Making Gender Mainstreaming an “Operational reality”

June 14, 2016 | By

Deconstructing Gender Mainstreaming in Energy Access – Part 2

“Gender mainstreaming” is, without a doubt, one of the most trending development buzzwords out there today. However, just because it is used frequently does not mean its application is wide-spread, especially where it matters most – in development interventions.

Experiences show that the idea of gender mainstreaming continues to remain elusive to those meant to be the custodians of this key development ingredient. 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. It is a strategy for making women’s as well as men’s concerns and experiences an integral dimension 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 perpetrated.”[1]

Let’s take a moment to consider what this says.

Firstly, according to the United Nations body responsible for promoting gender equality and equity, gender mainstreaming should happen in any planned action,  at all levels, in all political, economic and societal shares. Therefore, it is inappropriate to assume that gender mainstreaming does not apply to your sector or your work; whatever sector it may be, as long as it falls within any of the aforementioned spheres, which basically covers everything.

Secondly, by this definition it means that development outcomes and impacts are not gender blind and that one gender group may benefit more than the other, or the action may result in positive outcomes for one and not the other.

Thirdly, gender mainstreaming is for your own good, as a development practitioner. As the strategy helps you achieve your career objectives of effecting positive change in the lives of the men and women you work for.

One might ask: Then why is gender mainstreaming still not the norm, but rather reserved for feminists and their advocates?

Well, firstly, most development practitioners still do not see the relevance of it. Gender mainstreaming is seen as a social domain and, therefore, does not apply to hard-core technical spheres, they think.

A power engineer at a training workshop on mainstreaming gender in energy operations asked:  How does gender feature in a project to rehabilitate a high voltage transmission line?

The question was asked to present a strong argument against the subject matter. But in the capable hands of the trainer and the gender specialists present, I feel that the power engineer soon was made a believer and is now singing the hymns of gender mainstreaming. I should also add that if you are having trouble agreeing that gender comes in at all in such a project then you know what camp you belong to.

Secondly, although a lot has been said on gender mainstreaming, a good number of well-meaning development practitioners still do not apply this strategy because they simply do not know how to.

Gender mainstreaming, and its outcome gender equality, I will say, falls into W.B Gallie’s essentially contested concepts – “terms that combine general agreement on the abstract notion that they represent with endless disagreement about what they might mean in practice”[2].

A well-meaning development practitioner, after congratulating me on the level of awareness raised and buy-in gotten in promoting the inclusion of gender dimensions in energy policies and programmes, through the ECOWAS Programme on Gender Mainstreaming in Energy Access (ECOW-GEN), added: I hope we are not wasting our time?

The question reminded me of how simple concepts can be made very complicated through the use of ambiguous and convoluted terms.  Some of these are intentional, of course, like when jargons and argots are used to confuse and intimidate outsiders, and make simple concepts esoteric.

But this should not be the case for gender mainstreaming, especially considering how important it is to inclusive and sustainable development. Moreover, I do not think that gender specialists will face any threats of losing their jobs or being less relevant if the idea of gender mainstreaming became common knowledge and a common practice by non-gender professionals.

So, how does one break down, even further, the concept of gender mainstreaming in order to make the strategy an “operational reality”?  

Perhaps, looking to analogous fields (i.e. fields different from yours on the surface but similar “on a deep structure level”) could provide useful insights, as argued by this Harvard Business Review (HBR) article[3]. Particularly looking at how a certain analogous industry may have subdued a similar challenge.

Having chewed on this, here is my two cents:

Development organizations must adopt the same aggressive approach to customer relationship management (CRM) as used by commercial organizations.

To stay ahead of the game, and turn in that profit, commercial organizations rely heavily on customer intelligence to ensure that the organization continuously meets the needs and expectations of its present and new customers. To better understand their customers, several sophisticated tools and techniques are used to collect and analyze data on “Who, What, When, Where and Why… The result is a holistic picture of customers that’s more about people than pie charts”[4]. Customer satisfaction is the goal.

As customer intelligence is to commercial organizations, so is gender mainstreaming to development organizations.

Development organizations and practitioners should see gender mainstreaming as a strategy for satisfying their male and female customers/beneficiaries by making concerted efforts to collect and analyze data on Who, What, When, Where and Why[5], to see how each intervention (policies and programmes) can be aligned with the needs, behaviors and circumstances of their beneficiaries.

In conclusion, if we understand that development interventions are meant for people – men and women in the society, gender mainstreaming is simply putting a human face to your actions.

Still not clear? Send me a private email.


See also: Deconstructing Gender Mainstreaming in Energy Access – Part 1

[1] UN Women (2014) Guidance Note: Gender Mainstreaming in Development Programming. Available at:

[2] Oxfam and Practical Action (2010): Deconstructing Development Discourse: Buzzwords and Fuzzwords. Available at:

[3] HBR (2014) Sometimes the Best Ideas Come from Outside Your Industry. Available at:

[4] Blog post by VisionCritical on Customer Intelligence. Available at:

[5] Using projects that target supplying energy services, for example, gender dimensions feature as preferences for energy services differ depending on who is using it, what it is used for, when it is likely to be needed.

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