How Gender Mainstreaming Helps Fight Inequality

Designate employment, social affairs, skills and Labour mobility
Designate employment, social affairs, skills and Labour mobility Commissioner Marianne THYSSEN deliver a speech during a hearing of the employment and social affairs, women's right and gender equality Committee of the European Parliament. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Gender mainstreaming is a way to build a society free from bias, in which all have equal rights and opportunities. It means making gender equality central in policy creation, research, advocacy, lawmaking and spending. Women and men’s ideas, experiences, and interests also become key considerations in program planning, roll out, and monitoring.

This approach could be used wherever inequality exists (i.e. most of the planet). But it has mostly gained steam in international development circles. 

Inequity’s Remedy

Gender and the unfair order favoring men over women are potent and deep, yet manmade. Like players on a stage, we’re locked into scripts dictating what’s okay for females and males to say and do. The roles are learned through socialization, education, political and economic structures, legislation, culture, and traditions.

But because humans made gender inequality, we can unmake it. Gender mainstreaming is inequity’s remedy. Rather than resting on rote, this approach insists we pause to reflect on what we’ve created, look for intentional or inadvertent harm, and accept the challenge of creating fairness.

Take Apart. Rebuild.

Early gender equality efforts were mostly aimed at women. But these programs merely meant including women in unfair structures and practices. A re-crafting of the mechanisms preserving inequity was needed instead. Thus, mainstreaming focuses on rebuilding the systems that determine roles as well as who gets resources and power.

The approach was elevated globally in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. This decree was approved at the UN’s 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women: Action for Equality, Development and Peace, held in China.

The text urged governments and other key players to “promote an active and visible policy of mainstreaming a gender perspective into all policies and programmes.” It declared that decisions should be avoided until research of the impact on women and men were considered.

Bolts And Nuts

Just as we learned gender, we must also learn gender mainstreaming. It doesn’t happen naturally. It requires political will, attitude change, and skill. A key element is accepting that an obvious absence of inequality is different from equality.

A Swedish community, for example, discovered unfairness below the surface of its snow-removal plan. Analysts found that women were more likely to get hurt in accidents because the bike paths and walkways they used more frequently were cleared after roads. But roadways to major male-dominated workplaces were plowed right away. There was a negative financial impact as well as a burden on women. Three times more walkers than drivers got hurt in single-vehicle accidents on icy roads. Most were women. Hospitalization and lost productivity cost four times as much as snow plowing. Now walkways and bike paths are cleared before streets.

To encourage similar efforts, experts identified a set of ideas to consider. While each situation is different, these steps from Gender Mainstreaming: An Overview provide a starting point for reflection.

  1. Consider differences and inequities related to an issue, recognizing that women’s and men’s views of a problem may differ.
  2. Question assumptions in seemingly neutral terms like “people” when a problem is posed or a policy is crafted, because “people” may react to issues in gender-specific ways.
  3. Use sex-disaggregated data to find and tackle gender differences.
  4. Get input from women as well as men about decisions affecting their lives.
  5. Ensure sectors in which there are more women than men get equal attention.
  6. Recognize the diversity of needs and views among subgroups of men and women.
  7. Analyze issues from a gender perspective and seek solutions supporting a fair division of benefits and opportunities.

To be clear, gender mainstreaming does not mean ending programs and policies aimed at rectifying inequity. These initiatives complement mainstreaming.

Equality For All, Needed By All

Gender constructs can be unseen, but the impact is obvious. Women around the globe are unequal in all realms, from homes to national governments. Women’s work is undervalued and underpaid nearly everywhere. Women are more likely to suffer the impact of violence, no matter where they live. Thus, gender equality is a human right. 

But there’s more than humanitarianism at stake. Equity plays a role in reaching other social and economic goals too. Persistent disparity means women bear more of the costs of underdevelopment and gain fewer benefits from interventions. This negatively affects everyone. As the United Nations has stated, "women represent half the resources and potential in any society. This potential remains unrealized when women are constrained by inequality and discrimination.“

Systems denying women and men a fate of their own choosing, limit all who are burdened by fabricated roles. Gender mainstreaming allows us all to be free, so it benefits everyone.

Yet, even though it was reified in Beijing over twenty years ago, problems like “conceptual confusion” remain, standing in the way of realizing gender mainstreaming. It seems no accident, then, that mainstreaming is a gerund, an –ing verb turned into a noun, reflecting the state of incomplete action and the long road ahead for the realization of the ideal.

Diane Rubino is a communications instructor and professional who seeks to make the world more healthy, humane, and peaceful. She’s working with activists, NGOs, and scientists worldwide on gender equity, international development, human rights, and public health issues. Diane teaches at NYU and runs applied ethics, facing tough crowds, and workplace advocacy programs in the US and abroad.


  • Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues (OSAGI). 2002. Gender Mainstreaming: An Overview. New York: United Nations.
  • OSAGI. 2002. Gender Mainstreaming: An Overview. New York: United Nations.
  • Important concepts underlying gender mainstreaming. (n.d.). Retrieved December 17, 2017, from
  • Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. (1995). Retrieved December 17, 2017, from
  • Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions. (2014). Gender Mainstreaming [Video file]. Retrieved from
  • OSAGI. 2002. Gender Mainstreaming: An Overview. New York: United Nations.
  • Positive impacts from incorporating gender perspectives into the substantive work of the United Nations . (n.d.). Retrieved December 17, 2017, from    
  • Positive impacts from incorporating gender perspectives into the substantive work of the United Nations. (n.d.). Retrieved December 17, 2017, from    
  • OSAGI. 2002. Gender Mainstreaming: An Overview. New York: United Nations.