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.


Cherie Blair: 'Don't drop gender from equality fight'

London, England (CNN) -- With only days to go before the U.N. High Level Panel puts forward its recommendations on development goals beyond 2015, after the current Millennium Development Goals expire, progress towards gender equality and increased empowerment of women hangs in the balance. It is vital that this issue does not slip down the global agenda but retains its rightful position as one of the key, stand-alone development goals.


The current goals contain a specific commitment to women's equality and empowerment, which has -- while not perfect -- succeeded in putting the subject firmly on the global map, giving impetus and strength to organizations working in this field, in their relations with governments, their ability to push against cultural barriers, and their capacity to raise funds for their work.

Read: Can 'womenomics' save Japan?

That's why we've seen some progress in recent years. More girls are going to school, and the gender gap in formal education is closing in the majority of countries. In some areas such as North Africa and the Middle East, more women than men are enrolled in tertiary education, but women have yet to catch up in political representation, technology, access to capital and management skills, to name but a few examples.

In the discussions that are taking place about what will replace the Millennium Development Goals post-2015, there are voices arguing for abandonment of this stand-alone commitment to women's equality, in favor of a more generalized commitment to tackle 'inequality.' Were these voices to carry the day, the negative effect on progress towards gender equality would be substantial, but crucially it would also undermine the cause of reducing 'inequality.'

This is because improving the status of women is crucial to tackling the very inequalities that it is suggested the new goals should focus on. Whether it's making sure that children have access to education or health care, or bringing in more income for the family, so many of these core development goals are primarily delivered by women. Women are on the road to becoming drivers of their economies, running businesses, and creating jobs and opportunities within their communities and beyond.

Read: 5 minutes with Cherie Blair

According to the World Bank, we need to create 600 million jobs globally by 2020, mainly in developing countries, just to keep up with population growth. But we will inevitably fail to achieve employment targets unless many more women have economic opportunities. The more power they have, the more they can deliver.

I have seen for myself how women's financial independence delivers benefits to their families and to wider society. On a recent trip to Israel and Palestine, I spoke with some women entrepreneurs and asked them what they spent their money on and they said their families. On educating their children and taking care of their health.

On investing back into their businesses and hiring additional employees. Not one had spent the income on themselves.Families, communities and economies suffer when women are treated as unequal to men. Furthermore, without female role models for future generations of women, progress will not just stall -- it will reverse.

Leveling the playing field -- where women and men have equal chances to become economically, socially and politically active, make decisions, and shape policies -- is likely to lead over time to more representative, and more inclusive, institutions and policy choices and thus to a better development path. In order for us to achieve real progress in development, gender equality must be a standalone goal.

Read: Gender equality won't happen if men don't speak, Sandberg says

I am not alone in this view. There are many others who have been calling for the same for months. The OECD has called for women and girls to be front and center in the post-2015 framework.

The Gender and Development Network has convened 85 of the UK's leading development NGOs and gender experts to ensure women's empowerment is promoted in the next framework.

Their most recent report argues that the next framework must tackle the underlying causes of gender inequality to achieve sustainable change. U.N. Women have called for a goal that includes issues specifically about women, such as eliminating violence against women and girls, expanding women's choices and opportunities, ensuring their full participation in decision-making at all levels, and including targets and indicators that specifically relate to women.

As the High-Level Panel on Post-2015 Development issue their recommendations, we must keep up the pressure. Women are at the heart of every family. They are the mothers, the carers, the managers, the peacemakers. But they can deliver so much more. As we look ahead to a new framework, we cannot afford to let gender equality slip off the world agenda. Our future depends on it. Give women equality of opportunity and the rest will follow.


Cherie Blair

Leading Women connects you to extraordinary women of our time -- remarkable professionals who have made it to the top in all areas of business, the arts, sport, culture, science and more. Cherie Blair is a leading UK barrister who in 2008, founded the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women.

This blog first appeared on CNN's Leading Women page. To see the original version click here. 

Everyone Seems To Be Talking Women's Rights These Days, So What's The Problem?

This International Women’s Day has highlighted a growing interest in women’s rights from all quarters. However, much of it is focused on women’s rights as a way to bring about economic growth. I would question whether this is really progress. 

Back in 2006 the World Bank’s gender unit proclaimed that ‘gender equality is smart economics’ and this is now mainstream mantra throughout the Bank. Similarly, the Department for International Development (DfID) published a new policy on gender equality in 2007, making the case that tackling gender inequality would increase women's productivity, reduce poverty and hunger, and that educating girls and women would help them lift them and their families out of poverty. And more recently, the Girl Effect proudly states that ‘an educated girl will invest 90% of her future income in her family, compared to 35% for a boy… so as long as girls remain invisible, the world misses out on a tremendous opportunity for change’.

So some powerful institutions – many of whom are often the targets of our campaigning - are now focusing on women and girls as a way to address poverty. What’s not to like?

Well first of all, whatever happened to promoting gender equality and women’s rights as an end in itself? Rather than taking an ‘instrumentalist’ approach that presents gender equality as an investment and a route towards achieving something else – typically economic growth – surely our starting point should be that women's rights are human rights? It is an injustice that women and girls are denied their rights to education, health or a livelihood on the basis of their gender. This is the change we should be calling for.

Secondly, the risk of promoting women’s rights in order to bring economic growth is that it can neglect the root causes of why women are denied these rights in the first place.A strategy built around achieving economic growth ignores the role that the growth agenda has actually played in creating and exacerbating inequalities between men and women. Thirdly, it also results in a narrow focus of advancing women’s rights that is limited to the economic dimensions of women’s empowerment.

Effective campaigning relies on having simple and compelling messages supported by clear demands for change. The key challenge therefore is how do we effectively communicate the multiple causes and dimensions of gender inequality and the limits of an instrumentalist approach to change, whilst at the same time presenting the complex pathways to women’s empowerment? Trying to cram all this in could be a sure-fire way of turning away supporters and campaign targets alike.  It seems so much more tempting to say ‘educate a girl and we can change the world’ than ‘actually we need to address the patriarchal system and neo-liberal agenda that lie at the heart of women’s disempowerment (but I’m afraid we don’t have any quick fixes or easy answers of how we go about it).’

Obviously our campaigning needs to be rooted in addressing the underlying causes and consequences of gender inequality. Otherwise our work is just skating over the surface and missing a valuable opportunity to bring about long term sustainable change in the lives of the women we work with. But this requires tough conversations, often about controversial issues, and the need to build public understanding and support for women’s rights in and of itself. For me, one starting point is to show how our work supporting women’s rights has already made a difference, why it has made a difference, and why realising women’s rights is the real end game.

What do you think? Is there a case for making instrumental arguments for change? If so, where and how can they be made? If not, how can we make rights-based arguments attractive within an instrumentalist-dominated environment? And is it always a case of either-or?


Lucy Hurn, ActionAid