Gender ‘Mainstreaming’ or ‘Malestreaming’?

Yakın Ertürk

Since the Beijing Conference, the term ‘gender’ has become an uncontested tool of analysis and policy formulation, both within and outside of the United Nations (UN). In 1997, The UN Economic and Social Council took the concept one step further and adopted the gender mainstreaming (GM) resolution to ensure that every part of the organization assumes responsibility for the even impact of policies, programs, and budgets on both men and women.

The resolution states: Mainstreaming a gender perspective is the process of assessing the implications for men and women of any planned action, including legislation, policies and programs, in all areas and at all levels. It is a strategy for making women’s as well as men’s concerns and experiences an integral dimension of the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programs in all political, economic and social spheres so that women and men benefit equally and inequality is not perpetuated. The ultimate goal is to achieve gender equality.

The GM paradigm rapidly diffused and became accepted in science and policy circles, as well as in everyday settings. While it has been celebrated as an institutionalization of the feminist project for equality, there are valid reasons to question whether GM has indeed been a victory for feminist goals. The answer to this question requires re-visiting the concept of gender: what is and is not included in its definition will have a bearing on the efficacy of mainstreaming. Likewise, the temperament of the mainstream will set the limits of the potential for gender equality outcomes.

The term ‘gender’ is a political, epistemological, and methodological tool, coined to analyze the social construction of masculinity and femininity. In contrast to the static biological category of sex, gender is amenable to change, thus, promising radical possibilities for transforming structural inequalities. However, its political purpose and transformative content declined as the term gained popular usage.

The early theorizing of gender involved a strong association with women; therefore, the two concepts came to be used interchangeably, i.e., gender/women as a fixed noun. Thus, it has been commonly recalled that men remain the sex and women become the gender! Subsequently, with the shift to a ‘difference’ approach, as reflected in the GM resolution, gender denotes both sexes distinguished according to the existing differences in male/female attributes. In the former usage, gender is a noun –i.e., female category and in the latter, in addition to signifying the male/female category, it is also an adjective determining male/female attributes. While the shift from ‘sameness’ to ‘difference’ in gender policy formulation is certainly a step forward, it does not resolve the fact that the problem is not one of difference but one of inequality.

Therefore, both usages —whether indicating women or male-female difference— are conceptually inconsistent, incomplete, and politically problematic. They fall short of acknowledging the plurality of experience and the salience of patriarchy in the structuring of the culture, society, economy, and politics through which gendering takes place. The problem with such understandings of gender is in its conceptualization as a category or a feature of a person(s) rather than an ongoing process, contested and negotiated within multiple levels of power differentials. As such, integrating a static and de-politicized notion of gender into an already gendered mainstream serves to veil contested terms such as sex, woman, patriarchy, equality, and feminism, among others. This, perhaps, is what made GM such an appealing tool in local and global governance and beyond.

In fact, as revealed in the following anecdote, it is not uncommon for equality goals to be totally sacrificed when mainstreamed in the hands of policy makers and practitioners who lack gender competence or are inimical to the principle of equality. As the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, I visited a police headquarters on one of my country missions. There, the police chief informed me that they practiced GM. When I asked how they do this, the response was that female officers were sent home early during Ramadan so that they could prepare the iftar meal!

There are other distorted usages of the term ‘gender’. For instance, in bureaucratic transactions, we are often required to fill in forms which ask “What is your gender?”, with only two options provided to choose from: M or F. Strangely, people respond to such queries without any confusion over what this means or how it might be different from one’s sex. When talking or doing gender, every user might ascribe a different meaning to the term, yet these meanings are deciphered and acted upon with a sense of a straightforward understanding.

There are, of course, more sophisticated applications of GM. Initially, when it was introduced, emancipation policies consisted of a two-track approach: firstly, specific policies to promote change for women’s emancipation, place new issues on the political agenda, and collaborate with civil society actors; and secondly, the integration of a gender perspective in all areas and levels of policy-making in accordance with GM strategy —the former provided the oversight. Gradually, the practice shifted from the two-track approach to one exclusively based on mainstreaming, where fragmented aspects of the problem associated with gender inequality became delegated to different government agencies, often as gender-neutral tasks. Dedicated women’s units and women-specific programs became dismantled, and the already meager resources available to these programs were transferred elsewhere, creating a vacuum in overall coordination and monitoring, and erasing women’s visibility from public policy-making.[1]

The UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325[2] on women, peace, and security, adopted in 2000 (followed by others in subsequent years), provides a striking example of the risks and opportunities involved in GM. This resolution, which calls for the inclusion of women and a gender perspective in conflict resolution and peace-making initiatives, broadened the international gender equality regime, brought new actors to the dialogue, and intensified the debate around the active contributions of women to peace processes. As such, it was considered a landmark achievement.

Twenty years after the adoption of the resolution, the integration of women’s issues and gender concerns into formal peace processes lags behind expectations, and its overall impact on peace agreements remains modest. Critics have attributed this partially to the character of the mainstream sector into which gender was integrated, i.e., state-centric, militarist, and silent on disarmament. The mainstream Security Council agenda, in fact, marginalized the core issues of the women’s peace movement. At the same time, however, Security Council Resolutions have been instrumental in bolstering women’s peace activism and in altering the negotiation landscape; women’s and gender issues are now irreversibly on the peace table.

GM, like other international policy and normative frameworks, is dialectical, offering possibilities for both regressive and transformative change. While the incorporation of gender into the gender-biased mainstream de-politicizes gender concerns, it also creates new contradictions and opens new civil space that can be positively exploited. The development of a comprehensive international gender equality regime is testimony to how the mainstream can be tamed and altered through activism. Admittedly, however, it was a turbulent and highly-contested journey, involving both victories and upheavals.

Given the current neoliberal, right-wing political economic landscape, achieving gender equality through GM is predictably a tricky affair. GM agendas have produced some incremental improvements in elevating disadvantages women encounter, the worth of which cannot be denied. However, the problem remains one of oppression and inequality, not merely of disadvantage and discrimination. What is missing from discussions of GM are understandings of how power operates through existing structures to reproduce and sustain gendered inequalities.

Feminists have argued that governments and international organizations have distorted feminist goals in the process of implementation and have co-opted feminist rhetoric for their own agenda. Whether this has been an intentional or an accidental outcome is non-consequential. The option is not to remain outside of the state political institutions but to reconfigure the existing political paradigms, decision-making processes, and policy goals in line with a transformative gender equality perspective. In this respect, the political meaning of gender needs to be reinstated, and GM needs to be complemented with multiple strategies, including strong gender equality units and actions (e.g. affirmative action), as well as engagement with civil society agendas. At a more conceptual/linguistic level, gender needs to be understood as a verb –as in gendering/becoming, rather than as a noun (i.e., a fixed object) or the relatively more useful adjective (i.e., gendered).

In the final analysis, the realization of gender equality requires transforming the malestream, not integrating into it.[3]

[1] See alternative models on GM (Sweden and the Netherlands) in: Ertürk, Y. (2016). Violence without Borders: Paradigm, policy and praxis concerning violence against women. Washington DC: Women’s Learning Partnership Translation Series (available in Turkish as Sınır Tanımayan Şiddet, Metis Yayınları, 2015).

[2] For further information, please visit: Last visited: 13 May 2020.

[3] The following are recommended for further reading on GM: Bacchi, C and Eveline, J. (eds). (2010). Mainstreaming Politics: Gendering practices and feminist theory. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press; Cruşmac, O. 2015. Why GM is not enough? A Critique to Sylvia Walby’s The Future of Feminism. Romanian Journal of Society and Politics, 10(1), 102-117.