Empowering to whom? Framing, Implementing, and Comparing Measures of Gender Empowerment

Fri, December 4, 2020 2:00 PM - Fri, December 4, 2020 3:30 PM at Zoom

MSU Sociology PhD student Vanessa Rickenbrode will present her dissertation proposal "Empowering to whom? Framing, Implementing, and Comparing Measures of Gender Empowerment"

Vanessa Rickenbrode


While the use of the term “gender empowerment” has become commonplace in academia, government, corporations, and grassroots circles, it has multiple meanings - much like the terms “food security” and “sustainability.” These multiple meanings lead to confusion, incommensurable results, and competing interpretations across parties regarding what programs or policies empower women. Critical analysis of program and policy commitments to gender empowerment is needed – including empirical research that pays close attention to the ways empowerment is constructed and implemented on the ground - to understand their potential in contributing to gender empowerment and equity (Ferguson 2010, 2011). I unite the gender empowerment and development literature with social movement frame analysis to understand and compare how various claims-makers (e.g., development organizations and feminists) identify the problem (diagnosis) of disempowerment, the solution (prognosis) of empowerment, and the ways they actively mobilize (motivate) individuals to participate in gender empowerment.

Broadly, this dissertation aims to analyze how empowerment is framed for and by women in the Global South. Specifically, I will study gender empowerment frames that stem from the Global North, a national non-profit organization in India, and women recipients of empowerment programs living in rural regions within three states in India (Haryana, Rajasthan, and West Bengal). Through content analysis and qualitative interviews with gender empowerment program advocates and beneficiaries in India, I will address three empirical research questions:

  1. How do feminists and organizations in the Global North and the Global South, and women in rural India, frame gender empowerment?
  2. How does a certain framing of gender empowerment lead to particular solutions (e.g., programs, policies) to rectify the perceived social problem?
  3. How do outsiders’ frames of gender empowerment align with women beneficiaries’ wants and needs in rural India (i.e., their empowerment)?

There is a dire need for understanding and demonstrating the differences in empowerment approaches, especially in the face of an increasing interest in investing, gathering and using data pertaining to women’s empowerment, not only within academia, but especially in applied settings where the framing of empowerment has direct impacts on people’s lives. This research will contribute to current theoretical and methodological discussions on ways to define, operationalize, and measure gender empowerment in the Global South, and aims to identify and develop feminist indicators for development work.

Rickenbrode is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology, with a specialization in Gender, Justice, and Environmental Change. She is interested in understanding and evaluating development initiatives and agrifood system changes in their potential for securing or impeding social justice, gender empowerment and food security. Past and current research projects include evaluating the empowerment potential of contract farming in Tanzanian floriculture, and interdisciplinary research centered around issues of agricultural and economic development in Kenya. Prior to coming to MSU, Vanessa was involved in a number of research projects under the direction of agricultural economists at the Center for Economic and Community Development (CECD) at Penn State, and Kansas State’s Center for Sustainable Bioenergy. She graduated from the Pennsylvania State University with a B.S. in Community, Environment and Development, with a concentration in International Development and a specialization in Biostatistics; along with minors in International Agriculture, and Biology.