February 06, 2023
Room to Read is thrilled to welcome Karine Lepillez as global director, girls’ education and gender equality to our Girls’ Education Program team!
Karine brings 20 years of experience in the international development sector with a focus on gender research and policy. She has led and provided support for the operationalization of gender mainstreaming policies around the world and is the founder and former co-president of the Society of Gender Professionals, a non-profit organization of gender practitioners, academics and activists dedicated to promoting feminist action and applied research around the world. Karine teaches as an adjunct with the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in international affairs from George Washington University and a Master of Arts in international human rights from the University of Denver.
We recently sat down with Karine to learn more about her background and experience. Read more below!
How did you first become passionate about gender equality?
I didn’t realize I was a woman until my 20s — until then, I thought of myself as just another human being. I was at a meeting, at a table surrounded by older men, discussing the design of a project in Afghanistan. We were considering a woman to lead the project. “Well,” they said, “if we hire her, she’s going to want to bring on more women, and that will be difficult. We will have problems with the men, and we may not be able to reach our target.” They decided on a man for the job. This wasn’t the first time I had experienced sexism, but it was at this meeting that I suddenly realized, in a profound way, that when people looked at me they saw a woman. And that meant something. Something not good. At that moment, I understood that my fate was tied to a powerful system of norms and beliefs that I felt I had no control over and that made no sense to me. I had to understand it. And try to change it, for me and for others. I almost immediately started looking for jobs with women’s organizations, and soon after joined a women’s leadership and empowerment organization called Vital Voices.
What led you to pursue a career as a gender consultant?
When you work on gender justice issues, you become very sensitive to power dynamics and forms of coercion. Consulting allowed me to work outside of coercive relationships and institutions. I had ultimate control over some of the most precious resources we have as humans: our time and our attention. I needed to understand how gender norms and beliefs were created and perpetuated and what worked to change them, and so I read, and I read, and I read. I talked to anyone with expertise that was willing to speak with me. I audited gender theory courses at my alma mater. And joined associations of feminist sociologists, economists and political scientists. Consulting gave me time to pursue these questions and choose work that would pay me to pursue these questions!
What is your favorite part about working in the gender research and policy sector?
The realities of human agency make this work perpetually surprising and fascinating. Because we are surrounded by hierarchical organizations and systems, we sometimes believe that this is how power works. But individuals, groups and states have much more agency than we think to change the world around them, and they do so every day. For gender work, this means that there is always hope. There is always the possibility of progress. Of course, there is also strong resistance and often violence in response to progress on women’s rights and gender justice. You can never “rest on your laurels” in this work; even policy progress can be reversed.
How do you approach the intersection of girls' education and gender equality in your work at Room to Read?
Girls do not learn in a vacuum. They are connected to webs of gendered relationships, including those with parents, siblings, teachers and others that influence both their educational opportunities as well as how they see themselves and their possibilities in the world. Room to Read positions its support for girls and their education within an ecosystem, working with parents and communities, supporting girls’ material needs and investing in mentoring relationships with women leaders in girls’ communities. Each of these elements carries the potential to challenge unequal gender norms, and so this is what we pay attention to. How — in each of the ways girls interact with the world — can we reaffirm their value and invest in their skills to engage the world on their terms.
What do you believe is the biggest challenge facing gender equality today, and how is Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program helping to address it?
What a big question… I think there are interlinked challenges eroding the progress we’ve made globally on women’s rights and gender justice. We are struggling to respond to the impacts of COVID-19, including on girls’ education but also in terms of increased gender-based violence in households and women’s retreat from the workplace. The very norms and structures of democracy around the world are being challenged, and support is growing for hegemonic masculinities in leadership that find their form in autocrats — these autocrats bolster their power by promising a return to conservative gender orders. And the realities of climate change are becoming more and more visible and felt by all of us around the world, raising challenges around migration, conflict and food insecurity — all of which tend to disproportionately affect the lives of women and girls. How do you respond to these challenges in a Girls’ Education Program? For us, it starts with the individual life skills we work with girls on — their ability to think critically about the challenges they see around them, to solve difficult problems with others, and the self-knowledge that they have an important role to play in global solutions.
Can you share a particularly memorable moment or experience from your career working in girls' education and gender equality?
This work can be heavy — I think the most memorable instants might be the moments of laughter, the coffee chats, the meaningful relationships with others who also believe deeply in the change that is needed and who sacrifice everything for it.