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Auditors' Opportunity to Contribute to Gender Equality
By Kate Gertz, John Reed, and Marie-Helene Berube

Government—whether at the local, state, or national level—has a critical role to play in advancing gender equality. Although many government programs may be designed as though they are gender-neutral, they can often have different effects on men and women or boys and girls. As well, government has a big influence on society and its values. Local governments in particular have significant power to help—or hinder—gender equality, since they interact most closely with citizens, and their actions can directly affect citizens’ safety, well-being and day-to-day lives. 

Given the importance of gender equality, this is no small matter—not only is gender equality an issue of equal rights, but it strongly impacts social and economic progress. As a landmark McKinsey Global Institute report found, advancing gender equality could add as much as $12 trillion to the global GDP by 2025.1

Around the world, many governments have recognized the need to advance gender equality and have made commitments to do so. For national governments, these commitments include international agreements such as United Nations conventions. State and local governments can be affected by those agreements and may also have their own commitments to incorporating gender equality in policies, plans, and programs.

What does all this mean for performance auditors? At the Canadian Audit and Accountability Foundation (CAAF), we believe it means they have a clear opportunity to contribute to improving gender equality in their jurisdictions. By auditing how government is fulfilling its roles regarding gender equality, auditors’ findings and recommendations can help government improve how programs are designed and delivered in order to better meet the needs of all citizens.

This belief has led the CAAF to make auditing gender equality a new focus in the guidance and training we offer. The CAAF is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting and strengthening public sector performance audit, oversight, and accountability in Canada and abroad through research, education, and knowledge sharing. We work with audit institutions and oversight bodies across Canada, at the federal, provincial, and municipal levels, and internationally through a program funded by the Government of Canada.

Both in Canada and in our work abroad, we are now emphasizing how auditors can contribute to gender equality. As we do for any new area of focus, we began our work on gender equality by conducting research, then developed guidance, and finally translated that research and guidance into a training course funded through our international program.

Here we are glad to share a few key concepts from our new Auditing Gender Equality course.


We think of two main types of audits involving gender equality:

  1. Audits of management practices at the institutional level — looking at how gender equality is incorporated in processes and operations (i.e., gender mainstreaming), either across the entire government or within a specific department. This is an inward-looking focus—what government is doing within itself to advance gender equality.
  2. Audits of programs, activities, or practices — looking at how gender equality is incorporated in planning, delivering, and evaluating the services provided to citizens, and whether or not they have explicit gender equality goals. This is an outward-looking focus—what government is doing to advance gender equality in the general population through the programs or services it provides.

For either type of audit, gender equality could be the primary focus or could be one consideration in an audit focused on a different topic.


To help auditors identify high-impact audit topics that include gender equality, we developed a Gender Equality Audit Topic Selection Screening Tool. It guides users through a process of assessing a potential topic’s gender equality dimensions against four “filters”: risk, potential interest, auditability, and value added. In each of these four areas, the screening tool gives auditors questions to ask themselves to determine whether gender equality is an important consideration. For example, when considering risk, auditors can ask, “Could the program impact women and men differently?” When considering value added, auditors can ask, “Will auditing the gender equality topic assist in improving government performance and closing gender equality gaps?”

In our course, participants use this screening tool to think of embedded gender equality aspects that could be considered in audits, as in the examples below:



After selecting a gender equality audit topic, auditors follow the usual performance audit process. However, they will need to pay careful attention to gender equality issues at a few key points. These considerations include the following:

Assessing risks and scoping the audit – Most importantly, auditors need to consider gender equality implications when assessing risks and determining the scope of an audit. We developed a Gender Equality Risk Assessment Tool that provides detailed risk screening questions, covering aspects such as senior management’s commitment to gender equality, strategic planning, operational management, and monitoring and evaluation. The tool is structured so users can rate the significance and likelihood of each risk considered and determine which gender equality issues should be included in the scope of the audit. After assessing risks with this tool, auditors should be able to answer questions such as:

  • Are significant outcomes for the organization related to or influenced by gender issues?
  • Was a gender-based analysis performed to inform decision-makers? Has gender been considered in the design, implementation, and monitoring of the program?
  • Are there indicators that the promotion or achievement of gender equality is at risk?
  • Is there any indication of unintended differential impacts on genders? What might be the source of gender inequalities?

The need for sex-disaggregated data – Sex-disaggregated data is essential for gender equality audits—without it, it is difficult to identify real and potential inequalities and conduct benchmarking analysis. However, many government departments and programs don’t collect disaggregated data. Auditors may need to look to other options, like obtaining sex-disaggregated data from a reliable third-party source, such as a statistics bureau. If sex-disaggregated data is available, but the auditors can’t find good sources of benchmark from other organizations, they can compare the organization’s current performance with its past performance or compare one branch or department against others.

Subject matter expertise – Like with many other performance audits, the audit team may determine it needs to consult outside experts. When gathering knowledge and assessing risks specific to gender equality, auditors may need to turn to new experts, outside the office’s usual network. It can also be helpful to consult with civil society organizations or other stakeholders to better understand gender equality risks from their perspectives.


At our courses, we have asked participants what they see as the main challenges and opportunities for auditing gender equality. The most significant challenges stem from the fact that auditing gender equality is so new: There are very few examples of completed audits to refer to; it may be difficult for audit institutions to make gender equality a new priority, since resources are limited and there are many topics to be audited; and auditees and other stakeholders may need to be convinced of the benefits of considering gender equality in performance audits.


Our most recent delivery of the Auditing Gender Equality course, in Kigali, Rwanda, in July 2019.

However, the course participants agreed that these are challenges worth tackling. They saw significant opportunities to add value and contribute to gender equality by verifying government’s compliance with its commitments to gender equality, identifying where programs may have gender-specific impacts, and making recommendations to improve program design, delivery, and management. Participants also agreed that auditing gender equality is something they can apply. As one auditor told us, he now sees how he can include gender equality in an upcoming audit: “Before the training I was pessimistic about how I could include gender equality in my assignment. After the training, I realized that gender equality was a crucial component and can be applied in my audit. Now I have started to develop ideas on how I can assess gender equality in my audit.”


We are excited to see growing interest in auditing gender equality. We are encouraged by our course participants’ enthusiasm and hopeful that we’ll see more audits on gender equality completed in the near future.

We have also been quite impressed and inspired by the work of ALGA and its members on diversity, equity, and inclusion. When Nicole Wieczorek, CAAF vice president for stakeholder relations and CFO, attended the ALGA conference in May 2019, she had the opportunity to discuss this and other topics with both participants and ALGA board members. She tells us: “I was impressed with the level of interest in diversity, equity, and inclusion and with the caliber of dialogue that took place at the ALGA conference, both through the sessions and informal networking events. There are tremendous opportunities for collaboration between ALGA and the CAAF, and we look forward to continuing to work together to explore and expand on these.”

The CAAF plans to continue sharing our guidance and training on auditing gender equality and to develop new resources, including guidance on gender mainstreaming in audit institutions and on how civil society can work with audit institutions and oversight bodies to hold governments accountable for gender equality commitments.

We look forward to learning from more audit institutions about their experiences auditing gender equality and about their own gender equality initiatives. If you have conducted an audit on gender equality and would like to share your experience with the CAAF, please contact Marie-Hélène Bérubé.

You’ll find more information about our Auditing Gender Equality course on our website, where you can also access our Practice Guide to Auditing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals: Gender Equality and many other resources for auditors and oversight bodies: www.caaf-fcar.ca.


The Power of Parity: How Advancing Women’s Equality Can Add $12 Trillion to Global Growth
. McKinsey Global Institute, September 2015.