Journal Article

IDS Bulletin Vol. 35 Nos. 4

Gender Mainstreaming: What is it (About) and Should we Continue Doing it?

Published on 1 October 2004

Gender mainstreaming is rapidly assuming rather mythic proportions in the development industry.

Purporting to counter “gender neutral development planning”, the myth behind the myth is that gender mainstreaming exists more or less independently of international politics, power hierarchies and persistent ideas about human nature that drive the modernisation paradigms and theories that define what development is, without becoming, as it were, tainted itself. At the same time, the way gender mainstreaming comes to be talked about within development also contains elements of a fable in the form of a moralising edict concerning virtuous behaviour in bureaucrats and others in development as they work to promote gender equality and empowerment for women.

The powerful appeal of the notion of gender mainstreaming lies, I think, in the spirit, politics and promise of its early intentions: to imbue all systems, structures and institutionalised cultures with awareness of gender-based biases and injustices, and to remove them. The Beijing Platform for Action points to the promotion of women’s empowerment and equality between women and men through, among other measures, the establishment of “national machineries” to ensure the mainstreaming of gender perspectives in all spheres of society (United Nations 2001: 26, italics added). However, mainstreaming also involves efforts to make attention to gender issues the concern and responsibility of everyone in development organisations, as opposed to being only those of specialist persons, units, teams or “machineries”.

For many of us with feminist backgrounds and convictions of one sort or another who have found ourselves in various social policy contexts, the appeal of gender mainstreaming is that it is founded on, and to a significant extent grounded in, feminist theoretical frameworks. Therefore, as a myth, gender mainstreaming can also be used strategically – potentially at least – to promote political ends. As a fable, however, it is coming under a great deal of attack from a number of directions – including some feminist ones – on the grounds that it is nebulous, elusive and has unclear goals, and that it demands too little in terms of commitment, analytical skill and resources from those who are supposed to carry it out. Even more damning are charges that gender mainstreaming is not performing well in the service of advancing the situation of many, if not most women, especially women in subaltern structural positions due to ethnicity, class and/or colonial histories or to sexual orientation and choice of a partner. Those who are sceptical of gender mainstreaming on such grounds see it as proof that modernising, Euro-centric development paradigms and theories are alive and well and continue to reign to the exclusion of other frameworks.

My own experiences as an immigrant in Sweden as well as from several periods of ethnographic research on matrilineal kinship, reproduction and perceptions of gender in another cultural setting – Ghana from 1973 to 1993 – have influenced my own feminism, as has nearly 25 years of work as a development consultant with gender equality issues at the core. I readily admit that these have been a boon as well as a source of discontent. They have been a boon because they have informed my work as principal trainer for Sida’s gender training programme since 1990, and my work at the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs as special adviser since 2002. The discontent stems from the fact that I have contributed to and been complicit in the “objectification” and relay of certain kinds of knowledge in “diluted” form in order to coax better development results and effects in the form of better conditions and opportunities for women and girls in the countries we work with.

In this article, I draw on these experiences to explore the question of whether gender mainstreaming as an idea and as a prescribed course of action can be extracted from the specific contexts and forces from which its dominant forms emerged, and whether it can continue to be sustained, and usefully converted and applied to other contexts. It draws on exciting recent work on the anthropology of policy (Porter 1995; Shore and Wright 1997; Mosse 2002) to analyse a specific case of feminist politics – those of Sweden, where gender mainstreaming has been on the policy agenda since the 1980s – to explore a particular rationale, interpretation and set of tools. It focuses in particular on the gender analytical frameworks, so central to gender mainstreaming, that are employed in the project of transforming power structures and relationships in the work of international development organisations.

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This article comes from the IDS Bulletin 35.4 (2004) Gender Mainstreaming: What is it (About) and Should we Continue Doing it?

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Woodford?Berger, P. (2004) Gender Mainstreaming: What is it (About) and Should we Continue Doing it?. IDS Bulletin 35(4): 65-72

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Prudence Woodford-Berger

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Woodford-Berger, Prudence