As embodied by Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5, gender equality and women’s empowerment are recognized globally as important goals in their own right. They are also recognized as catalysts for achieving progress on key development outcomes in agriculture, health, environmental sustainability, resilience, and poverty reduction (FISH 2017). For example, mounting evidence underscores positive associations between gender equality and women’s empowerment with climate change adaptation (Resurrection 2019; Tandan 2020), food and nutrition security (FAO 2011; Njuki et al 2021) and economic growth (Wodon et al. 2017).

And yet, despite this importance and gender equality being a fundamental human right, progress has been slow toward SDG 5, and inequities and gaps persist. While 39% of employed women around the world work in agriculture, forestry, and fisheries (UN Women 2020), which are critical to global food security, women within these sectors are predominantly in low return positions and informal work with little voice in sector governance. Similarly, women still represent only 14% of global agricultural landholders (UN Women 2020), underscoring that efforts to improve asset ownership for women are too slow moving. Moreover, due to underlying barriers that have not yet been effectively addressed, the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have been felt hardest by women and girls, especially those who are poor and from marginalized groups. This includes high and intensified gender-based violence, increased burdens of unpaid care work and the loss of paid work and income in feminized value chains, including fish processing and trade (BricenoLagos and Monfort 2020; Atkins et al. 2021; United Nations 2021).

When R4D is gender-blind or claims to be gender-neutral, and thus fails to take gender inequities into account, it reinforces the existing uneven playing field and risks worsening gender gaps. This includes when innovation processes assume diverse men and women have the same needs or risk-vulnerabilities, or when they fall back on male-biased sampling, or gender-blind data interpretation. This manifests in so-called “neutral” research, innovations and recommendations that may, in fact, worsen gender or social gaps. These meet the needs and amplify the voices of dominant groups more than already marginalized ones, including delivering more for men than for women (Criado-Perez 2019).

This is also the case in policy and programming: gender-blind data creates weaker policies and programs that tend to meet the needs of men and dominant social groups, but do not recognize or meet the needs of women and marginalized peoples (Criado-Perez 2019). Gender-blind data and research are part of a “cycle of invisibility” that starts with gender-blind, under-capacitated institutions, as illustrated in Figure 1 using an example from fisheries (FAO 2017; Kleiber et al. in press). Moreover, R4D evaluation has flagged that R4D needs to be more proactive in recognizing that effective gender integration is fundamental to the quality of science (CGIAR-IEA 2017).

In response to these insights, there is a rising demand among researchers, investors and partners in food systems to more effectively engage with intersectional gender integration in R4D. With explicit and informed engagement with gender and intersectionlity throughout the full project cycle, R4D may better generate more effective, inclusive and equitable innovations, insights and influence on policy and practice.