International advocate pulls women into the equation

Maria Elisa Christie draws on geography, agriculture, and gender-studies expertise to transform the lives of women worldwide.

   

Maria Elisa Christie, at far left, leads a focus group on gender that includes graduate students from Makerere University in Uganda. Maria Elisa Christie, at far left, leads a focus group on gender that includes graduate students from Makerere University in Uganda.

As director of Women and Gender in International Development for the Office of International Research, Education, and Development, Christie’s job is to make sure women are represented in Virginia Tech's multimillion-dollar agriculture grant projects. She also studies how gender roles affect local agricultural practices.

Her work has improved the economic status of women. The result? More household income and improved family relations as husbands and wives have more time to spend with each other and argue less about finances.

About her work

Fluent in Spanish, French, and English, Christie has carried out gender studies in Cambodia, Ghana, Haiti, and other countries.

In Bangladesh, Christie worked with women in a Muslim community who had learned to process a fungus that grows on compost and sell it as an agricultural disease-prevention agent. They were able to perform the work at home. Sales of the trichoderma, as the fungus is called, reaped an unexpected benefit beyond just the extra cash.

   

Maria Elisa Christie, second from right, helps women produce a batch of beneficial fungus in Bangladesh. Maria Elisa Christie, second from right, helps women produce a batch of beneficial fungus in Bangladesh. The fungus is helpful in inoculating seeds against disease. By producing and selling it, women are able to increase their income.

"The women in Bangladesh say they feel proud to have more status," Christie said. "They're excited to be a source of information for others. They enjoy sharing their knowledge and not being viewed as uneducated."

In each culture Christie visits with her colleagues, the team interviews groups of men and women separately to determine their roles in farming. In some cultures, for example, it’s taboo for a woman to sow seeds so men who are away from home must return to do it.

"Gender roles affect how people behave, what's allowed of them, and what the perceptions of them are," Christie said.

In Uganda, women control the peanut crop from planting to harvest. Christie helped women manage peanuts post-harvest so they are less likely to develop toxic mold. Women, she said, enjoyed elevated social status as they contributed to their families' economic welfare.

It takes time for societies to accept women in new roles, she said. "We encounter a lot of stereotypes about women, such as, 'Women can't do this, and men are stronger.' The truth is that not every man is stronger than every woman," Christie said. "And physical strength is not always the primary limiting factor, but rather perceptions of what is appropriate for women to do, along with access to things such as transportation and farming inputs."

The team's work shows that even small changes to a family's agricultural habits can have a positive impact. "Every time you bring in a new agricultural practice, you are changing the division of labor," Christie said.

While introducing new technology creates opportunities that women may be quicker than men to adopt, such changes can also increase women’s workload. Christie’s work seeks to understand how Virginia Tech’s projects impact women in these and other ways. What she learns can then be used to design better development projects.

   

Maria Elisa Christie, at center, talks about women and gender in the developing world with her student workers. Maria Elisa Christie, at center, talks about women and gender in the developing world with her student workers.

About her path

After majoring in history, international studies, and romance languages at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Christie’s path included jobs with the Pesticide Action Network in San Francisco, the Nicaraguan Institute of Social and Economic Research, and Oxfam America in Mexico. She returned to Oregon to earn a master’s degree and worked at the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide. She later enrolled in a doctoral program in geography at the University of Texas at Austin.

She came to Virginia Tech in 2006. Her program is housed in Virginia Tech's Office of International Research, Education, and Development, which administers a $100 million research portfolio funded, in large part, by USAID. She also oversees graduate students, both male and female. "Men can work for gender equity as well as women," she said.

She said she recommends every undergraduate student take a gender studies class because "young people today don't think there's a gender imbalance, especially in developed countries like the United States."

  • Written by Jill Elswick.
  • For more information on this topic, contact Andrea Brunais at 540-231-4691.

Video: Maria Elisa Christie

Maria Elisa Christie, director of Women and Gender in International Development for the Office of International Research, Education, and Development, talks about her work with women around the globe.

A definition of 'gender'

According to the Women and Gender in International Development program at Virginia Tech, "gender" is a social construct that refers to relations between and among the sexes, based on their relative roles. It encompasses the economic, political, and socio-cultural attributes, constraints, and opportunities associated with being male or female.

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Compass is the blog for the Office of International Research, Education, and Development.

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