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How to Avoid the Traps?

Successful gender mainstreaming – what does it take? There are plenty of traps to fall into and what’s most important is to begin by formulating the problem. What does the gender inequality look like?

According to the report Forskning saknas [‘Lack of research’], research on gender mainstreaming work has identified several traps that can make gender mainstreaming unsuccessful. There is also research and practical experience that can offer guidance on how to avoid the traps. One example is the experiences gained by the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research in its work to support the gender mainstreaming of Swedish government agencies.

Gender Equality Becomes an Administrative Routine

The first trap addressed in the report Forskning saknas is to treat the gender mainstreaming work as an end in itself, instead of increased gender equality. A similar assessment is made in an article in the Swedish journal for gender research by political scientist Malin Rönnblom. The way she sees it, Swedish gender equality policy has turned gender equality into an administrative routine. As the gender mainstreaming responsibility is put on government agencies without clear ties to what the policymakers want to change and when the gap between their own operations and the national gender equality aims becomes too large, the focus is often moved to checklists, routines and audits. In this way, government agencies and other organisations are left alone to define what needs to be achieved with the gender mainstreaming work. This implies an obvious risk that gender mainstreaming as a strategy becomes an end in itself and that the power analysis disappears.

How can this trap be avoided? The risk is that one becomes too fixated on the doing without sufficient knowledge about the problem and what needs to be changed. Successful gender mainstreaming begins with finding answers to a number of questions. What is the gender equality problem? What does the gender inequality look like? What needs to change? What needs to be achieved? How do we know when we have achieved it? We will return to how gender equality problems in an organisation can be formulated and contribute to solutions.

‘Gender Mainstreaming Is Nothing New’

Another trap is to view gender mainstreaming as old news, as something that is no different than previously used methods. The trap here is to see gender mainstreaming as a method, which it is not. Instead, gender mainstreaming is a strategy. It means that all work in an organisation is planned with a gender equality perspective present at all levels. A range of different methods can be used in the gender mainstreaming work depending on the desired outcome. There may be an expectation to find the optimal strategy and method. But there will always be a need for new problem analyses, and thus, there will always be a need for different methods to deal with the specific problems found. Examples of useful methods are available at the website Includegender.org.

Re-creating Gender Differences

A third trap identified in the report is that gender mainstreaming re-creates gender differences, according to some researchers. By describing women and men as homogenous and opposing groups, the notion of women and men as two separate groups is re-created. Both differences within the groups as well as persons who do not identify themselves as either woman or man are made invisible.

In fact, this is really a risk inherent in all types of gender equality work. Differences risk being re-created if there is no awareness about the fact that women and men also are carriers of class, ethnicity, sexuality, identity, age, functionality etc. In addition, many people resist being assigned the label ‘woman’ or ‘man’. What is desirable to make visible is always questionable and problematic. How are differences both between and within groups made visible in an organisation’s gender equality work? We need to name and illuminate, even if it leads to some simplifications. For example, we need gendered statistics in order to gain the understanding of society we need in order to achieve change. Yet the statistics are based on a binary gender norm. The challenge may then be to introduce a third gender alternative and to combine methods so that other power structures are also made visible.

No Fundamental Change

A fourth trap discussed in the report has to do with some researchers criticising gender mainstreaming for lacking a transformative potential, or that nothing is changed at a fundamental level. In her research on gender mainstreaming of transport policy, Ewa Wittbom concludes that gender equality has been integrated into the transport sector, yet the gender mainstreaming has not changed the content of the operations therein. Instead, women have had to adjust to the prevailing norms and culture in the field. The power perspective has been absent. In order for the system to change, the gender mainstreaming work has to reach into the very core of the policy domain, like transport policy as in the example used here.

The research review Forskning saknas shows that gender mainstreaming is conducted at different levels – both at the policy level and at the operational level of various organisations. Sometimes gender mainstreaming can be present at policy level even if it still has not reached an impact at the operational level. In order for change to occur, gender mainstreaming work has to be carried out at both levels.

Tips for Approaches

Several Swedish government agencies have been commissioned by the central government to gender mainstream their organisations and operations. Their efforts are supported by the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research within the framework of a project titled Gender Mainstreaming in Government Agencies (GMGA).

One important starting point in the gender mainstreaming work carried out by the Swedish government agencies involved in the GMGA project has been to formulate existing gender equality problems.

The agencies have identified both gender equality problems in society that affect the agencies’ target groups and how the agencies’ operations need to change in order to contribute to increased gender equality. Most agencies are in fact contributing to increased gender inequality. Gender inequality is created in the ‘ordinary’ operations, in the form of differing opportunities, divisions according to gender and preconceptions that influence how an agency’s work is undertaken.

When gender equality problems in society are formulated, the following are examples of questions asked: Are there conditions outside the agency, in the form of gender inequality in society, that affect the agency’s target group(s) and that the agency can strive to change? Have the agencies identified recurring differences between women and men and found out whether they are expressions of differences in conditions, power and opportunities? Are there patterns in terms of for example class, ethnicity, sexuality and age that can be seen as expressions of unequal power relations?

When it comes to how gender inequality is created in an agency’s organisation, the following are some of the questions asked: Are there processes, preconceptions or work procedures within the agency that lead to gender inequality in the agency’s operations? In what way? Where, when and how? What is causing the problem? Who are the victims?

Once the agencies have identified problems, they ask themselves what opportunities and authority they have to improve the identified problems.

Only when these problems have been identified can the agencies formulate what needs to change and which activities they should implement in order for gender equality to be achieved.

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