Working Toward Women’s Empowerment Around the Globe

A political science alumna is launching an organization that will improve the evidence around global gender policy issues

By Jill Rodrigues '05
Alyson Smith

BRISTOL, R.I. – While the status of women has improved in some ways over the last few decades, women still face a host of challenges to achieving equity politically, economically and culturally.

One alumna from Roger Williams University has dedicated the past 20 years to investigating the causes and working toward solutions. With extensive experience researching, conducting fieldwork and analyzing policies on global gender issues, particularly in Rwanda, Alyson Smith ’98 is starting her own organization aimed at effecting meaningful advancements in women’s empowerment.

As president and co-founder of The Gender Policy Group, Smith – who majored in political science and minored in theater at RWU, then went on to earn a master’s degree in gender and social policy and a Ph.D. in International Development from the London School of Economics (LSE) – researches and drafts policy analyses on gender equality, including issues such as the gender pay gap, global resource allocation and spending, trends in gender issues and global development. The U.S.-based organization officially launches in November, but will have a global reach, says Smith, who partnered with two fellow LSE graduates.

For 20 years, she’s immersed herself in this line of work. She contributed to global gender and reproductive health initiatives for a major New York City nongovernmental organization, EngenderHealth, where she helped provide in-country assistance and facilitated trainings for ministry officials, public health officials and health care providers throughout Sub-Saharan. She’s also served as a researcher on gender and urban issues in Kigali, Rwanda for LSE’s Crisis States Research Centre and as an LSE teaching fellow, lecturing on topics including gender, poverty and violence.

On Oct. 22, Smith visited Roger Williams to share her expertise and present a lecture, titled, “More Than Two Decades After the U.N. Beijing Conference for Women, Why Hasn’t More Progress Been Made?” Before her talk, Smith sat down for a Q&A with RWU News.

What are the top issues facing women globally and how is The Gender Policy Group addressing those problems?

It depends on which context you’re looking at – there are numerous economic, political, and social issues that negatively impact women globally. In the West, for example, you have issues concerning women being promoted in corporate positions, attaining senior level leadership. Childcare is a massive barrier to achieving that. Throughout the developing world, there are different contextual issues and we would focus on those issues differently.

We’re a global organization that’s trying to improve the evidence around gender policy issues, and integrate evidence more into informed policy-making. We hear a lot of initiatives that sound good, but tend to not be backed up with evidence. What we hope to do is to help individual organizations, nonprofits, and for-profit entities examine what they may or may not be doing around gender issues, and to provide an evidence-based and sound foundation for them to move ahead with their policies. We really believe in trying to help organizations and for-profit entities look at where they are now and where they want to go, and help them reach their goals.

The Gender Policy Group is trying to change the short-term timeframes that we often think about, particularly given short-term political cycles and election cycles that can impact international aid, for example. The problem is that, globally, many institutions and organizations are looking at very short-term measures and indicators and are trying to show progress in the short-term – and that’s often at the expense of long-term change.

You’re here to talk about women’s rights around the globe through the lens of the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women. What made that a pivotal event?

It was a pivotal event because over 45,000 people came together to focus on women’s equality and empowerment. You really had civil society playing a massive role in this conference. And there was a concrete result from the conference that served as policy roadmap at global levels and national levels on critical issues in women’s empowerment.

So why hasn’t more progress been made since producing that policy roadmap?

One of the reasons is that we’re putting the onus solely on women and leaving the male side of the equation largely unaddressed. Programmatically, many institutions are looking at the surface level a lot and not really capturing quality outcomes on what’s happening under the surface. I look at specific examples like microcredit loans – we’re targeting funds to women and there’s an idea this empowers women just by granting them access to money. But we’re putting the onus on women to change things, and we’re not also working with men to get them more involved in the household or getting men more involved in the unpaid, invisible labor of women in the household. So this is not actually changing the underlying norms that are driving some of the negative trends impacting women.

Your early fieldwork on reproductive health initiatives was in Sub-Saharan Africa and your Ph.D. research was in Rwanda. Tell me about that work and what drew you to it.

From the time I was very young, my mother had worked in a shelter for homeless women and children in Rhode Island, so I grew up with an eye for women’s issues. When I entered college, the field of human rights was extremely interesting to me. I did my master’s in gender and social policy at the London School of Economics, and later I was lucky to get a job at a large NGO in New York, primarily focused on reproductive health. As a team, we worked on large-scale USAID projects and tried to help improve public health and reproductive health services in a variety of contexts throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. My role was as a program associate and the work I did included providing assistance in managing large projects, conducting performance needs assessments in numerous countries, and writing and conducting trainings for staff who would work in the field.

I realized I liked the practitioner side of things and thought it was critical to deepen my overall knowledge, particularly in Rwanda because it had been put forth as a global example of a post-conflict context that had prioritized gender issues within their reconstruction efforts.  That is when I decided to pursue a Ph.D. at LSE researching post-conflict reconstruction in Kigali, Rwanda.  As part of the Ph.D. process, I developed a strategic research plan for conducing rigorous research using a variety of research methods. My starting point is always listening and asking the right questions. While you enter any context with some prior knowledge, you can’t assume that it’s 100 percent applicable. You need to figure out what are the right questions to ask in order to make sure you’re fitting into a larger picture.

What teachers or courses at RWU made the biggest impact on your career trajectory?

Professors June Speakman, Mark Sawoski and Ernest Greco all absolutely had a massive impact in different ways. I recall how much of a focal point June was for students. She was an amazing advisor and she really cared, as all the professors did. I’ve kept in touch with June all these years, which speaks a lot to how fondly I look back on the political science department.

I was involved in a political science association that was really a wonderful group of people, both democrats and republicans. We would all hash out thoughts and ideas, and there was truly a respect and friendship among that group that I truly appreciate, given how polarized politics are now. And those differences made you better. If you talk to only people who agree with you, you only get so far. You have to understand where people are coming from – that’s a fundamental aspect of life.