Organizational Voice in the Girls’ Education Space

International Journal of Student Voice

A peer-reviewed, independent, open-access journal

Pennsylvania State University

Volume 7, Special Issue                          IJSV                           May 2020

Organizational Voice in the Girls’ Education Space

Emily Anderson Florida International University

Citation: Anderson, E. (2020). Organizational voice in the girls’ education space. International Journal of Student Voice, 7.

Abstract: This article explores how girls’ education policy workers use new media. I apply Alessi and Alessi’s discussion of new media as tools that create “new dimensions of experience” from those that are enabled offline. Using post-structural feminist policy discourse analysis, this article shows that girls’ education policy workers use new media tools to bring more voices into the policy process, but that more inclusive online processes do not always yield better policy outcomes offline. With these findings in mind, this article concludes with recommendations to optimize new media’s potential to make education policy processes more inclusive.

Keywords: Girls’ education, voice, organizational studies, international development, new media, policy discourse analysis

Organizational Voice in the Girls’ Education Space\

Marshall McLuhan is widely credited as having coined the adage, “the medium is the message.” Over the past 15 years new media has become an increasingly important tool for policy workers. Despite this increase, the role of new media in policy setting has been undertheorized in education policy scholarship. This article seeks to narrow these gaps by investigating how organizations use new media to make girls’ education policy processes more inclusive.

This article is part of a publication series in which I investigate how girls’ education policy goals were framed and targeted during the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) era and through the early years of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) transition (Anderson, 2016, 2017, 2018; Anderson et al., in press). The eight MDGs were introduced in 2000 by the United Nations (UN) and its partners as a coordinated, cross-sectorial plan to address global poverty. Achieving gender equality in education was targeted as a shared outcome of Goals 2 and 3. Where Goal 2 focused on achieving gender parity and universal primary education by 2015, Goal 3 aimed to eliminate barriers facing women and girls at all levels of education (Stromquist, 2002). As I posit here and elsewhere (Anderson, 2016), girls and women were conflated as a singular population during the MDGs. “Yoking” these two populations (Anderson, 2016) resulted in policies that were decoupled from the educational challenges that affect girls uniquely from women, boys, and children.

By decoupling the policies aimed at improving girls’ educational access and opportunity from girls’ complex lived experiences, the MDGs simultaneously legitimated a space for girls’ education in the global development agenda and narrowly framed those challenges as access to primary school. This tension was amplified during the MDG-SDG transition. As policy workers fought to keep girls’ education at the forefront of the new development agenda, they also had to confront the limitations of the MDGs so that they would not be replicated in the SDGs. This challenge required more inclusive approaches to policy consultation and decision making, and ultimately, policy workers would take to new media as an approach.

Speaking up for Girls’ Education, Online

This study brings the girls’ education, student voice, and critical policy analysis literatures together to reconsider how new media shapes organizational voice, and how organizational voice shapes new media policy engagement in the girls’ education space. I approach the study of organizational voice in digital policy spaces as a coordinated discourse that frames what people know about girls’ education and how they come to know what they know (Anderson, 2016, 2018). During the MDGs, girls’ access to primary schooling was targeted as a policy priority but the institutional and organizational forces that shape girls’ educational experiences and outcomes were largely unchanged (Monkman, 2018; Monkman & Hoffman, 2013; Stromquist, 2002; Unterhalter, 2005). Recalling Unterhalter’s (2005) analysis of the so-called “Women in Development” approach used to promote girls’ education as an economic good, Mensach (2019) cautions that it is not enough to just carve out space for women and girls’ voices in the policy process. This “add girls and stir” approach (Monkman & Hoffman, 2013, p. 71) is also critiqued in the student- and teacher-voice literatures for not addressing the structural, political, and representational contexts that inform who is allowed to speak and whose voices are heard (Cho, Crenshaw & McCall, 2013; Mensach, 2019).

In their work with the “salad girls,” a group of fifth-grade girls raising their voices for more inclusive school-level policy processes, Mitra and Serriere (2012) concur that creating spaces for girls’ voices is not enough on its own to change practice. Instead, they argue, more research is needed to understand the organizational and institutional factors that inform education policy change. Though gender was not centered in their work, Mitra and Serriere’s (2012; see also Mitra, 2008a, 2008b) findings show that girls’ voices are necessary in making school-based policy decisions because their experiences are often silenced or subsumed by more general reforms that focus on equity.

Critical race theory and intersectional approaches to understanding voice help to illustrate how gender interacts with other spheres of identity in education policy spaces. In their study of Latina school leaders’ testimonios, Martinez and associates (2019) “[reveal] within group distinctions and commonalities in struggles and experiences that can serve as points of coalition and relationship building” (p. 1). New media has accelerated the development of online policy networks, but scholars caution that the social inequalities that impact offline consultation can become magnified online.

When applied in context to digital policy spaces, storytelling becomes an important part of how girls’ education discourses are constructed and diffused online. In her work on voice in science teacher education, Mensach (2019) contends that, for women of color, “telling stories becomes the basis for a deeper understanding of the multiple social factors that interact in their lives” (p. 1,413). Policy workers in girls’ education have also followed the “narrative turn” in their new media engagement. For example, in my analysis of girls’ education policy framing in UNICEF’s official Instagram activities (Anderson, 2016), I find that international development organizations rely on girls’ first-person narratives to legitimate their organization’s influencer status in education and international development fields.

Creating online spaces that welcome the experiences of underrepresented and marginalized groups can make policies more inclusive, but only when they are paired with structural reforms at the system level Developing networks of girl champions, Mansfield posits, can “enable a cultural environment that facilitates girls’ civic participation and self-expression as well as socioeconomic development” (p. 28). The importance of safe and inclusive spaces for girls’ engagement with policy has also been evidenced in the literature (Bent, 2016). Less scholarly attention has been afforded to the study of organizational voice within online spaces that seek to increase and amplify voice in the international education policy and development arena (Anderson, 2016). This challenge is particularly salient for policy workers in the girls’ education space and requires that organizations and policy workers leverage online support to inform policy change offline.

Conceptual and Methodological Framework

This article explores how organizational voice is amplified in digital policy spaces (Bacchi & Goodwin, 2016) Bacchi & Rönnblom, 2014). I take up this work through post-structural critical feminist policy discourse analysis as a coordinated conceptual and methodological approach (Fairclough, 2009; Bacchi & Goodwin, 2014; Bacchi & Rönnblom, 2014). Drawing from Bacchi and Goodwin (2014), the goal of this research is twofold. The first goal is to examine the extent to which “policy workers” in girls’ education “reflect on the role they play in governing practices,” and the second goal is to explore ways in which their organizational engagement with new media contributes to “shaping social order” (Bacchi & Goodwin, 2014, p. 6). Commensurate with a post-structural conceptualization of online policy spaces as contested political terrain, I apply Allan’s (2013) approach to “doing” policy discourse analysis by considering the social contexts that inform how policy workers think about new media as a tool to advocate for girls’ education.

Strategic Interviews

I focus on the reflections of 10 girls’ education policy workers during the MDG-SDG transition to explore how organizations “speak” online and to examine the potential of new media tools to bring new voices into the policy process. The data used in this analysis are sourced from strategic interviews with policy workers working at the intersections of education, gender monitoring, and international development. I conceptualize and refer to this network of policy workers as “the girls’ education space” (Anderson, 2018).

The larger research project from which this work originates uses data from three sources: policy documents, new media texts, and interviews with strategic policy workers in the girls’ education space. The document corpus was constructed through an Internet search of publicly available policies and guidance issued by UN Women, the UN division focused on women and girls and gender equality, and the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI), the UN agency working for girls’ educational justice worldwide, during the MDGs and during the SDG transition (2000-2015). These UN agencies are the leading organizational voices on issues pertaining to girls and education at the UN level. The new media data were sourced from a purposeful sample of tweets by organizations within the girls’ education space. The initial sample of tweets was later refined to only UN Women and UNGEI to focus my analysis of organizational voice in digital policy spaces (Anderson, 2016, 2018).

The analysis presented in this article is restricted to data sourced from individual interviews with strategic policy workers in the girls’ education space. University ethics clearance for this research project was secured, and then participants were recruited through purposeful and snowball sampling approaches (Creswell, & Poth, 2016). All interviews were conducted by phone or using video conferencing software. I used these inclusion criteria to recruit potential participants:

  1. Individuals with demonstrated expertise, operationalized as publications, appointments, and/or leadership positions, in the fields of girls’ education and international development;
  2. Girls’ education policy entrepreneurs, defined as individuals working outside the UN and development sectors but engaged in girls’ education and women’s empowerment program and development; and
  3. New media policy entrepreneurs, described as Twitter influencers on issues related gender equality, women’s empowerment, and international development.

In total, 10 girls’ education policy workers consented to be interviewed for the purposes of this research. Their professional affiliations ranged from division officers with multilateral development organizations to leaders and on-ground workers in the non-profit and civil society sector. Ultimately, I did not recruit any participants who were affiliated with UN Women or UNGEI to avoid any potential conflict of interest related to my volunteer support of a high-level campaign with UN Women during the data collection period.

I began by manually transcribing the audio recording of each interview. Next, I transported the transcribed text from Word to Excel to organize the data for analysis. Using qualitative policy and document analysis procedures (Saldaña, 2015, I line-by-line coded the interview corpus in three iterative rounds. In the first round, I created a codebook from the literature on girls’ education and international education policy and development (Baily & Holmarsdottir, 2015; Monkman, 2018; Monkman & Hoffman, 2013; Stromquist, 2002). These a priori codes were applied to each interview transcript, and then random segments of text were cross-checked with the codebook. Next, I used open coding to identify emergent themes across the interview corpus (Saldaña, 2015). These emergent codes were compared with the first-round codes, after which I revised the codebook to remove and subsume redundant codes. Lastly, I applied pattern codes (Saldaña, 2015) to illustrate the co-location of policy constructs in girls’ education policy discourses (Anderson, 2016, 2018). After coding, I wrote thematic, analytic memos to highlight illustrative and negative cases. These memos provided the basis for the findings presented in this article and elsewhere (2016, 2018).

Trust and Positionality

I incorporated reflexivity throughout the data collection and analysis stages in the forms of analytic memos and peer-checks (Miles et al., 2014). A trusted colleague peer-checked my analysis by reviewing thematic memos, paired with deidentified sections of the raw interview data, for consistency in code application, as well as for fidelity to a priori constructs (e.g., empowerment, equality, education) and, later, pattern codes (e.g., education > empowerment > equality). The peer-check outcomes were discussed in person, and I took focused notes to use later when I revisited the data to address inconsistencies and to refine my analysis.

In many ways, the participants whose voices are amplified through this work are not so different from me. Like the majority of this study’s participants, I identify as a White woman from North America and am engaged in girls’ education policy advocacy and research. These similarities may silence other ways of understanding how girls’ education policy discourses are is constructed and diffused through new media. The homogeneity of the sample is particularly problematic because it does not include voices of women or girls to whom international development policies and agenda are often targeted. And this lack of representation in the participant group may also obscure the policy silences that uniquely affect women and girls of color and those in the “Global South,” in particular. I am also cautious about the role that Western, and largely White, feminist perspectives may be privileged in my sample and through my analytical lens. In addition to reflective memo writing, I used Gee’s (2014) “frame problem” approach to revisit my initial questions, assumptions, and interpretations of the interview data. Gee discusses a “frame problem” as the discontinuity between an analyst’s understanding of the contexts that inform policy language and her interpretations (pp. 39-44). This reflexive tool enabled me to confront my position as researcher and address potential threats to this study’s trustworthiness.

The findings, shared in the next section, are presented in alignment with two themes introduced by Bacchi and Goodwin (2014)—how girls’ education “policy workers reflect on the role they play in governing practices” and how their new media use contributes to “shaping social order” in the girls’ education space (p. 6). My analysis suggests that the digital girls’ education space mirrors the same organizational network that exists offline, but it has the potential to become more inclusive through policy workers’ creative and strategic use. Following the presentation of findings, I pose three recommendations for how education policy workers can use new media to increase opportunities for voice in the policy process.


“If you ignore new media in that work, you’re crazy.”  – Digital Activist

The policy workers I interviewed for this study agreed that new media is “being used as a massive advocacy tool” in the girls’ education space. Participants discussed the importance of new media to “educate an audience that is very passionate about the cause, but not very informed”; to “galvanize an audience to support girls’ education”; and to “solve issues” that affect girls’ education access, opportunity, and mobility. The findings presented in this section evidence the ways in girls’ education policy workers engage with new media to advocate for girls’ education and to amplify voice in the policy process.

“Leaning on an Open Door”: Policy Workers’ Reflections on New Media in the Girls’ Education Space

As policy workers gain experience using Twitter as a policy tool, they are, in the words of one worker, “getting better at diversifying, listening to diverse voices in new media.” Another participant working in the fields of gender monitoring and health reflected, “there’s no doubt that a lot of conversations are happening there. And, of course, because it’s global work, having this virtual portal into these conversations is a way to get the most, the highest amount of input.” Policy workers consistently discussed new media as a vehicle to share resources and to raise awareness of girls’ education issues. Twitter is “a really great place to aggregate resources and information.”

The majority of policy workers I interviewed questioned Twitter’s effectiveness as a tool to expand their existing organizational networks. Their muted optimism is exemplified by a digital activist’s likening of their organization’s Twitter use to “leaning on an open door.” Discussing the possibilities to include more voices in policy consultations, one policy worker explained, “I don’t think new media is creating new campaigners as such, or new supporters. I think people tune into conversations that they already have an inclination towards.” Rather than extending their organization’s reach and legitimacy as an opinion former in the girls’ education space, participants all expressed concern that the networks they construct online reflect the same policy networks that exist offline. A participant working in gender-focused international development remarked,

If you look at development—and specifically more within that gender and, then even more within that—education, it’s a really small cohort of people around the world that are really interested in that issue. It’s usually the same people talking to each other, or that’s how it feels a lot of the time.

Despite its widespread use by workers in the girls’ education space, participation is, in one worker’s experience, “still limited to who has access, in some cases, and how things and voices are represented.” One participant working in international development reflected that her organization has “really seen that we’ve gotten our voice heard through a lot of these networks because of Twitter. It amplifies voices in a different way than any other new media that I’ve seen.” Others, however, discussed limitations of new media to amplify voice in ways that lead to policy change.

One girls’ education program officer reflected that “new media is a great tool for getting more voices,” but “like any newer tool it presents challenges in terms of how it’s applied.” A policy worker working in gender and health took this concern further to question the usefulness of new media to yield tangible recommendations to inform policy processes and outcomes. She shared, “We participate in a lot of things like Twitter-chats, and town halls, and Twitter-rallies, which I think are great for galvanizing communities online, but sometimes if you are trying to consult, it doesn’t necessarily always get the most targeted, best input.” One additional complexity identified by policy workers is how “success” of online consultancies is measured. The majority of participants confirmed their organization uses engagement metrics (e.g., Twitter follows, retweets, likes, and hashtags) to evaluate campaign outcomes. They cautioned that, in their experiences, more people logging on to online consultations may make the process appear to be more inclusive, but that more voices in the decision-making process does not always yield better policy outcomes.

All policy workers I interviewed grappled with how to make space for more voices in the consultative process while also leveraging online engagement to solve offline problems. Cultivating and supporting user engagement is essential to building online networks that can be leveraged in the policy process. One policy worker in girls’ education and international development shared that her organization uses new media, “in the broad sense, to share and connect, to support, to advertise what we do, what partners do. It allows us to stay in touch.” Relatedly, a girls’ education program officer concurred that Twitter, in particular, allows her organization “to share things we are doing and [what] our partners are doing, so it has had such positive impact.” Another remarked, “I think new media has a part to play in informing conversations—even if those are conversations are by experts, even if those conversations are by journalists.” This worker continued, “The opinion formers themselves are also on new media and they are also exposed to our discourse. We can’t discount that … how we take communication for influence.”

Reflecting on Twitter’s inclusivity from their perspective “as someone who tweets a lot about girls’ rights” one policy worker remarked that Twitter enables stakeholders to “participate in conversations that are happening all over the world.” Others were less certain of Twitter’s potential for inclusivity. Here another participant countered that, in her experience, “I think that sometimes you’re missing populations if you’re using new media and particularly Twitter.” Rhetorically, she asked, because “the most marginalized are not usually online, how are we working to capture their insights?” One area that multiple participants recalled as especially salient is using Twitter in the consultation process. One worker working with a gender-focused INGO shared, “I think it’s a great tool for information sharing, and I think there’s somewhat of a democratization that happens when you hold a Twitter chat, for example, or a Google hangout with the a high-level representative like the Secretary General.” Despite its limitations, participants overwhelmingly agreed that Twitter has the potential to create more inclusive consultation spaces and to amplify voice in decision making. As summarized here by an interviewee: “Twitter is very good place to bring together offline/online activism, to create a buzz and a conversation.” And nowhere is this more apparent than at the UN (Anderson, 2016, 2018).

Shaping Social Order in the Girls’ Education Space: “Calling out” the @UN

New media’s broad accessibility also enables girls’ education advocates to appeal directly to policy makers at all levels of government and civil society. Several policy workers I interviewed echoed these experiences and remarked on the ways their organizations use new media tools to engage opinion formers at the UN. “What we’ve seen particularly at the United Nations” recalled a policy worker, “[is that] you’re able to have conversations with people you don’t necessarily engage with face-to-face. So, whether it’s people who can’t engage for financial reasons or opportunity, they can follow and be part of conversations from afar.” Reflecting on the ways in which UN entities use new media to diffuse girls’ education policy discourses, on participant working in international development shared,

Certainly, the UN—and UN Women, in particular—is trying to figure (this) out. The UN are already talking about “how do we get young people involved and what does that look like?” And suddenly we’re all turning in some ways to new media.

I asked a policy worker with specific expertise on digital activism to speak about the role of new media in the international development policy process. Her comments highlight the potential that new media has to encourage new voices in the girls’ education policy process. She shared that, in her experience, new media “plays a role in making processes more transparent—especially at the United Nations level which has been very un-transparent. Look at the MDGs and you’ll see why.” This worker’s reflection highlights the ways that gender and power influence digital advocacy work by noting that opinion formers—individuals “who hold power” —are not limited to high-ranking policy makers or politicians. She continued, “From an activist perspective, Twitter plays an important role specifically during high-level events and conferences where there’s a lot being said that needs to be shared.”

A director with a leading international development organization noted that Twitter is also used to “call out decision makers directly in a positive way.” She shared that “calling out” opinion formers on Twitter is a way for her organization to “give positive reinforcement to our champions.” In contrast to other strategies used by policy workers to acknowledge supporters, Twitter provides this feedback publicly and in real time. She continued, “And they see it! Which is, in that way, also taking down barriers that are there when you’re talking about just face-to-face meeting.”

All the policy workers I interviewed agreed that Twitter, specifically, has the potential to make policy processes more inclusive, but that this potential is rarely realized. One area where this potential has been tested is through hashtag activism. For example, a girls’ rights advocate with whom I spoke challenged the effectiveness of hashtag activism as a strategy to alter the policy structures that disempower girls. One policy worker reflected, “when we think of advocacy in its broadest sense, it’s really appealing to those who hold power,” and one way that policy workers amplify their online messaging is through hashtags. Hashtag activism campaigns have created a new arena for policy workers to speak truth to power on issues of gender inequality and child rights.

One of the most recent examples of UN Women’s engagement with hashtag activism is #HeForShe. #HeForShe was launched by UN Women in 2014 as a call to men’s action to support gender equality. A girls’ rights advocate with whom I spoke challenged the effectiveness of hashtag activism as a strategy to alter the policy structures that disempower girls. She reflected, “You can have a campaign like #HeForShe and this is simplistically meant to talk about gender equality and the empowerment of women around the world.” She continued to caution that hashtag activism “pushes out these kind of broad-sweeping, generalized, slogan-y-type messages” that can increase attention to education issues facing girls as a population (Anderson, 2016, under review). In some cases, these “broad-sweeping, generalized, slogan-y-type messages” become the means by which people outside the girls’ education space come to know about issues affecting girls’ education in countries other than their own and, as this same participant described, “ends up being the strange space that we find ourselves in, for sure. It’s the thing that everyone attaches to so there doesn’t necessarily need to be need to be much depth behind it.”

Conclusion and Recommendations

Different understandings of new media’s utility in the girls’ education space emerged during my discussions with policy workers. Most workers’ reflections began optimistic, noting the potential for new media to enable more voices in the policy process and to diversify the girls’ education space. This potential for inclusivity was cautioned by concerns as to whether Twitter, as a specific new media tool, actually changes anything at all.

A girls’ education program officer discussed new media’s utility in the context of advocacy and empowerment-focused work. She shared, “empowerment is about providing tools.” Describing advocacy and empowerment as a continuum, she noted, “I think that advocacy leads to empowerment.” Her comments connected advocacy with empowerment-focused new media campaigns used in the girls’ education space, sharing: “So, when we have girls who—I don’t want to say ‘disempowered’—but girls who lack the agency, or don’t have the tools and resources to exercise their rights and their voice to fulfill their rights, you have a population that isn’t served.” Her role in “serving” girls as a marginalized population was expressed as advocacy, which she describes as “taking those experience that girls face on the ground level and showing them, making them clear to decision makers.” As these policy workers’ experiences suggest, digital activism has created new opportunities for more critical voices on girls’ education policy, increasingly offered by girls themselves.

Recommendations for Practice

Championing girls’ education online has kept girls at the forefront of the post-2015 agenda, sparking what one policy worker referred to as the “moment that girls and feminism is having right now.” The “moment” has persisted into the SDG era and is amplified by new media policy influencers like Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg. The girls’ education policy workers I interviewed agree that new media creates new opportunities for voice that could not be captured through existing policy processes, and that organizations’ new media practices play a big role in scaling online engagement to sustain policy change. With these findings in mind, this article concludes with three recommendations to leverage online tools to amplify voice in digital policy spaces.

Do No Harm

With increased access also comes increased responsibility. The girls’ education policy workers I interviewed agreed that new media creates opportunities to include more voices, across more contexts, than could be achieved through offline consultative processes. Because policy discourses diffused through new media tools have the potential to reach more people than could have been imagined in previous policy eras, the message itself matters more than ever. This situation requires organizations to take digital policy messaging seriously and invest in human and technological resources. To this end, the goal of any new media policy work should be to do no harm.

Through my experiences as a girls’ education scholar and advocate, I have come to understand that many organizations do not have the expertise or bandwidth to manage their new media engagement. The ubiquity of new media in every aspect of modern life has expanded higher education and economic opportunity in the technology sector. As a result, organizations now have access to skilled policy workers who can harness new media tools to sustain public engagement in the policy process. Organizations with financial resources have no reason not to bring in or professionally develop policy workers with new media expertise. This scaling can also involve lending expertise to grassroots and community actors as a way to cultivate and bridge online policy networks.

Call out Policy Influencers

The social networks enabled through new media engagement shorten the distance between individuals, organizations, and policy influencers. The density of the girls’ education space on Twitter, in particular, enables policy workers to educate the public about girls’ education issues and draw attention to policy influencers. Call outs can pose questions or elicit targeted policy responses from decision makers. Though often used as a way to draw attention to contested policies or processes, calling out policy influencers does not have to be negative. By calling influencers out for being allies in gender justice, for example, organizations can placemake (McNely, 2012) themselves within an existing policy agenda and legitimate their status as girls’ education policy influencers (Anderson, 2016).

Bridge the Digital Engagement Divide

The most valuable aspect of new media tools in policy work is the ability to connect individuals and organizations about ideas that matter. All the girls’ education policy workers I interviewed in this project remarked on the power of connection that is enabled by new media. Though policy workers were mixed on the utility of hashtags and other engagement-focused approaches to online consultation and deliberation, they agreed that these approaches can bring more voices into the process. Bridging the on/offline civic engagement divide requires a high-tech understanding of policy messaging and a low-tech approach to community engagement. Organizations can mitigate stakeholder disengagement by engaging with community-level partners that can contextualize online consultation themes to meet the needs of local schools and the children they serve.

Online Discussion Questions

How can education policy workers leverage new media to support policy engagement at the local level?

What do safe online spaces for girls’ policy engagement look like?


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