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  • Gender Mainstreaming:Productive Tensions in Theory and Practice
  • Sylvia Walby (bio)


Gender mainstreaming is an essentially contested concept and practice. It involves the reinvention, restructuring, and rebranding of a key part of feminism in the contemporary era. It is both a new form of gendered political and policy practice and a new gendered strategy for theory development. As a practice, gender mainstreaming is a process to promote gender equality. It is also intended to improve the effectivity of mainline policies by making visible the gendered nature of assumptions, processes, and outcomes. However, there are many different definitions of gender mainstreaming as well as considerable variations in practice. As a form of theory, gender mainstreaming is a process of revision of key concepts to grasp more adequately a world that is gendered, rather than the establishment of a separatist gender theory. Gender mainstreaming encapsulates many of the tensions and dilemmas in feminist theory and practice over the past decade and provides a new focus for debates on how to move them on (Behning and Pascual 2001; Beveridge et al. 2000; Mazey 2000; Verloo 2001; Walby 2001; Woodward 2003).

There are at least six major issues in the analysis of gender mainstreaming. First is how to address the tension between "gender equality" and the "mainstream" and the attempts to reposition these two configurations. Second is whether the vision of gender equality invoked by the mainstreaming process draws on notions of "sameness," "difference," [End Page 321] or "transformation"; or, in a parallel typology, inclusion, reversal, or displacement. Third is whether the vision of gender equality can be distinguished from the strategy to get there, or whether these are two dimensions of the same process. Fourth is the relationship of gender mainstreaming with other complex inequalities, especially those associated with ethnicity and class, but also disability, faith, sexual orientation, and age. Fifth is the relationship between "expertise" and "democracy," and the rethinking of the concept and practice of democracy to include gender relations. Sixth are the implications of the transnational nature of the development of gender mainstreaming, including the influence of international regimes, the development of human rights discourse, and the development of the European Union in the context of global processes.

The articles in this special issue of Social Politics take these debates forward in many significant ways. Most of the articles contributed to and drew from a series of seminars funded by the U.K. Economic and Social Research Council on gender mainstreaming. They address the meaning of gender equality as well as the project of gender mainstreaming (Verloo), engage with diverse inequalities and their intersectionality and their implications for theories of democracy (Squires), consider the implications of the wider economic and political context for the potential of gender mainstreaming to create change (Perrons), address the tension between the agenda-setting potential of the strategy and integration into the mainstream (Lombardo), and investigate the relationship between theory and practice in diverse European settings (Daly).

Gender Equality and the Mainstream

Gender mainstreaming involves at least two different frames of reference: "gender equality" and the "mainstream." Thus gender mainstreaming is inevitably and essentially a contested process. Although there are attempts to bridge the gap between these two positions, it is important to note the frequent opposition to gender mainstreaming to understand the dualism between gender equality and mainstream agendas. Elgström (2000) argues that new gender norms have to "fight their way into institutional thinking" in competition with traditional norms, because established goals may compete with the prioritization of gender equality even if they are not directly opposed. This means that the process is contested and can involve "negotiation" rather than simple adoption of new policies. Perrons (this volume) provides a different perspective on the origin and nature of opposition to gender mainstreaming. She argues that, at least in the United Kingdom and perhaps more widely, the goal of [End Page 322] the competitiveness of the economy takes precedence over equality considerations, thereby endorsing rather than tackling the low-paid work so frequently found among women. The issue is not articulated as opposition to the goal of gender equality, but rather the prioritisation of some other goal. In this instance, the prioritization of...


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pp. 321-343
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