Monday, October 5, 2009

Gender mainstreaming

When I wrote this piece in 2004, I had been worrying for time about how the concept of gender mainstreaming, supported with many good intentions by many feminists, was paralysing the women's movement. I'm putting this up on my blog because it expands what I have said about climate change. An Emissions Trading Scheme is the Gender Mainstreaming of the environmental movement.

The political uses of obscurantism: Gender mainstreaming and intersectionality

Mainstreaming a gender perspective 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 the concerns and experiences of women as well as of men an integral part 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 of mainstreaming is to achieve gender equality (ECOSOC, quoted in Young and Hoppe 2003:39)

Gender mainstreaming and intersectionality have become buzz words among women and men who work primarily as bureaucrats in the large national and international organisations that have become so powerful in the last decade or so. Both words continue the path of obscurantism that began with postmodernism in the 1980s. The problem posed by the use of postmodern theory is not just one of access and intellectual elitism, it has also been a process of depoliticisation. Postmodernism has rendered many silent, many speechless, including those whom the theorists claim to defend, namely, the dispossessed, the marginalised, the poverty stricken and the politically powerless.

Before I expand on the difficulties I have with both these words and their political uses, I want to say a few words about gender. The word gender is hugely overused. It is used in contexts where it means women: ‘the gendered dimension’; it is used in contexts where the word sex should be used: ‘the gender of the baby’; it is used to unmark the marked differences between women and men, to whitewash and hide: ‘transgender’; it is used when the word feminist is considered too threatening: ‘the gender debate’ or ‘gender activists’; it is used for appearances, to suggest that women are included when they are not: ‘bringing gender into the discussion’, or it is used as a way of pretending that men are included when they are included only as an afterthought. In ECOSOC’s definition of gender mainstreaming in the quotation that heads this article, note how the use of language and context is so broad in this definition that it has become meaninglessly inclusive.

The word gender is deeply depoliticising. It is a word that is favoured by marketing departments, politicians, human resources practitioners, and institutions. It is one of the words that Don Watson could have written about in Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language (2003). I suspect that the reason he doesn’t is because he is male and he reads the word gender as irrelevant to him. This, I believe, says something very significant about the danger of using ‘gender’ (Barry 1996:188–192).

Gender is such a soft word. It is a word that asks permission to exist. It is a word without demands. Without political clout. Without power. To use a word such as gender might let us sneak past the guards at the door of the boys’ cubby house, but it will not get us to the table where the decisions are being made. And, in the unlikely event that it does, no one will hear the woman who speaks of gender because it applies only to her. Not to the real business of life, or politics, of war, or profit.

In the case above where gender is used of babies, it cannot be usefully applied because gender is learned. A baby has not been around long enough for it (one can use the neutral pronoun for babies) to know anything about the gender differences between women and men.

One of the most disturbing uses of gender is in the acronym GBSV. GBSV stands for gender-based sexual violence. Rape is a perfectly useful word and should be used whenever GBSV is encountered. Every rape, even when the protagonists are not male or the violated ones are not female is based on the idea that men rape women: subject verb object. It is an instance of power over by the powerful and no amount of obscuring will change that. All it results in is a deadening of language.

When gender is teamed with mainstreaming the effect is pervasively deadening. Gender does not and cannot belong in the mainstream. Gender is girls’ stuff; the mainstream is where the boys swim. Gender drowns in the mainstream. Or perhaps is pushed under, held down, and drowned.

Gender is the word that pretends that women can be just like men. But listen to men talk. How many men do you know who talk regularly about gender? If they do, have they been gender trained?

Gender mainstreaming as assimilation
In the 1950s and 1960s it was considered progressive to support the policy of racial assimilation. In Australia assimilation required that the people — Black people, Indigenous people, Asians, Europeans from a non-English speaking background — should be very happy to ‘fit in’, ‘to blend’ and be invisible within the local Anglo-centric white culture.

Among the processes used to support assimilation were stealing children — especially those who may have had a white parent — from mothers and extended families. Children and adults from non-English speaking backgrounds were actively discouraged and often forced to ignore their mother tongue and their culture. Gender mainstreaming operates in a similar way along the continuum of culture. Based on a liberal view of the world, in which differences are smoothed out and diversity is denied, gender mainstreaming suggests that feminist demands be toned down so that the men who benefit from the institutions and power structures of patriarchy do not really have to change, do not have to give up their privilege. Gender mainstreaming encourages feminist projects to have the same aims as projects that benefit men. Gender mainstreaming asks feminists not to rock the boat, not to go too far, not to demand anything other than equality of treatment in a badly skewed system, rather than equality of outcomes.

For example, a gender mainstreaming position is used to argue that Australian men are victimised by the federal government’s Child Support Scheme. Such claims are used to fuel demands that men — including violent men — should be given continuing access to children. These arguments cannot be sustained, and the Chief Justice of the Family Court, Alastair Nicholson, has been reported as saying: ‘I must have been somewhere else. Those cases (when men were victims of family violence) missed me. The number of cases in which there have been serious allegations against women I think I could count on the fingers of one hand’ (Munro 2003:5). Gender mainstreaming fosters the view that everyone should have the same access to social systems, even though it is patently obvious that there are vastly different circumstances and levels of power between those whose lives come under the jurisdiction of such courts. Gender mainstreaming does not allow for context sensitivity, instead it goes for a one-size-fits-all approach which actually only fits the person deemed of a standard size, the norm (Hawthorne 2002:87–109).

Racial assimilation had seriously negative effects on the people subjected to it, and continues to do so. Gender mainstreaming is likely to have similarly deleterious effects on women’s lives over the next 30 years, as we try at some time in the future to disentangle ourselves from it. Most progressive people these days can see the shortcomings of racial assimilation. It is time to acknowledge that the same shortcomings will manifest out of the practice of gender mainstreaming.

Gender mainstreaming in Women’s Studies
There have been two competing forces in the theorising of Women’s Studies since its inception. On the one hand there are those who wish to ‘transform the curriculum’ and incorporate Women’s Studies into other disciplines and be prepared to shift naming conventions as it becomes expedient (Friedman et al. 1996). On the other hand, there are those who have fought for the establishment and continuation of Women’s Studies as an autonomous discipline (Bowles and Duelli-Klein 1983; Bowles 2009).

Those who have fought for the first option have had some achievements, but the curriculum has not exactly been transformed. Were it transformed it would have had the effect of challenging the structures in which such courses are taught. We would also be now seeing social change occurring in which hatred of women and violence against women was reduced. Such changes have not occurred indeed, hatred and violence are on the increase.

Those engaged in the project of transformation have not appeared to be too worried about calling Women’s Studies and Feminist Studies, Gender Studies or Cultural Studies or indeed subsuming what was once Women’s Studies into courses on Politics, Sociology, History or any other discipline (Robinson and Richardson 1996:179–187). However interesting such courses may be, they are not courses in Women’s Studies. Gender Studies and Cultural Studies are widely available, and many of them encourage students to read postmodern theorists whose work is not informed by feminism or by the discipline of Women’s Studies. Again, however interesting this is to particular students, it does not constitute Women’s Studies (see Bell and Klein 1996:279–417).

By watering down the content of what used to be Women’s Studies, students are no longer inspired by feminism and by the prospect of feminist activism and research.

Those who argued for Women’s Studies as a separate and independent discipline have attempted to make courses challenging, women-centred and inspired by feminist research methodologies and feminist pedagogy or gynagogy (Klein 1986). Where Women’s Studies has successfully maintained an autonomous existence, students and teachers speak of the energy of courses, of the ways in which their lives are transformed by reading, discussion, writing and research (Ås 1996:535–545). Gender mainstreaming has led to the demise of many autonomous Women’s Studies programs, or the invisibilising of the research of feminists whose work has disappeared from the curriculum in less than a couple of decades. The result of this will be the need for the next generation to reinvent the wheel.

Gender mainstreaming and queer politics
Lesbians have been at the forefront of the movement for women’s liberation, for feminist activism, and for making it possible for lesbians to live lives against the grain. Lesbians have challenged the discourse of heterosexuality more thoroughly than any other group. But in the new era of global and social homogenisation, ‘queer’ is disappearing lesbians. The argument usually runs that queer is the word of choice for the younger generation (‘young’ is unspecified, it appears to extend from about 20 to 40 years of age). What is said is that young lesbians who call themselves queer socialise more with young gay men. The outcome of this is that many young lesbians no longer know their lesbian cultural history. Queer has become so inclusive that it doesn’t allow the space for lesbians to exist (Jeffreys 1993:79–98; Wilkinson and Kitzinger 1996:359–382; Jeffreys 2003).

At a conference in 2003, in a discussion about queer, one academic noted that queer was useful politically in universities and that if she didn’t really want to be noticed she would use the term ‘queer’ to describe herself rather than the more confronting term ‘lesbian’.

In the last few years another term — full of inclusivity — has come into use: LGBTI. LGBTI is short for lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/intersex. There are more arguments between the members of these groups than there are commonalities, and lesbians — even though they head up the list — can be quickly forgotten. More usual these days is GLBTI.

We also find the term (and what a ragged term it is) ‘same-sex-attracted’. My immediate response is to wonder what this might mean. Is it enough to be “attracted”? Its usefulness as an inclusive term is too limited to whatever the hearer or reader can imagine. How many readers read same-sex as gay men? How many read it to mean lesbian? How many are so confused that neither image occurs to them.

Where is the celebration of culture that one finds in the word ‘lesbian’ and its offshoots in various European languages? Where is the poetry? Where is music and song? The joy and outrageousness? The wild and passionate? The language of the twenty-first century is making lesbians retreat; it is clouding, obfuscating, euphemising lesbians out of the world.

How much nicer say the government departments, the fearful politicians to hear the term ‘same-sex-attracted’. ‘Same-sex attracted’ reduces lesbians to a mechanics of robotified sexuality. It is formalin-covered sex. It is sex without fun, without emotion, without joy, without even the vagaries of distrust and betrayal. It is a clinical term stripped of feeling that does nothing for lesbian politics and cultures (Hawthorne 2003a).

The process of mainstreaming in queer politics has led to a depoliticisation of lesbian politics. It also assists in the continuation of violence against lesbians through torture and in contributing to making lesbians invisible and non-existent yet again (Hawthorne 2006).

Gender mainstreaming and international politics
Gender mainstreaming has found a comfortable home in bureaucratic structures such as the United Nations and the European Union, as well as in national and state governments. Gender mainstreaming is put forward as an aim in such institutions and this makes it appear that something is happening to bring more women and more women’s issues into the centres of power. What happens instead, is that gender units are under-funded, short-staffed and not prioritised as central commitments by governments and institutions.

It is not dissimilar to the way in which the language of multilateral trade agreements appropriates the language of social justice with talk of equal treatment, when in fact the field is not equal and the subsidies given to the main players means that they continue to win the game. What it actually enables is that the big boys and little boys do things the same way and the big boys just keep winning and doing what they have always done.

Gender mainstreaming allows the bureaucracies to appropriate feminist language, to insert feminist language into official ‘gender’ documents and then do nothing. In the process the vibrancy of feminist language is lost. Lesbians become same-sex attracted; a concern with diversity is turned into the ‘diversity position’, where one person has the task of catering to the manifold needs of ‘clients’; and benefits to poor women (who could certainly do with them) are broadened out so that everyone — women and men — can share the benefit equally.

Gender mainstreaming allows institutions to appropriate feminist research and use it to water down and undermine feminist projects. In the area of development, it is being used to pull women into the global economy. Women have been quite resistant to this because women’s work is so often unpaid or underpaid, and their consumption patterns reflect not avid consumerism for luxury goods, but survival goods for their children, elderly relatives and themselves (Hynes 1999:189–201). But globalisation demands that every person not yet included in the global consumer and producer market should be, and so women are led into microcredit schemes, sometimes producing goods that have perhaps a small place in the market, but never one that allows them to truly flourish. It tends instead to keep them in poverty (Hawthorne 2002:262–309). It is not dissimilar from the Indigenous forest people of Indonesia of whom Michael Dove writes (1993:17–24). He points out that the forest people are allowed access to global markets only through goods that do not have high value in the global marketplace, and should that change, those things are then declared public or wild and appropriated by large corporations. This has been the pattern for intellectual property rights over medicinal plants across the world. It is an area in which women are frequently the major custodians of knowledge. But it is not the women who are making the profits.

At the same time women begin to be bombarded by advertising for consumer goods for which their need is minimal, and the pressure from their children to participate in the global culture is overwhelming. So Coca-Cola and McDonald’s find a foothold in markets around the world, undermining the traditional diets of people and also undermining the health of people. Diabetes begins to flourish, along with alcoholism, petrol sniffing and many other preventable modern-day social ills.

Gender mainstreaming
Gender mainstreaming is used as a sop to feminist demands, but it does not meet the demands and it does not improve the lot of women around the world. Instead it entrenches a neo-liberal view of the world that allows the global institutions to more effectively pull women into the global economy, both as producers and consumers.

In the process, the original ideas are watered down to a point where they are no longer recognisable as political demands for social justice. They are simply mechanisms for keeping rowdy people — especially women — quiet.

Gender mainstreaming sounds like a good idea, but it ignores the context of women’s lives, and it ignores the realities of men’s violence and hatred. Like globalisation, it is hazardous for women. Women who are passionate about their concerns need a grassroots approach and an approach that is women-centred. That is, it begins from the experience of women and does not attempt to fit women’s needs and demands into frameworks that work for men. This is not new, Virginia Woolf (1938) warned of the hazards of joining the processions of educated men, that is of becoming part of the system, in her remarkable book, Three Guineas.

Intersectionality is a more hopeful term than gender mainstreaming. This is because it is at least an attempt to take account of the diverse situations of women in the real world. It is an attempt to consider issues of class, of race, of ethnicity and religion, of geography and migration, and of mobility or immobility, as well as of sexual orientation. It takes account of simultaneous multiple oppressions. This is a good beginning.

But the trouble is — like the term ‘gender’ or the term ‘queer’ — it includes so much that it is very easy for parts of what it does include to disappear. In one context — let’s say that religion is a defining factor — religion then becomes the axis along which people think. Class, race, sexuality, disability, age can easily be lost as the main focus tends to obliterate those issues not seen as important. In another context, where class is all important, it can focus, say, on white working-class people and ignore the fact that Indigenous people are often left out in discussions of class.

Intersectionality is an ‘end’ term, one that can be useful as a way of discussing how oppressions manifest in multiple ways, that none of us lives a uni-dimensional life, although some aspects may be more important than others in determining our life paths.

In discussing the ways in which we can come to understand the intersections and interplays, I suggest playing the Dominant Culture Stupidities game. The game involves looking at several axes simultaneously, for instance, class, race and mobility. If a person is from a middle- or upper-class position, chances are that they will not be as sensitive to issues of poverty as those who experience it as a daily struggle of making ends meet, of putting food on the table, paying the medical bills or not being able to afford the school outings for their children. Likewise, a white person — unless s/he happens to be a minority in their social context — will not notice the small vilifications those from a despised or even barely tolerated social group will experience. Often this is tied to poverty, but if poverty is not a factor, race will still emerge as a significant factor in that person’s life. The able-bodied person barely notices the step from the road to the footpath, nor the stairs to the workplace or public building. But to a person in a wheelchair or suffering an illness that imposes mobility difficulties, such small steps can be major barriers (Hawthorne 2002:45–50).

Making an analogy to sex and gender, it becomes clear just why it is that gender is so irrelevant to so many men. It simply does not hit their radar. Such games can and have been played to great effect (the blue eye/brown eye game, for example), but until those in the dominant culture — whatever it is — have played it along the many possible axes, it can be easy to ignore those which are irrelevant in daily life. Such games are useful ways of exploring intersectionality.

The other problem with intersectionality is its intentional neutrality. It stirs no emotion, it is yet another depoliticised word and runs the risk of becoming further eroded over time. Another term which may have some usefulness, at least for a time is the ‘diversity matrix’. The diversity matrix names the political alliances that people make across their differences — of experience, priorities and political demands (Hawthorne 2002:383). It shares the criss-crossing aspect of intersectionality, but puts up-front the issue of political position and of political alliance. I suspect over time, it too will lose its gloss, but, nevertheless, the incorporation of politics into the term is one of its strengths.

Language has its political uses and obscure language is always helpful to those with power. Orwell named this in his novels 1984 and Animal Farm, referring to the need to confuse others either by applying contradictory terminology or by using terms that are so vague as to be rendered meaningless. Politicians and bureaucrats revel in obscurantism and one of the powerful challenges to this is sheer clarity of language. Obscurantism leads to political passivity and social fatalism. Feminists need always to be awake to such strategies and the use of clear, context specific and direct language is the first step in truly transforming society.


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This is an updated version of an essay first published in 2004: Development Bulletin. No. 89. pp. 87-91.

1 comment:

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