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1. What is gender mainstreaming?

The strategy of gender mainstreaming has become known in Germany through the policies of the European Union, but its roots lie in the worldwide women's movement and the experience acquired in the course of enforcing claims vis-à-vis respective governments. The first three world women's conferences adopted recommendations for improving the situation faced by women and enshrined these in documents. National governments voluntarily pledged to follow these recommendations, but at subsequent international conferences it became increasingly clear that this voluntary commitment on the part of governments is not yielding any successes and that the lot of women has hardly improved. In NGOs in particular, these experiences have prompted discussions as to how a worldwide women's policy can break out of its position as a petitioner of governments and how the various legitimate demands can be more effectively implemented. At the Fourth World Women's Conference in Beijing in 1995, the new strategy was given a name: gender mainstreaming. In the context of world women's policy this means that in all areas of policy and in each individual instance governments examine the impact of their policy on the situation of women and the way in which planned measures will improve women's specific living situations as defined by the objectives set out in the documents (cf. Friedrich Ebert Foundation 1996).

At European level, as early as 1993 women succeeded in securing "equal opportunities for men and women" as part of the reform of the EU's Structural Fund. This was the first time in Europe that the goal of ensuring equal opportunities had been enshrined in a "general" support concept. The principle of gender mainstreaming was subsequently described in the Fourth Action Programme on Equal Opportunities in 1995. What had been achieved in the EU Structural Fund was extended to all European policy: gender relations should be taken into account in every policy measure, from the planning stage to performance review. The gender mainstreaming principle was further reinforced in the 1996 Amsterdam Treaty, in which all the Member States in the European Union pledged to apply the principle in their policies. Greater specificity and differentiation were provided at EU level in relevant Council Resolutions on the 1999 employment policy guidelines. In future, gender mainstreaming is to be further refined in a Fifth Action Programme.

The idea of viewing women's policy as a crosscutting function is not new in Germany either. However, the manner in which this notion has been incorporated into the way in which political decision-making processes are organized has left something to be desired: as a rule, there has been a relevant office (e.g. a women's ministry or equal opportunities office) that formulated women's policy and developed appropriate demands and concepts. This office then took these concepts to the "other" policy areas and asked that they be implemented there. A key factor in the success of this type of women's policy was how strong the particular women involved were in their respective positions. In a decision-making process structured along these lines the women were often left in the role of petitioners or people issuing appeals on moral grounds. In many cases, women's clear demands were often watered down by laborious consultation processes and squabbles about who was responsible.

The approach behind the principle of gender mainstreaming is that of crosscutting policy: equal opportunities between men and women can only be achieved if this objective is pursued in all areas of policy. The gender mainstreaming principle, however, crystallizes this goal by making a clear reference to the decision-making processes in organizations.

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Definition of this principle

"Gender mainstreaming is the reorganization, improvement, development and evaluation of decision-making processes in all areas of an organization's policy and work. The goal of gender mainstreaming is to make the perspective of gender relations part of all decision-making processes and enable all such processes to be used to ensure the equal treatment of men and women".

This definition illustrates once again that gender mainstreaming is a principle for changing an organization's decision-making processes. On the one hand that means it is limited to the organization in its application. Gender mainstreaming is not some kind of new strategy adopted by the women's movement with a view to reshaping itself. The principle is designed for policymaking organizations which in the past have made little or no allowance for gender relations. In such organizations it can be used to achieve a genuine deepening of gender policy. In its implementation, the gender mainstreaming principle becomes a tool of women's and gender policy for achieving stated goals in organizing gender relations.

Searching for a comparable principle can help achieve a better understanding as to how the principle is applied. If we ask what principle today already shapes all decision-making processes of organizations and comprises one of their central themes, we find ourselves looking at the economy, in other words costs. The example of cost-consciousness in management can be used to illustrate how the gender mainstreaming principle works: When it is applied, the issue of gender relations becomes more important in exactly the same way that the question of costs plays a major role in all decision-making processes for any administrative agency. Gender-related issues become an integral part of the thinking, decision-making and actions taken by all those involved.

To use a metaphor, if decision-making processes in politically active organizations are compared to the plaits of braided hair, in the past the braids have been plaited with the strands of appropriateness, feasibility and costs. If the question of how women might be affected is raised at all, then it is broached at the end of the process. As a result, the finished braid is given a small bow at its end. Continuing the metaphor, gender mainstreaming means that the question of gender relations is one of the basic strands of the braid itself, interwoven throughout it and affecting decisions from the outset.

If the gender mainstreaming principle is taken seriously, it actually means innovating at the level of organizations' decision-making processes, initiating a form of radical change.

The name given to this radical principle is often criticized on the grounds that it is unclear and cannot be communicated. The counter-argument to this is that in many fields, especially in media and information technology, the use of English words is becoming natural. Retaining the English term 'gender mainstreaming' has the considerable advantage that it identifies an internationally developed strategy and thus enables better understanding at international level.

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What does "gender" mean?

The English language makes distinctions that are not captured in the same way in German: it has one term for the biologically defined aspects of the German word "Geschlecht" in the word "sex" and a term for the social and culturally defined aspects of "Geschlecht" in the word "gender". The term 'gender' cannot be precisely translated into German by a single word. 'Gender' means 'the social and cultural role of the sexes'.

Consequently, a gender policy based on the concept of 'gender' rather than that of 'women' stresses the fact that:

  1. Both sexes and the relations between them are involved: men also have a gender and do not constitute the general human norm.

  2. We are speaking of those relations between the sexes which in principle are viewed as subject to change. Biological differences between the sexes are not accepted as legitimizing social differences between them. Social and cultural gender-related roles for men and women are seen as the result of historical development and being open to political manipulation.

These basic assumptions merely set the direction of gender policy; they do not yet offer specific political objectives. The same is true where applying the gender mainstreaming principle is concerned: it presupposes recognition of the fact that gender relations play a role and that men and women are affected or become affected differently. Gender mainstreaming does not replace the political debate over how gender relations should be politically organized; it does, however, help formulated goals to be better implemented. The EU documents dealing with gender mainstreaming even use the term "mainstreaming of equal opportunities". This shows that the word 'gender' by itself does not yet make a political statement, but that terms like 'gender democracy', 'equal opportunities' or 'equality of men and women' have to be added to indicate the direction of the change in gender relations. The term 'gender' merely indicates that the prevailing gender roles are social constructs and can therefore be changed, while not specifying the direction of this change.

There are various currents in the theoretical debate over the category of gender in which questions of identity, social conditionality and the social function of gender are discussed (cf. Stiegler 1998). The various gender theory approaches can help to clarify the given basic understanding of gender policy. They create contexts for justification and legitimize different gender policy goals and strategies: difference theories argue in favour of an independent policy differentiated from men and what is masculine and support the goal of enabling women to develop what is innately feminine. They present a picture of two different cultures and forms of existence of the sexes and seek to give women the means to organize their own environments. Deconstructivist gender theories legitimize any type of politics which does not exclude or discriminate against sexual identities but instead allows a large number of types of masculinity and femininity. Gender is seen as a social construct. These theories delegitimize all forms of sexual dominance and encourage people to free themselves from all gender-based attributions. Going beyond the socially defined gender limits can thus become a political act pointing to he openness in principle of the gender role. Gender theories from the standpoint of

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social criticism offer conceptual frameworks for analysis and insights into existing forms of gender hierarchy and discrimination against women. They understand the category of gender to be an extremely effective tool for creating differences between individuals. These theoretical approaches take the actual balance of power between the sexes seriously and analyse their characteristics, albeit without seeking to pin them down. On the contrary: the precise analysis of dominance structures and mechanisms is used to develop appropriate strategies for change.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | Mai 2001

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