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Gender mainstreaming in the workplace: Why is it so elusive?

Women are now more than ever before able to deliver and outperform in the workplace and henceforth help build communities and societies. Change your attitude and help end the abuse and imbalance.


08 March 2018

By Lettie T. Longwe and Dr. Tigist E. Yeshiwas


Gender mainstreaming has become an internationally accepted strategy in achieving gender equality since the Fourth World Conference held in Beijing in 1995. By definition, gender mainstreaming is the process of assessing the implications for women and men of any planned action - including legislation, policies or programmes - in all areas and at all levels (ECOSOC, 1997). It also makes women’s as well as men's concerns and experiences an integral dimension of the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of these policies and programmes.

Though some significant gains have been achieved beyond the Beijing, Beijing +5, +10, +15 and other processes, it is evident that more work remains to be done with regard to the implementation of the action plans following these platforms and frameworks. Issues such as violence, poverty, globalization, and societal, institutional, cultural and religious norms, continue to hinder gender equality in Africa and worldwide. Women in particular still lag behind men in many socio-economic development aspects be it in politics, the economy, the boardroom, academia, peace and security, sports, and the legal and private sectors. Salary parity is also a far cry from becoming engendered both on the continent and beyond.


The issues

Arguably, in the peace and security sector, UN Security Council Resolution 1325 calls on all parties to conflict to take special measures to protect women and girls from gender-based violence, particularly rape and other forms of sexual abuse, in situations of armed conflict. It also calls upon the full-fledged participation of both women and men at all levels of any peace process. This is fundamental to democracy and essential to the achievement of sustainable and lasting peace.


In spite of the existence of such legitimate and universal gender equality frameworks and advocacy platform processes, gender imbalances still persist at all levels of society. Only 22.8% of all national parliamentarians were women as of June 2016; 11 women are serving as Heads of State and 12 are serving as Heads of Government, as of October 2017. Much more is needed if the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are to be met by 2030.[1] The global political system still manages to neglect women’s participation and evades accountability for the rights of half its global citizens. It is essential to emphasize that both women and men must be included in decision-making roles if society is to ensure that existing gender inequalities are not perpetuated and allowed to manifest across all sectors for the next generations to come.


Such imbalances are blatantly evident in the workplace. A good percentage of women lack access, control, capacity and soft and hard skills; with only a small number fully participating in workplace decision-making processes. For instance, in institutions such as the UN, only 29% of women hold senior and or decision-making positions.[2]


Below are some of the frequent gender misunderstandings that further perpetuate inequality:

  • “Gender equals women”
  • “Gender work is women’s work”
  • “Every woman is a gender expert”
  • “Gender work does not necessitate extra resources (time and money)”
  • “Gender expertise is not linked to sectorial expertise”
  • “Gender equality means to make women and men the same”


Using gender mainstreaming to achieve equality goes far beyond these uninformed notions. Not all women and men are feminists or gender activists and understandably so. Women and men who advocate for gender equality in the workplace should not be punished for doing so nor labelled with negative connotations. On the contrary, everybody should play their role to promote gender equality as women’s rights are human rights.


Where is the blockage and how should they be addressed?

Though gender inequality exists at all levels of society and in all sectors, this article focuses on practices in the workplace. Stories abound of challenges women face in the workplace including sexual harassment, discriminatory hiring practices and unequal pay to mention a few. Furthermore, most often than not boldness and aggressiveness in the workplace for men is a desirable attribute indicating a willingness to take risks without fear of failure (Yao Zhang, World Economic Forum, 2017). However, for women, boldness is perceived as arrogance, or lack of regard for others’ needs and emotions. This should lead us to ask, is it possible for a boss to be a boss without being ‘bossy’?


Key issues and suggestions:

  • Men who are recruited to train new hires in the workplace tend to adopt strategies that are geared towards other men and assume a male culture of work induction i.e. the "techno rat" syndrome, which disadvantages women. There is a need for more creative teaching of the trainer’s programmes if we wish to change such gender bias;
  • Gender mainstreaming is not just adding a “women’s component” or even a “gender equality component” into an existing activity, project or programme, but includes bringing the experience, knowledge and interests of women and men to bear on the development agenda with decision-making roles and capabilities (UN Women, 2013);
  • Sensitizing men about the differences in the way men and women socialize and do things differently in the workplace will make them more aware of the actions that inadvertently end up abusing and alienating women. This will go a long way towards altering [male] perceptions and contributing towards addressing some of the problems inherent in workplace gender bias. Women do not necessarily have to behave like men to be accepted or deemed competent. They most certainly should not be demeaned nor abused (verbal, sexual or otherwise) to attain certain competitive positions or promotions. Just like their male counterparts, they merit those positions with their impeccable skills and qualifications. Even in instances where women have equally aggressive work ethics to men, this should also be accepted and tolerated;
  • Ensure equal access to training opportunities and promote gender-awareness training opportunities for both women and men;
  • Support technical and management programmes that train women professionals and create internship programmes with educational institutions;
  • Re-examine HR policies to ensure that they encourage the active involvement of women in the workplace;
  • Women and gender equality advocacy in most cases is only active and prevalent among women in the lower echelons of the career ladder. Women who manage to reach the end of the decision-making ladder or break the ‘glass ceiling’ tend to forget the need to uplift other women beneath them. These women are torch-bearers and should help put in place guides and policies that uplift their fellow female colleagues. They should remember that there is always safety and strength in numbers. It is and has been in the past a man’s world: this needs to change in a balanced and positive way;
  • There is a need for governments and other actors to continue promoting an active, visible and open policy of mainstreaming a gender perspective in all strategies and programmes;
  • Gender equality in the workplace also means that both women and men need to be involved in the design, budgeting decision and implementation of work plans, projects and activities, and equally take up strategic ownership.


Finally, the core understanding of gender equality in the workplace is seeking to secure equality under the law, equality of opportunity (including equality of rewards for work and equality of access to human capital and other productive resources that enable opportunity) and equality of voice (the ability to influence and contribute to the development process).[3]


Accordingly, as we mark another International Women’s Day this March, it is important to not only celebrate the progress made, but also reflect on how to make it sustainable. Furthermore, it is also necessary to ensure that gender equity surpasses equality through gender mainstreaming strategies, locally and globally: this will ensure an inclusive sustainable peace and development for the world as well as guarantees that we reach Planet 50/50 by 2030.



Bacchi, C. L. 1999. Women, Politics and Politics: The Construction of Policy Problems. London: SAGE Publications;

Cohn, Carol, 2013. Women and Wars: Cambridge, England; Malden, Mass.: Polity Press 



[3] Source: Engendering Development, A World Bank Policy Research Report, 2001