Are You On the Gender Mainstreaming Bus? Do you want to be?

Waaaay back in 1995, the Government of Canada rolled out the Federal Plan for Gender Equality. Here is a link to the PDF version of that plan. Which was Canada’s response to the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995 (PDF version). With this commitment the Canadian federal government committed to “implement gender-based analysis throughout federal departments and agencies”.  The way they decided to do that was through “gender mainstreaming.”  One definition of gender mainstreaming is as a strategy that integrates a gender perspective into all aspects of policy and decision-making, in order to address inequalities between women and men.

Like many approaches and lenses, gender mainstreaming is a complex and sensitive concept that an organization simply cannot “adopt” into practice. The adoption of gender mainstreaming varies over time and across different countries and cultures as it stirs our beliefs about gender roles and identities. Therefore, it is critical for people to engage in respectful and informed discussions on interpretation and impact before implementation. As a concept it remains an often used approach for promoting gender equality and addressing gender-based inequalities in many parts of the world.  At the same time the concept has been criticized as an unnecessary or overused form of political correctness. Yet, there has been a growing recognition of the importance of gender mainstreaming in international development efforts, as many organizations and governments have made commitments to incorporate a gender perspective into their policies and programs.  Research suggests that in order for gender mainstreaming to reach its full potential on policy change and outcomes it requires the organization to:

  1. First, invest in gender analysis and consider the impacts of policies and programs on different genders prior to writing or implementing. This may involve targeting programs and services to specific groups, such as women and girls, and addressing gender-based barriers to accessing services.
  2. Include gender-based evaluation in program and policy roll-out, to ensure that they are effectively addressing gender-based inequalities and promoting gender equality. This may involve tracking gender-disaggregated data and conducting gender-responsive evaluations.

If done well, gender mainstreaming has significant potential to influence policy, programs and funding, by raising awareness of gender-based inequalities and promoting a gender perspective in policy and decision-making. This could ultimately advance gender equality and improve outcomes for women and girls, as well as for men and boys. However, if there is insufficient investment in technical training, education and professional facilitation in adopting a gender mainstreaming approach there are several significant barriers that could impede its potential.

Without a doubt, adopting gender mainstreaming can challenge traditional gender norms and roles.  There will always be individuals within an organization that will be resistant to change simply because they want to maintain the status quo and or feel that their views or beliefs are being threatened, investment must be made to identify and work with these individuals.

Without real commitment or investment there is a risk that gender mainstreaming may become just a tokenistic approach, where policies and programs are developed with a gender perspective, but it is actually reduced to a tick-box exercise, where the appearance of incorporating a gender perspective is prioritized over broader,deeper and meaningful change.

Gender mainstreaming initiatives can also have the unintended consequence of reinforcing gender stereotypes or exacerbating existing inequalities between women and men within an organization or workplace. It is important to be aware of these potential consequences, and to conduct gender-responsive evaluations to ensure that gender mainstreaming initiatives are effective and have the desired impact and are not in fact, causing more harm.

Intersectionality and Gender mainstreaming

Intersectionality and gender mainstreaming are both approaches that governments and organizations can use to influence and change inequalities based on gender. However, there are some recognized tensions between the two approaches. Intersectionality recognizes that experiences of inequality are shaped by the complex intersections of race, class, sexuality, and ability that multiple identities and systems of oppression can cause within one human being.  Intersectionality insists on nuanced and holistic approaches which can complement and strengthen gender mainstreaming, by ensuring that gender perspective is integrated into policy and decision-making in a way that takes into account the experiences of people from diverse backgrounds and experiences.  Without intersectionality, there is a risk that gender mainstreaming focuses only on gender inequalities, while ignoring or downplaying other systems of oppression and the intersections between them. This can lead to an incomplete and narrow approach to addressing inequalities, and may fail to effectively address the complex experiences of those who face multiple and intersecting forms of oppression.

In order to address these tensions, we at Connect advocate and argue that gender mainstreaming must be informed by intersectionality to account for the experiences of those who face multiple and intersecting forms of oppression. Intersectional analyses, targeting resources and programs to those who face the greatest barriers and inequalities, and engaging in ongoing dialogue and stakeholder engagement to build support and understanding for a more nuanced and holistic approach to promoting equality is a must whenever gender-mainstreaming is brought to the table.