An Interview with Shruthi Jayaram, Partner & Global Gender Equity Practice Co-Lead at Dalberg

“We are seeing important societal and structural shifts globally when it comes to addressing systemic barriers in gender equity. We’ve seen governments pass bold new laws and design new care systems, an influx of resources to women-led businesses, and mindset shifts towards safer online spaces for our kids — especially our boys. What excites me most is the growing recognition of the crucial link between gender equality and democracy, especially with over 60 countries voting in 2024.”

Shruthi Jayaram is a Partner at Dalberg Advisors, based in the Washington D.C. office. She co-leads Dalberg’s Global Gender Equity practice as well as the firm-wide Gender Lens Commitment. Shruthi’s work focuses on strategy development and initiative building to end gendered violence (especially domestic violence), advancing women’s power in the economy, increasing the availability of quality childcare for all, and protecting women’s sexual and reproductive rights. Her clients include the Executive Office of the UN Secretary General, the Spotlight Initiative, the Gates Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, FUTURES without Violence, the National Abortion Federation, Rise Up, and many others. Shruthi has authored several reports and articles on related topics, such as equitable access to abortion pills, women’s leadership in STEM, and the valuation of unpaid care work. Before Dalberg, she worked as an economist and policymaker, and holds a dual Master’s in Public Administration from Columbia University’s SIPA and the National University of Singapore. Shruthi serves on the Board of Directors of Equimundo, an organization dedicated to supporting men and gender equality, as well as on the Advisory Board of Career Girls and ShePersisted, organizations dedicated to empowering young girls and combating gendered disinformation against women politicians, respectively. 

In this interview with Shruthi, we explore her efforts to promote gender equality and social justice in the U.S. She reflects on the evolution of social movements as a lever for change, the root causes of persistent gender inequity, and the role of men in the fight for gender equity and identifies practical entry points for those interested in doing this work.

It feels like such a tense and polarizing moment in US history — with the upcoming election, the backlash to the idea of equity and justice more broadly, and growing divisiveness of our politics. Is there a particular initiative, trend, or movement that you feel more positive about in this moment, as it relates to gender equity and women’s rights?  

There is indeed a lot to be worried about in America today. Our politics are polarizing, our climate is changing, there is widespread racism and misogyny in our domestic and global affairs, and there is rising inequality putting economic pressure on American families. However, the movement for equity and justice is tenacious. In our client work we are seeing many bright spots where bold leaders in the public, private, and non-profit sectors are driving change. One trend that gives me particular optimism — especially as a working mother myself — is the movement for quality affordable childcare for every family in the United States. For many decades, the fight for childcare was a niche issue, largely the focus of advocates of early childhood development and women’s rights. It was not in the public domain. In fact, one analysis of the issue found that “childcare needed a publicist” because it was so invisible in the public debate. Earlier this month, a bipartisan poll found that almost 90% of voters across all parties wanted candidates to have a plan or policies ready to help working parents afford high-quality childcare. Decades of tireless advocacy, women’s rising power in the workforce and in politics, and the harsh reality of the pandemic have all enabled this shift. We now have an opportunity to really strengthen our care infrastructure in a meaningful way — to call for more public investment in care as a public good and to shape, influence, and harness the growing private investment in care.

Tell us about the gender equity practice at Dalberg. Isn’t gender equity a part of every issue? Why do you have a practice focused on this, and what frameworks do you adopt to develop transformative approaches to power and gender? 

At Dalberg, our mission is to address the world’s most pressing problems through systemic change. Gender inequity is, for us, one of those pressing problems. It causes and deepens other pressing problems. Today, women enjoy fewer than 2/3rd the rights of men in the workplace globally. One in three men struggle with depression and anxiety and are unable to get help for gendered reasons. Tens of millions of people around the world face substantial bodily harm and violence because they either cannot or do not fall into the binary groups of “men” or “women.” This is intolerable. This is why we have a gender equity practice. Our practice focuses on practical strategies to close gender gaps — to support people of all genders to live free of gendered constraints, expectations, and harms. We also work to prevent gender gaps — by reforming and transforming government, private, and social systems that sadly often cause these gaps, and to make those systems more fit for purpose for all people. For example, we have worked with large multilateral organizations and financing institutions to make them more institutionally ready to advance gender equality — by transforming who is responsible and accountable for this work and how much money it receives in the budget. Our gender equity work doesn’t focus on only gender dynamics; it also considers broader power dynamics. People’s experiences are shaped by their whole selves and their whole circumstances. But we elevate gendered considerations because of how important they are to people’s lives. 

Violence against women and girls is a widespread issue across different areas of our society. Could you tell us about the wide potential you see in your work around investing in and eliminating this form of violence?

Women and girls are threatened, controlled, beaten, assaulted, and even killed every day because of the power dynamics associated with our gender identity. This is unacceptable. But study after study shows it is preventable. It doesn’t have to be this way — our policies don’t need to support or incentivize it, our communities don’t need to tolerate it, and our governments don’t need to forgive and sanction it. Our work with the Spotlight Initiative, the world’s largest fund focused on ending violence against women and girls is one of several studies that shows that addressing violence through comprehensive approaches can in fact prevent it. And that preventing violence yields all sorts of benefits — to women, to families, and to societies. As just one example, we drew out an evidence-based link between ending violence against women and girls’ school attendance, showing that making homes safer for girls and their families doesn’t just protect their fundamental human rights; it can enable millions of girls to empower themselves via education.

What are some important societal and structural shifts you are seeing globally when it comes to addressing systemic barriers, whether for issues like advancing women’s digital and financial rights, their rights to property, or even advancing women in male-dominated industries? 

There are so many encouraging shifts. We have seen the passage of bold laws and policies; for example, we have worked with government partners to design new care delivery systems. We have seen an influx of new types of resources; for example, our team has worked on multiple ways to get more blended capital to women and women-led businesses. We have seen mindset shifts; for example, our clients have worked to design safer digital online spaces for boys, and we are increasingly seeing development sector actors engage meaningfully with the reality of a changing climate and what it is going to take to actually live on a healthy planet. The one I am probably most excited about is still nascent — the recognition of the links between gender equality and democracy. With 60+ countries holding elections in 2024, it feels like our rights and freedoms are truly on the ballot this year!

Throughout your career, you have been an advocate for gender equity, women’s economic empowerment, and social justice. What motivates your commitment to these causes?

My commitment to these causes is rooted in, and honors, the women who came before me. My mother, my mother’s mother, and her mother before that — each of whom faced insurmountable barriers to their own freedom but found ways to thwart these barriers and build a better future for all the people in their lives. Each of whom looked beyond the needs of their own families and served their broader community, with humility and knowledge of their own positionality. I carry their vision and sacrifice and translate it into a desire to make the world a more equal, more just place through my work.

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