What is gender mainstreaming?


The European Commission defines gender mainstreaming in the following way: “Gender mainstreaming is the integration of the gender perspective into every stage of policy processes – design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation – with a view to promoting equality between women and men. It means assessing how policies impact on the life and position of both women and men – and taking responsibility to re-address them if necessary.” (European Commission)

Gender mainstreaming means observing and taking into account the inequalities between women and men at all times and in all areas.

Gender mainstreaming does not replace specific actions i.e. measures targeted at a particular group and intended to eliminate and prevent discrimination or to offset disadvantages arising from existing attitudes,behaviours and structures sometimes referred to as positive discrimination (European Commission, 1998).

Further reading

Several useful definitions can be found in Tools for gender equality (European Commission)

The European Union recommends the continuation of the dual approach – gender mainstreaming as well as specific actions for men or women.

Gender equality means that structures and decision-making processes neither privilege nor discriminate women or men, in all their diversity,

Gender equality means the full participation of women and men in all spheres of public and private life. Gender equality means more than just ensuring equal treatment and opportunities; it must be visible in a balanced distribution of power and resources and shared responsibilities between women and men within society.

Gender mainstreaming is …

  • NOT a goal
  • NOR a set of contents
  • BUT instead a strategy to achieve equality between women and men in their diversity.

This means …

  • Gender equality is the goal
  • Gender mainstreaming is the strategy to achieve this goal and positive actions are one way to compensate for existing inequalities

Further reading

Gender mainstreaming definitions:

“Gender mainstreaming is the (re)organisation, improvement, development and evaluation of policy processes, so that a gender equality perspective is incorporated in all policies, at all levels and at all stages, by the actors normally involved in policy-making.”´(Council of Europe. Gender mainstreaming: conceptual framework, methodology and presentation of good practices. Strasbourg,1998)

Gender mainstreaming is “the process of assessing the implications for women and men of any planned action, including legislation, policies or programmes, in any area 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 programmes in all political, economic, and societal spheres so that women and men benefit equally, and inequality is not perpetuated. The ultimate goal is to achieve gender equality.”
(United Nations. ECOSOC, 1997)

Gender Mainstreaming history in brief

The European Union (EU) stepped up the efforts to achieve equality between women and men in the 1970s, although provision for equal pay was already made in the 1957 Treaty of Rome.

The demand for equal treatment dominated this era during which the individual’s right to equality was addressed. In 1975, the first European equality directive was passed covering equal pay. This was soon followed by a 1976 directive on equal access to employment, training, promotion and working conditions. In 2002, this 1976 law was strengthened and extended to include a formal ban against sexual harassment.

Other directives followed: equal treatment in statutory social security schemes; in occupational social security schemes; for the self-employed and their assisting spouses; on maternity leave and health and safety conditions for pregnant women and nursing mothers; on the organization of working time; on parental leave and leave for family reasons; on the burden of proof, making it easier to prove discrimination in the courts; and on part-time work. (find directives here)

Equal treatment laws are effective in combating overt discrimination but are not enough to ensure equality. Their starting point is that women and men should be treated the same. But as women and men do not start from the same position, equal treatment does not always lead to equal outcomes. Seemingly neutral policies can have biased results.

The 1980s saw the introduction of specific or positive actions addressing the disadvantages experienced by women. Recognizing the shortcomings of equal treatment legislation when it comes to tackling inequalities between women and men, the EU co-financed specific actions for women especially in training and labour market activities through the ESF.  The EU also adopted a series of recommendations and codes of good practice in areas such as education and training; childcare; combating sexual harassment; positive action; discrimination in the media; and improving women’s access to decision-making positions by “Action Programmes on equal opportunities”.

But specific actions in favour of women also proved only to be a partial solution. They prepared women for operating in a male-dominated culture but did not challenge the structures and the culture of organizations, institutions or companies or seek underlying causes and solutions.

This led to a new strategy – gender mainstreaming – which shifted the focus to systems and structures themselves, to the relationship between women and men, and to their individual needs. This approach gained worldwide acceptance at the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, 1995.

Gender mainstreaming recognizes that existing structures are not gender-neutral. The result of this is that apparently gender-neutral policies can in fact reinforce gendered divisions and inequality between women and men.

With gender mainstreaming came a call for policies that accommodate a diversity of circumstances, accepting that –age, ethnic origin, disability and sexual orientation, for example, also have implications for a gender equality

The EU adopted its gender mainstreaming approach in 1996.

In 1997, the Treaty of Amsterdam confirmed the importance of promoting gender equality and formalized the commitment to gender mainstreaming.

  • According to Article 2 of the Treaty, gender mainstreaming is one of the fundamental tasks to be actively promoted by the Community;
  • Article 3 lays down the principle of gender mainstreaming by stating that in all its activities the Community shall aim to eliminate inequalities and to promote the equality of women and men;
  • Article 13 provides for pro-active measures to combat discrimination based on sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation;
  • Articles 137 and 141 refer to gender equality in relation to the labour market. They stipulate equal opportunities and equal treatment at work and that each Member State shall ensure that the principle of equal pay for male and female workers for equal work or work of equal value is applied.
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Created: 2013/01/08   Changed: 2014/12/04