Copyright 2005
Girl's Best Friend Foundation

Girl's Best Friend Foundation (GBF) closed November 2007. 
GBF’s records are archived with Special Collections of the University
of Illinois, Chicago.  In fall 2008, they will be made public:

Nurture Gender Consciousness

Only since 2002 has GBF funded multiple gender programs, in addition to those exclusively for girls and young women. We have struggled with what it means to fund multiple gender programs and how they can effectively address a system of gender and support young women well. We have also struggled with how to capture what we mean and how to open up conversation. We hope that comes through here -- and that you will share your thoughts, too.

An exclusively female-identified setting does not automatically meet young women’s needs to be supported as they grow -- it takes much more than that. Many young women have chosen a multiple-gender setting.

To ensure young women's needs are being met, we've questioned what gender consciousness looks like in multiple-gender settings, and how it's similar to or different from that consciousness in girl-only settings.

We have come to believe all youth programs need to embrace and operate from gender consciousness if they are to successfully engage and encourage young people making individual and collective change. Adults and young people need to think about gender if young women -- and, we believe, young people of all genders -- are to flourish.

It is important to emphasize that we do not view gender apart from its intersections with race, ability, sexuality, and economics. We describe each of these forces as systems of power that make up one overall system of power.  We recognize that although one aspect of these intersections may be more present at a given moment, all these social forces and identities are present and influence our lives. That more and more youth are insisting on being acknowledged in all their multiple identities seems to us smart and powerful.


When we started writing this, we considered listing characteristics of gender consciousness. We quickly realized that key elements are only discovered through intentional and individualized analysis -- a process of questioning the impact of characteristics and practices on one's own life. We feel the characteristics also change over time. To some people, the most significant feature of gender consciousness in their work is female leadership throughout their organizations. Others say it is young women's taking leadership in the program, or their connecting with other young women and supporting each other, or the process whereby a young woman's dreams are expressed, expanded, and realized. We think these are all good characteristics of gender consciousness, as long as you can articulate why they're good and what they mean, without confining your answers to traditional definitions and expectations of gender. Are young women also asking and answering why? Don't settle for one answer or one characteristic.

We find that young women question many kinds of expectations when something or someone prompts them. They may question what they are experiencing, their actions, interests, and feelings. They need support during this process. That's why we find such value in youth-created space that is supported by adult allies who welcome questions and change. Both peers and youth workers can help introduce new and different questions and ideas.

We're intrigued to find that being mindful of gender as a system of power is difficult for many people. We find questioning gender and other systems of power to be liberating and exciting, while some seem to find it frightening and disconcerting. We often find that people hold tightly to their predictions of what young women need, based on roles young women are expected to fill. It also seems young people live in a place of questioning identity and social expectations all the time, so they can invite this process much more easily than we adults sometimes do.

Working with Chicago youth programs, we have found there are many ways people talk about gender -- and that often they don't talk about gender. As we've asked people how they talk about it, it's often difficult to get a response.  Many people assume that convening female-identifying young people equals addressing gender. But what we ask is -- what is it that gender means, how does it affect our daily lives, where do we see ourselves as women, women of color, queer women, disabled women in this community, in this world? How are our experiences different and how are they the same as other people in our communities, families, and in our lives?

As we've asked the staff of youth programs how they think about and build consciousness, we've found that there seem to be three main ways people think about gender:

  1. Gender as a category firmly rooted in culture that is a basis of identity and expectations.  
  2. Gender as a firmly held category that expects female- and male-identified individuals to act (and dress, move, speak, etc) in specific ways, which can be rejected or recast, making gender a malleable category an individual can walk in and out of. 
  3. Gender as a false category and therefore not a category at all; gender as something that binds us but is a construction of expectations.

Through conversations, we noticed that framing gender as (2) -- a category with malleable parameters -- is most common and is effectively creating room for young people and the adults working with them to explore many issues of identity and social forces, including gender. Many programs and young people have effectively moved among all three of these categories at different moments.


We look and listen for an analysis, a consciousness about power systems such as gender. We ask youth workers and other staff how they stimulate, engage in, and constantly revitalize questioning within their organization and youth programs. How do they support and encourage young people to question gender as a source of power and how it affects their lives?

We also want to go deeper. We strive to deeply question systems of power that connect race, sexuality, economics, gender, and ability in hopes that more young women and young people will reject prescribed roles that confine them, by shifting their lens from unexamined givens to one of analysis and choice.  That instead of conforming, young women would act how they want to act -- enjoying when that was what was expected of them, and holding strong when it wasn't. And that with this choice, young people would break free by naming sexism, racism, heterosexism, ability and economic confines. 

We've found that programs that invite young women and make room for all the various identities and influences they experience, and they lay a foundation for a process of thinking that leads youth to action and then again to thinking to action in a continuous process. We view this process as a continuous loop: Analysis – Action – Change.


How do individuals and groups become conscious of gender as a system of power and apply that to their lives and, their work? 

Let's begin by noting: doing so is a process, one that is personal to each of us.

Everyone is conscious of gender in one form or another. We all know categories of "men" and "women." 

We're encouraging deeper questioning. How do adults and young people categorize? If we didn't sort into two distinct categories, how might female identity and male identity change, overlap, and disappear? What are our experiences as young women? What gendered experiences do we have that are beneficial, painful, or neutral to us, and why? Are there specific things we expect that we wouldn’t expect if we were male or had no gender? How is race at play here? How does gender vary and coincide for young women of color, queer young women, young women economically marginalized in society, young women with disabilities, and white young women? 

These questions can lead us to answers that surface systems of sexism, racism, ability, economics, and homophobia. How we view these systems and create expectations of people based on them comes from all parts of our culture -- family, schools, community, and society at large. Consciousness means questioning and applying social and political analysis. We think questions and analysis lead to awareness critical to understanding and taking and expecting responsibility and action. 

We believe that developing consciousness on systems of power has great potential for inspiring compassion, freedom, and social change that benefits young women and all of us.  So much discomfort, harassment, and violence comes from living outside the expectations others have of us – to have the opportunity to question some of those norms and our reactions to them when they are changed, this can liberate us.

Written by Robin Dixon, former Senior Program Officer, Girl's Best Friend Foundation.

Exclusive resources for GBF grantees

If you are interested in being invited to any of the following, tell us.

Youth Worker Exchanges
GBF hosts periodic discussions on topics that cut across many girls programs.

Learning Circles
Small, focused, professionally facilitated peer groups that meet regularly over seven months, to solve work-related organizational, management, and conceptual issues.

Training & Consultation on Evaluation and Research
Girls programs find the training we offer a great way to learn and carry out girl-friendly investigation and evaluation. GBF offers one or two groups trainings a year, and also underwrites training and consultation.
Read more about our research and evaluation

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