To the frontpage
spacer spacer spacer

The meaning of mainstreaming

Mannequiner på samlebånd, af Squarefrog, fra
The International Labour Organisation, ILO, is considered to be a world leader in the mainstreaming of gender. In her Ph.D thesis, however, Helle Poulsen points out that mainstreaming requires clear-cut definitions of gender and equality, and that the ILO has the same problems in this respect as so many other organisations involved with mainstreaming. She has studied the inconsistent definition of gender – even when it is at the top of the agenda.

KVINFO/2.5.2007 One of the world’s first standards for labour market practice was the Convention on the Protection of Maternity, from 1919. It was introduced by the International Labour Organisation, ILO, which had been set up that same year. Since then the ILO has worked for social justice in the labour market and equal rights for all workers – men and women – and operates as an independent specialised agency of the UN.

On March 8 1999, the ILO’s new Secretary General, Juan Somavia, invited all the staff at the headquarters in Geneva to celebrate International Women’s Day. It was the first time in the old organisation’s history that the occasion had been observed at this level, and it ushered in a new focus on equality of status. With a new plan of action in his hand, Somavia declared that gender was to be put at the top of the agenda for the ILO’s entire area of activity. The organisation was to be a leader within mainstreaming, and gender would be an integrated facet of all its projects, programmes, policies and evaluations.

At that time Helle Poulsen was an associate expert on gender and equality issues for the ILO. She spent three years working for the organisation in Tanzania; one of her assignments was to participate in the preparation of a plan of action for Africa with regard to equality issues. This experience motivated her research into those concepts of gender and equality upon which the ILO’s mainstreaming approach was based.

She scrutinised the organisation’s documents and conducted fieldwork on projects in Indonesia and Tanzania, where good intentions were to be converted into actual practice. This resulted in her PhD thesis The Elusive Gender. The International Labour Organisation and the Construction of Gender Equality, which Helle Poulsen presented at the Institute of Political Science, University of Copenhagen, in January 2007.

From women to gender
In her thesis, Helle Poulsen describes the progress from talking about “women in development” to “gender and development” in the ILO. The old approach was criticised for placing women in a traditional developmental mindset based on male-dominated social and economic structures, rather than challenging these structures.

The change signalled a new understanding of gender as social relations and constructions, and a new focus on power relationships between men and women. ‘Women’ was no longer to be an isolated category in which both the problems and the solutions could be found. But Helle Poulsen points out that there is a big difference between a new use of language in the ILO’s documents and the normal practice within the organisation.

- I spoke with a deputy-director in Tanzania who expressed it very starkly: “I thought that gender meant women.” It could almost be said that a search-and-replace function had put in the word ‘gender’ every time it saw the word ‘women’. Replication of the progressive rhetoric occurs, but it goes no further than that. Many people feel very vulnerable and confused when they see gender categories being challenged. It is therefore easier to use the new language, but stick to the old categories, says Helle Poulsen.

And Helle Poulsen demonstrates how the category ‘women’ is still going strong in the ILO. Being a woman means being heterosexual, a mother and a carer. In the developing countries in which much of the ILO’s work takes place, women are habitually viewed as victims, poor and illiterate. One of the key conclusions of Helle Poulsen’s analysis is that the ILO’s approach precludes the many women who do not match this archetype – and thus the actual differences between women - are rendered invisible.

At the same time, women are always pictured as ‘women workers’ with specific women’s problems. Equal pay, for example, is treated as a challenge only applicable to women. When it comes to sexual harassment, the focus is on women as victims who need more power and self-confidence, and not on men’s dominant power position.

Gender will therefore typically come into play in one of two ways: either as a topic that is only relevant in a sexual context – for example, reproductive rights; or as a particular perspective on mainstream topics where women’s problems are seen as being different and specific – for example, health and security.

What significance does this picture of women, men, and the inequality between them, have for mainstreaming work?

- ‘Mainstreaming’ doesn’t mean anything in itself – it has to have content: what is the goal of this particular mainstreaming? People have different ideas as to what equality actually is, and the same tools might be used to very different ends, says Helle Poulsen.

- I saw a very clear example of this in Tanzania at a meeting of international donors. The Tanzanian ministry dealing with equality of status presented a plan for a series of projects which the donors might be interested in supporting. But around the whole table – representatives from Danida [Danish International Development Agency, ed.], Finland, Germany and various UN organisations – the reaction was that it would be very difficult to take the plan home to the backers because, as they said: “These are all women’s projects, and we’re mainstreamers.”

The idea that mainstreaming does not cover measures targeted specifically at women is a general problem; in many places there is such a degree of inequality between the sexes that special projects for the female population are still necessary, as Helle Poulsen points out.

You write that mainstreaming risks becoming an excuse for downgrading gender inequality entirely as an area of concern?

- Yes, and there is a danger that expertise in gender issues will be abandoned. At the moment, responsibility falls on everyone when it comes to integrating gender into areas such as health, water and infrastructure. Many project workers are genuinely interested in equality, but they don’t know how to tackle the issue. And so it all becomes very perfunctory and revolves around figures: how many women can we get to participate? – without looking at the way in which they participate. Equality becomes something that can be weighed and measured, while experts on gender issues are dispensed with.

Gender and equality – an area of knowledge
A 2005 survey of mainstreaming strategy in Danish public administration revealed that there is considerable uncertainty as to what gender and equality actually mean, and that this is an obstacle to change. Your thesis also identifies a major problem regarding the definition of the terms?

- Yes, that’s a continually recurring conclusion in the assessment of mainstreaming – in the ILO’s evaluation, too. And yet, there is still no clarification of the actual issues. It’s important to me that I can contribute to a greater understanding of what the terms mean.

- It has to be legitimate to talk about the inequalities. We have all this rhetoric about equality being important. We think we know what we mean by that, and that we all mean the same. But we don’t at all. That’s obvious when it comes to parliamentary decision-making – they might all be ‘pro equality’, but they are in total disagreement as to how it should be achieved. And that is partly due to the different terms used for equality, says Helle Poulsen.

Your analysis also indicates that this makes for reluctance and thus the risk of the choice falling on not dealing with the subject at all?

- Many people in the ILO – women and men alike – can’t really see the relevance of gender to their specific area. And they can’t see it at all if they only receive a very general introduction to gender issues. One of the good things the ILO has done was the introduction in 2002 of an in-house evaluation of gender mainstreaming – known as the gender audit. Selected departments at the headquarters and national offices looked at the existing projects and how gender could be integrated into them, says Helle Poulsen.

- People were very enthusiastic, because it suddenly made sense. They’ve heard about gender for years and been given the one fact sheet after the other. But it is not until they look at it in relation to their own work, and see how it has relevance there, that gender makes sense.

- And that’s where we need experts who can be sparring partners and say: “You know how to build roads. I know who builds roads and I know what impact a road here will have for men and women in the local community.” It’s not possible for everyone to know about everything – that’s an area in which we can have expertise.

- That’s also why I wanted to make a closer study – to show that competence in gender issues should be regarded as a qualification. Talking about mainstreaming in a Danish political context, for example, gets very technical: “We’ll need some instruments to do it with.” But it’s also a political area and a professional area. It’s not only about tools that experts can develop and which can then just be picked up and used – there’s a need for knowledge, explains Helle Poulsen.

You actually demonstrate that the further down in the organisation and out in the field, the more stereotyped the view of women and men. What can be done about that?

- It’s a question of specific analyses. You have to find out, for example, about the actual nature of family life in a particular place. People shouldn’t have to start studying queer theory, but norms can be challenged by looking at the actual circumstances. The problem in many developing countries is the lack of data with reference to gender and equality. Again: it’s an area of knowledge, and we need some facts so that we can see what the situation really looks like.

Female values and invisible men
Men are largely invisible in discussions on equality in the ILO. They represent the asexual and universal norm for a worker – this being the ideal from which women deviate, and which they must aspire to match. In just the same way as differences between women are not brought up for discussion, men are all assumed to be in full-time work, to be healthy and to be heterosexual fathers. And Helle Poulsen is critical of the ILO’s approach to those men who do not fit the picture of ‘proper masculinity’ and who, for example, do not fulfil the role of breadwinner:

- It becomes a case of helping the men who don’t live up to the norm, rather than looking at what’s wrong with that norm. These men are turned into victims via exactly the same template as the women – they are something ‘other’ than the ideal. There are also, however, other ideals for women – for example, that they should supply the ‘female values’.

The idea that women represent particular values that are favourable to development is also raised when gender is to be justified as an area to be highlighted in Danish overseas aid policy. Can the case for female values in relation to growth be used to any purpose?

- I’m not at all happy with the case for female values. It assumes that there is a cohesive femininity that excludes those women who don’t fit into the picture. It contributes to the reinforcement of conventional notions of gender – and thus inequality.

- One of the most fundamental concerns in the discussion of equality is the question of childbearing. We can see it in inequality of pay, in the glass ceiling. If we say that there are certain female values that are bound up with the role of carer, then it will be difficult, for example, to argue that men should also participate in childcare.

- The argument claiming economic growth is dubious – because what happens if it turns out that equality isn’t particularly good for the bottom line? Some analyses show that it is – but others show that it has no impact. A recent study concluded that, yes, enterprises that appoint a diversity of staff flourish – but this is not due to the representation of women or other minorities as such, but rather due to a corporate culture which is, amongst other things, characterised by an ethos of working towards more equality.

- I would much rather focus on the human rights argument: discrimination is just not good practice if you want to talk about democracy and human rights. Then it makes no difference whether people bring along some special values or not, says Helle Poulsen.

Global differences and joint projects
In your thesis you show how women in the developing world are not only viewed as deviant in relation to a male norm, but also in relation to the picture of a western liberated woman?

- In the ILO context it’s clear that the main endeavour is directed at problems of equality everywhere else than in the western world. This becomes a reinforcement of the view that we have made great progress, whereas it’s a pity for the others. We see this in the debate here in Denmark too, where equality has turned into a Danish value. Something we have – and it’s the others who come here who have the problem, because they don’t understand that in Denmark we have equality between men and women.

Helle Poulsen points out that women and men in the developing world share some battles and some societal circumstances – for example, in respect of globalisation. But the stereotypical perceptions of men and women mean that there is no discussion of how gender relates to global inequalities. All women are assumed to have the same interests and face the same challenges. But, in Helle Poulsen’s experience, the notion of a shared goal for all women proves to be very problematic when it comes to global cooperation on women’s rights.

- Some people active in this sphere talk about the speed at which time is running out for a global project. Five years after the 1995 World Conference on Women held in Beijing, women’s organisations met again at the 2000 Beijing +5 conference where this time it proved far more difficult to reach any joint objectives or simply uphold what had been agreed just those few years earlier. Today it is more a case of forming strategic alliances. A good example of this is the potential to forge alliances working on, for example, reproductive rights, even though approaches and objectives might vary.

- At the same time, there is criticism based on the idea that a divergence from taking women as a single interest group would undermine the feminist cause. If we don’t start out from the category called ‘women’, then on whose behalf are we working? I have met people who had earlier been very vocal in calling for a shift from women to gender, but who now worry that the term ‘gender’ has become too fragmented to be of any use.

The long route to mainstreaming
Since the mainstreaming of gender was put high on the ILO’s agenda at the end of the 1990s, Helle Poulsen has noted that staff at the organisation put far more emphasis on equality – and this is not least due to the setting up of an equality office which reports directly to the director general. Nonetheless, she acknowledges that there is still a long way to go before mainstreaming policy is adopted systematically.

- It’s still not an integral part of the work process, even after all these years. For example, projects that score badly on gender discrimination, but score well on other criteria, can be adopted without any problem when donor funds are being distributed.

In your thesis you mention that there is a connection between the problems involved in implementing good intentions and the fact that men are dominant at the top end of the organisation?

- Unfortunately, I think we need more men in the field who recognise that they have a gender and that it’s an important issue. I say “unfortunately” because we’re back to the situation where it takes men to give an issue prestige. But in the ILO context there is an expectation that it’s the women who should deal with the discussion of equality. One of the arguments for the participation of women is thus also that they are the ones who have to get equality put on the agenda. And that’s how it is in practice, too. But, at the same time, equality is easily marginalised when it’s seen as a women’s issue.

Why hasn’t the momentum of the ILO’s work in promoting equality made more impact?

- Well, the same people are sitting in the top management positions. And then, the department dealing with equality has been accustomed to battling along from a much marginalised position in the organisation. It can be hard to start working in a different mode. It was my impression that the department chose to carry on in the same way as when it had been struggling along further down the hierarchy. They didn’t push the management on issues of equality, even though they could have said: “If you want to make a good impression on the director general then we’ve got some good ideas for what you could do.”

- That’s one of the things pointed out by many people who work with mainstreaming: the barriers lie in the question of whether there is political will at all levels. It’s not enough, for example, to have a director general who thinks equality is vital if the middle management doesn’t give it high priority. It seems to me that it’s dependent on individuals, just as it is here in Denmark too: if there are people who are passionate about the issue, then things can happen, concludes Helle Poulsen. 

Translation: Gaye Kynoch

Helle Poulsens thesis The Elusive Gender
ILOs site for gender equality

Printer ikonspacerPrint

KVINFO · Christians Brygge 3 · DK 1219 København K Tel: +45 33 13 50 88 · Fax: +45 33 14 11 56 · E-mail: