Leading woman

  • March 18, 2015
Leading woman

Tara Cookson speaks about her research into conditional cash transfers for women with caring responsibilities.

Conditional cash transfer programmes that give poor mothers small amounts of money for caring responsibilities don’t necessarily support women in meeting their practical needs, says Gates Cambridge Scholar Tara Cookson [2011].

CCTs vary according to country, but in Latin America, where Tara has done her fieldwork and where she has years of experience working with marginalised women, they are often contingent on women accessing education and health services. Children generally have to attend school and have regular health examinations and women have to seek pre-natal care. “It tends to be related to children’s well being,” says Tara. “It’s not enough money to live on, but it can cover unforeseen costs and things like school supplies.”

CCTs have been lauded by some as at last recognising the caring work that women do, but Tara says the way they currently work on the ground is not wholly positive.  For instance, doing all the things the programme requires women to do takes a lot of time. Women might need to walk hours to a health clinic which may be closed. They may have to queue up for hours to get the cash. This structures what they can – and can’t – do in a day. “Women almost have to demonstrate that they deserve the money, that they are ‘good mothers’,” she says.

Moreover, the health and education they access is often of low quality. “I’m not convinced it breaks the inter-generational poverty cycle or opens up opportunities for women or their children,” says Tara. “It would be better if the government invested more money in improving the quality of education, health and other services where women suffer discrimination. People would be more likely to access those services if they were reliable and easy to get to.”

CCTS are spreading across the developing world and in some regions, for instance, in some African countries, no conditions are put on them. By the same token no-one then checks to see if the women went to health clinics or their children attended schools. Tara believes that where health and education services are of poor quality CCTs would work better if no conditions were placed on them.


Tara has had an interest in global issues since she was young. Born in Kelowna, a conservative town of around 100,000 people in south-western Canada, she tried joining Greenpeace at the age of ten. inspired by some of her teachers and Canada’s reduce, reuse and recycle campaign. “My dad was horrified as the family business worked with the logging industry,” she laughs. It was through this that she became interested in deforestation in the Amazon. She says her campaigning streak may in part be due to the influence of her family. “The women in my family are fairly outspoken,” she says, citing how her great grandmother used to race horses and would pull over her car and tell people if she thought they were not riding their horses properly.

Her mother is a librarian assistant at an elementary school and her father runs a long haul trucking and mechanics shop which has been in the family for two generations. When she was growing up Tara helped out in the shop, which she said taught her a strong work ethic.

Tara, who also volunteered in a care home as a teenager, describes herself as a bookworm at school and says she was drawn to social studies and geography. “I wanted to be a professor,” she says. Her family supported her academic ambitions all the way and she became the first person in her family to get into university.


After school, she went to the University of British Columbia in Kelowna and began a degree in international relations which she was interested in due to her concerns about deforestation. After her first year she went backpacking around Europe with her best friend, something her father had done when he was younger. She then took a gap year to teach English in Salvador in Brazil which she says was “eye-opening”. “I was exposed to racial and gender politics that I had not experienced in a small town in Canada,” she says. She made friends with a black Brazilian woman who was working as a nanny for a wealthy white family and had not graduated from high school. A mutual friend married a foreigner five days after meeting him so she could move away. “It was the only way to get away,” she says. “It made me very aware of the inequalities between countries and about racism and gender issues.”

When she returned to Canada she took a Spanish course since her university didn’t offer Portuguese. She also started working as a volunteer in the Kelowna Women’s Resource Centre, eventually becoming a board member. It provided services and advocacy for low income, marginalised women. This included helping women in abusive relationships, working with immigrant women and providing a gender breakdown of local statistics. Tara also worked through university, in part as a research assistant on a project about gendered labour migration in Kerala, India, to pay for study abroad.

She spent her third year in the highlands of Mexico, travelled through south east Asia and Australia during one summer vacation and spent her last semester as an undergraduate in Argentina, volunteering for the international NGO Acorn which worked with low-income communities. She eventually got a job as a project director there, based on her experience with the Kelowna Women’s Resource Centre and spent a year in Argentina in total. It exposed her to the ethical issues associated with international NGOs working in developing countries. Her experiences inspired her to return to Canada to do her masters.

She got a scholarship to study women and gender studies at the University of Toronto, focusing on transnational organisations and development. Her masters thesis was on care work in Venezuela under the Hugo Chavez regime and on the impact of a policy to pay low-income housewives a stipend for their caring labour. “It was about recognising housework as economically and socially productive and is something women all over the world have been fighting for,” says Tara.


After completing her masters, she travelled through Central America studying Spanish and Eastern Europe and it was then that she applied to Cambridge University and for a Gates Cambridge Scholarship. She chose Cambridge because of Professor Sarah Radcliffe whose work she had read extensively for her masters. She was also drawn by the values embodied in the Gates Cambridge Scholarship. Her Gates interview was conducted on Skype from Mexico City.

She applied to study a PhD in Geography, looking at NGOs with a focus on women, but when she arrived in Cambridge conditional cash transfer programmes were being discussed in the news. She was interested in how the transfers worked and decided to focus on them for her PhD.

Her research has made her more interested in getting involved in policy work. She is particularly interested in women’s leadership and feels that if more women become leaders policy will eventually change, reflecting women’s priorities.

She has also been promoting this interest in female leadership within the Gates Cambridge programme. When she came back from Peru in 2013 she went on a university graduate leadership retreat. It made her realise her own perception of herself, for instance, as lacking in confidence, was not that of others. “Women tend to suffer from imposter syndrome because they are not surrounded by people like them,” she says. She became more interested in female leadership and this led her to found the Gates Cambridge development programme. It was this and her research that resulted in her being awarded the 2014 Bill Gates Senior Prize.

Professor Radcliffe says: “Tara’s progress has been phenomenal, and she is doing highly original research.”

Tara has also been teaching undergraduate geography students while at Cambridge, has volunteered with a local women’s centre and is a committee member of the Global Scholars Symposium.

Gates Cambridge Provost Professor Barry Everitt said when the Award was given: “After carefully reviewing all nominations, we felt all the nominees were deserving of the Prize, but we unanimously agreed that Tara Cookson should be recognised because she exemplifies the qualities that are synonymous with the Gates Cambridge Scholarship – academic excellence, outstanding leadership and a commitment to improving the lives of others.”

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