20 years of gender mainstreaming: how can we do it better?

Theory of Change. This diagram sets out the relationship between the 3 components of gender mainstreaming: organisational commitment, technical processes and vision and results.


Theory of Change. This diagram sets out the relationship between the 3 components of gender mainstreaming: organisational commitment, technical processes and vision and results.

by Helen Derbyshire, Kanwal Ahluwalia and Nadja Dolata

In 1995 at the UN International Conference on Women in Beijing, gender mainstreaming was agreed as the international strategy for achieving gender equality and women’s rights. Today, most development organisations engage in some form of gender mainstreaming - with activities to promote greater equality through mainstream policy and spending (“gender mainstreaming”) complementing targeted initiatives to promote women’s rights.

But, 20 years on, gender mainstreaming is subject to harsh criticism by many women’s rights organisations struggling to promote women’s rights in society as a whole. Some feel so bitterly disappointed and betrayed by gender mainstreaming in practice that they argue that gender mainstreaming has been a complete failure and should be abandoned.

A new GADN paper “Untangling gender mainstreaming: a Theory of Change based on experience and reflection’’ argues that this criticism, whilst understandable, is misdirected.  The question should not be whether to mainstream gender but how to do it better – and there is now a lot of experience and evidence to draw on to help with this. The alternative to gender mainstreaming is to leave the promotion of women’s and girls’ rights and gender equality to targeted initiatives alone, and the overwhelming majority of development policy and spending untouched, reinforcing the inequalities of the status quo.

There is no doubt that implementation of gender mainstreaming is challenging and disappointing in many contexts. Under-investment (for example, notions that a one-off gender training course is all that is needed to change practice); too much re-direction of resources away from targeted initiatives; de-contextualised donor-driven strategies; and over-ambitious expectations of short-term transformation in highly challenging contexts all play a part in this.  Gender mainstreaming as a concept is also complex and obscure – too often a “black box” of activity taking place within development organisations opaque to and mistrusted by those outside.

However, there are also many development organisations and programmes which – as a result of very effective gender mainstreaming efforts - have moved commitment to gender equality and women’s and girls’ rights to the centre of their development agenda. This is reflected in their policy making, planning, and spending; in their recruitment and staff development – as well as in increased support for projects for women and girls.

Our paper clarifies and simplifies the concept of gender mainstreaming through a practical Theory of Change.  This is based on the extensive first-hand experience of the authors and GADN members, both in UK-based international development organisations and with their partner organisations and programmes in aid recipient countries. Our aim is to share learning from experience; support and improve implementation; promote scale-up; and – particularly – to assist communications and complementary working relationships between those working to promote gender equality and women’s rights within development organisations and those campaigning for change in wider society.

Our Theory of Change presents gender mainstreaming as two separate but interconnected processes:

  • processes of organisational change in development organisations required to promote the necessary leadership and constituency of support and resources for the promotion of gender equality and women’s rights
  • technical processes of gender sensitive/transformative planning which development organisations use to promote gender equality and women’s rights through their mainstream policy-making, programming and internal processes

Promoting women’s rights and gender equality is a long-term, highly contested, complex struggle that takes place uniquely in every context.

Our experience is that the key challenge inhibiting progress on gender mainstreaming is organisational commitment. Leadership, political will and resource allocation are all essential to creating the right kind of enabling environment in mainstream development organisations for gender equality and women’s rights to be prioritised and taken seriously, and for effective technical processes gender sensitive planning to take place. If work on technical processes outstrips progress on organisational change (through, for example, meeting donor targets for production of gender policies), the technical processes are not embedded, institutionalised or sustained.  On the other hand, once genuine organisational commitment and leadership are in place, technical processes of mainstreaming can be institutionalised much more easily.

Most mainstream organisations – particularly in aid recipient countries - are struggling with weak organisational leadership and weak organisational commitment to gender equality and women’s rights. Arguments to change this need to be culturally appropriate and championed by advocates from within the local culture. Women’s organisations and champions for gender equality and women’s rights in wider society have a critical role to play, hand in hand with champions for change working within the challenging context of these mainstream organisations.