Gender Mainstreaming: A Globalisation of Feminist Development

Published: 2023/07/04 Number of words: 2739

Emerging from the 1995 Fourth World Conference for Women in Beijing, the introduction of gender mainstreaming aroused a shift in the development paradigm, bringing gender perspectives to the forefront to identify the links between gendered concerns and how they impact the wider development agenda (Waal, 2010).

The principle behind gender mainstreaming emerged in the 1970s and gained momentum throughout different eras of feminism before becoming an approach itself. There has been an undeniable positive shift in development thinking and feminist approaches have successfully drove their concerns to the main stage of the development agenda, however the implementation of gender mainstreaming remains inconsistent (Moser & Moser, 2005). If the epitome of gender equality is to be achieved, barriers of resistance need to be broken in order to translate commitment into action.

This essay will provide insight into the success of gender mainstreaming by analysing the implementation of the approach and whether it successfully propelled feminist development onto the global development agenda.

Gender Mainstreaming: Globalising Feminism 

Gender mainstreaming is based on the principle that imbalanced gender relations can be changed through deliberate and focused interventions seeking to remedy patterns of inequality to create new norms and values (Waal, 2006). Feminists have attempted to embed gender into the mainstream development agenda since the 1970s, however until the Beijing Platform for Action in 1995 gender mainstreaming had not yet been introduced as an approach itself. Shortly after, the United Nations adopted the concept as ‘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 … so that women and men benefit equally and inequality is not perpetuated’ (United Nations, 1997, p.2). Gender mainstreaming has become a revolutionary technical and political process that needs to be examined carefully in order to understand its potential for success.

Indicators to measure gender mainstreaming such as parity, equality, equity, empowerment and transformation formed the basis of a new wave of feminism in development (Waal, 2006). The approach led to tensions due its complexity when trying to mainstream gender into varying forms of inequality within a transnational framework (Walby, 2005). Nevertheless, gender mainstreaming became a tool to promote institutional and organisational change with both successes and limitations.

Moser and Moser (2005) reviewed three categories to measure the success of gender mainstreaming: adopting the terminology, putting policy into place and implementation. This essay will draw upon policymaking and implementation in order to critically analyse gender mainstreaming. That is not to say the adoption of terminology is not relevant, however the use of terminology correlates with policymaking, so it is overlooked in this context.


The globalisation of gender mainstreaming created a transnational information-sharing network that provides the opportunity to shape domestic politics by challenging the norm and encouraging alternative strategies to policy change (True and Mintrom, 2001). That said, a ‘complex hybridisation’ of gender mainstreaming policy development is required in order to remain relevant across different locations (Walby, 2005). Demonstrating the success of transnational networking in relation to policy making is the action that came from a 1999 conference held by the Nordic Council of Ministers for Equality and the U.S Vital Voice initiative to unite representatives of national and regional governmental institutions and NGOs from Nordic and Baltic States to promote gender equality initiatives. As a result, a number of collaborative projects were initiated to advance gender mainstreaming through designed institutional mechanisms and by transforming domestic norms and policies in the former Soviet states (Lynggard, 1999).

True (2003) identified two dominant constraints to mainstreaming gender in global policymaking. The first emerged as the gap between feminist theory and institutional practice; which carries the assumption that by adding women’s projects, western multilateral institutions deem themselves to be mainstreaming gender; however, such projects can marginalise women further as the projects do not represent the accurate needs of the beneficiaries. The post-civil war construction of Bosnia draws specific attention to this. In a study by Walsh (1998) ‘Bosnian women’ were labelled unilaterally as war victims in aid efforts and thus international donors funded psychological counselling services as a means of relief. The donors overlooked their diverse ethnic, class and professional abilities, failing to consider that income generating projects or focusing on women’s economic and political empowerment would have been more beneficial. This could have been avoided if grassroots activists were consulted to address how efforts could improve local institutional practice.

The second was the conflict between feminist concepts and values and the broader ideological framework of neoliberal economics. A broad interpretation of this can draw attention to the common goal that international policymakers tend to centre on the focus of gender mainstreaming, that is to encourage women to utilise their individual abilities to become core economic actors both for their families and the national economy (Dingo, 2008). To achieve this in a neoliberal context, the logic becomes complex when applied within a transnational framework. For both women of the Global North and South to become economic contributors for both their families and countries, their difference in priorities will have to be negotiated. For example, Western women who are used to being more financially independent would then be encouraged to pay more attention to their household role, whereas women of the Global South, who traditionally prioritise their maternal and marital responsibilities, should de-emphasise this to make room for economic empowerment. In a transnational context of gender mainstreaming, generalising women’s needs can often lead to poor policy making and poor outcomes.

When referring to international development organisations, mainstreaming gender in institutional policy making can be considered more of a success. Derbyshire (2012) analysed how gender mainstreaming has been adopted in nine UK-based offices for international non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Her findings identified that isolated projects limit any fundamental change for women, however the success of gender mainstreaming is achieved when it influences development organisations to make gender equality a corporate priority, which leads to better investment into projects for women and girls. Derbyshire (2012) concludes that gender mainstreaming demonstrates clear evidence of positive change through its impact on mainstream policy and organisational influencing.


Gender mainstreaming comes under particular criticism at the implementation phase of policy making. Despite intentions, mainstreaming gender into policies often evaporates in the planning process.

Resistance, particularly the power and norms of male hegemony within institutions, opposes the potential for change being promoted by gender mainstreaming (Mackay, 2011). A study into its resistance in EU research policy revealed that both individual and institutional factors hindered the implementation, despite being endorsed in EU official policy documents (Mergaert and Lombardo, 2014). The study revealed that a policy officer in the European Commission’s Directorate-General Research for Innovation refused to let a panel conclude without removing a sentence from the proposals that stated they ‘did not address the relevant gender issues in the research.’

At an institutional level, the study drew upon the example of the European Commission (EC) announcing Gender Monitoring Studies to the Helsinki Group on Women and Science where proposals for FP7 were presented, a framework that formally incorporated gender mainstreaming into plans for funding research. The Women’s group expressed multiple concerns about how gender issues were dealt with in the framework, however the EC persisted with its plan for a ‘shrunk-down’ approach to gender, resulting in the Gender Action Plan of FP7 being abandoned and gender mainstreaming efforts demoted. These examples signify the different levels of resistance that hinders gender mainstreaming from transferring policy into practice.

Resistance is the prodigy of a male-dominated organisational culture and organisational culture was mentioned by leading development agencies as a constraint to gender mainstreaming (Moser and Moser, 2005). DFID, for example, is far from reaching its target of having women occupy 30% of senior civil servant posts (MacDonald, 2003) and ActionAid Nepal resorted to restricting their recruitment to women-only to help them double their percentage of female staff (Rai, 2000). Lessening gender imbalances within institutions would see the implementation of gender mainstreaming achieve more success, as resistance from patriarchal norms would be counteracted by a feminist counterpart and an equilibrium could be reached to guarantee implementation.

When referring to operational constraints to gender mainstreaming, the lack of methods such as monitoring and evaluation, participation and assessment criteria are consistently identified as challenges. Measuring indicators including equality, equity, empowerment, and transformation make impact assessment a long and expensive process (Moser and Moser, 2005; Waal, 2006). Waal’s (2006) evaluation of gender mainstreaming in South Africa demonstrates the system-wide approach to ensure gender equality is embedded throughout the country’s infrastructure. Their approach includes national, regional, and international indicators to guide the monitoring and evaluation process of gender mainstreaming and the reflection of long-term measures on the degree to which women have achieved equal access to the means of developing basic human capabilities and to basic needs and services; equality of opportunity to participate in all aspects of economic, social and political decision-making; and equality of rewards and benefits’.

Gender Mainstreaming & the Global Development Agenda

The surge of gender mainstreaming after the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action demonstrated a significant shift in how gender was perceived. In 2000, the Millennium Summit was held amongst world leaders to establish an action plan to tackle issues such as poverty, access to health care, education and how to fairly distribute the benefits of globalisation across the world. The summit resulted in the birth of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that paved the way for development over the decade to come. The MDGs outlined an ambitious action plan for governments to work towards eight goals aimed at global poverty alleviation.

A sole focus on gender featured in two goals; MDG 3 which aimed to ‘promote gender equality and empower women’ by eliminating ‘gender disparity in primary and secondary education’; and MDG 5 which aimed ‘to improve maternal health’ by reducing the maternal mortality ratio by three quarters (United Nations, 2000). There is no contention that gender featuring on the global development agenda is an achievement for feminism, however the decision to place gender within the boundaries of health and education deters from the need for gender equality to be instrumental in all poverty reduction, prolonging the tendency to place gender within development topics that are seen to be feminised (Kabeer, 2005). That said, health and education remain critical factors for achieving gender equality and the MDGs demonstrated considerable success, despite their limitations.

Following from the MDGs was the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which comprised 17 goals and 169 targets. The pledge of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is to ‘Leave No-one Behind’, a notable breakthrough when addressing gender equality which is no longer limited to a specific goal and instead ingrained within the overall framework. Gendered targets include end all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere; eliminate violence including trafficking and sexual exploitation; ensure full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leaderships at all levels of decision-making in political economic and public life; universal access to sexual and reproductive health; strengthen policies and enforceable legislation for the promotion of gender equality and empowerment; and more (UN Women, 2015).

The cross-cutting themes of the SDGs recognise that inequalities often intersect and more often than not, a person will fall into more than one category of marginalisation (Stuart and Woodroffe, 2016). When reverting back to the one women notion that dominated the first approaches of liberal feminism throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, the recognition of intersecting marginalisation in development discourse can be deemed a major success in feminist achievements.

While the SDGs show many signs of progress in a bid to achieve gender equality, the broad agenda must be treated with caution when considering its implementation potential: something we are aware has been a notified hindrance in gender mainstreaming. Fukuda-Parr (2016) identifies a number of potential limitations, including selectivity and language simplification.

Selectivity comes into question when considering all 169 targets. Gender mainstreaming as a singular approach failed to gain momentum once reaching the implementation stage, therefore it is acceptable to doubt whether all 169 targets will receive policy attention, efforts, and resources. The question then becomes which ones will be deemed a priority by senior officials and whether there is adequate female representation within institutions to overcome patriarchal decision-making.

Despite this, the SDGs demonstrate real progress for feminists. Gender is now being acknowledged as a key component in all aspects of poverty reduction and women’s rights in all their forms – not just reproductive and economic – are being acknowledged by mainstream institutions.


The principles of gender mainstreaming have emerged through time to birth an approach that ‘balances the goal of gender equality with the need to recognise gender differences’ and transform patriarchal institutional practices in state and global governance (True, 2003).

Gender mainstreaming represents a sophisticated level of success for feminist approaches to development, encompassed in the Sustainable Development Goals, which signify how influential feminism has been in defining poverty and creating a new expectation of how development needs to be achieved.

Despite demonstrating significant progress in policymaking and the overall perception of gender in development institutions, gender mainstreaming remains limited when measuring it against gender equality. In order for gender mainstreaming to achieve ultimate success, it is essential for the agenda to be carefully narrowed to support its implementation without neglecting important targets.

The progress that has been outlined highlights gradual success for feminism in development. The success of gender mainstreaming can be demonstrated through the establishment of gender equality targets, the inclusion of gender in global policymaking and the significant shift in the way gender is perceived in poverty alleviation. Gender mainstreaming has narrowed the gap of gender inequalities and feminists should feel encouraged by what has been achieved, what is being achieved, and what can be achieved when patriarchal norms are challenged.

Reference List

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