in trying to understand what a policy actually means when it’s experienced on the ground. It’s not just about top-down decisionmaking.

It’s important to see people as active participants in molding policies and not just passive recepients of decisions made over their heads. Women are often cast as victims in policy discourses, and while it’s important not to underestimate discriminatory effects, constraining effects of public policy, and injustices that women and men experience, it’s crucial to see how they are trying to shape their environment and making decisions about their own lives in their own contexts.

Is there an assumption that women have tended to be disadvantaged by historical policy decisions?

There are a lot of shifts going on. It wouldn’t be true to say that women are getting the short end of all public policy, but we do want to be aware how some policies are based on presumptions and produce particular effects in terms of gender relations. It’s only when we’re aware of that that we can build effective new policies.

Does the term gender have a broader meaning than some people might realize?

A variety of thematic areas fall under the term gender. One is male and female or women and men in particular policy domains. But questions of sexual identity and sexual orientation are key. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and assumptions about sexual identification are encoded into public policy everywhere. As we’ve seen recently in the United States, defining marriage in a certain way has many consequences down the line.

Why was it important to formalize a new specialization in gender and public policy at SIPA?

Above all, there was a strong student demand. Students have been very interested in this broad view of the interaction between gender and policy.

There also is demand from international organizations, NGOs, governments and corporations, for people who know how to do the relevant analyses and to think about these issues. And so our students, out of personal interest and passion but also being attuned to the evolving demands of the labor market, wanted to see a broader program that would enable them to address these issues.

How did the new specialization move from idea to reality?

Students were working with a set of faculty members — including Sylvia Hewlett, who had been director of the co-curricular program in gender policy — whose primary focus was women and leadership. They did a lot of background work which ultimately proved convincing, and in the meantime, once the students started to develop this interest and actually to formulate a request to the faculty and the deans that such a specialization be created, we began to expand the courses that we already offered.

My course in Gender and Globalization of Human Rights was a new course for Spring 2013. The previous year we had established a gender practicum in which students meet with practitioners from different fields who discussed how gender affects their work, and what that work looks like. We also recently added a course on mainstreaming gender in different policy sectors.

Jenny McGill, Maxine Weisgrau, Kristy Kelly, Dale Buescher are just some of the faculty members involved — there are other people as well. And of course, as I said, the students — including a very active group called the Gender Policy Working Group — have been instrumental. They’ve been quite involved in questions about the specialization and taking the initiative at SIPA.

What will the curriculum for the specialization entail?

There are substantive areas we want courses to address. We want to ask the questions of how gender relates to development policies, how gender relates to human rights, to humanitarian intervention, to conflict resolution, to finance and environmental issues. So we want to ask those questions and provide substantive answers, but we also want to make sure students are developing a series of key skills in order to be able to answer those questions adequately.

Development agencies are paying a great deal of attention to issues of gender. It’s become a salient dimension of development policy, and we have courses on that.

Is there a significance to studying gender policy at Columbia?

As a university, Columbia has a long history of important work in gender studies, and a great many resources. There’s the interdisciplinary Institute for Research on Women and Gender; the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia Law School; and programs at the Mailman School of Public Health, Teachers College, the Medical Center, Barnard College and SIPA. Faculty members throughout the entire University are working on issues centered on gender relations.

One of the goals for this specialization is to be able to draw on all of these resources and to add to them as necessary in order to provide SIPA students with a program that specifically is focused on policy issues and international affairs — one that speaks to the nature of the School but that doesn’t operate in isolation from the broader community that we’re part of. I also think that because we’re at SIPA we have access to a very wide range of individuals and institutions, many of whom operate in New York City but not all, whom we would hope to involve through workshops, through seminars, through occasional events — through a whole series of different activities through our gender program.

As we look ahead to the fall, do you have any final thoughts?

I am personally grateful for how supportive the faculty and administration have been of this effort. It’s been couple of years in the making — it’s certainly not an unpondered choice. I am delighted to be undertaking this work.