Jean Monnet Center at NYU School of Law


IV. Conclusions

During the past five years, the European Union's approach to equal opportunities has been transformed, from a narrow focus on equal treatment in the workplace, to a gradual acceptance of specific, positive actions, and, since 1996, an institutional commitment to mainstreaming gender across the policy process. Gender mainstreaming is, we have argued, a demanding strategy, which requires policymakers to adopt new perspectives, acquire new expertise, and change their established operating procedures. In that context, it is not surprising that we find variation across issue-areas in acceptance and implementation of the EU's gender mainstreaming mandate, reflecting the different political opportunities, mobilizing structures, and dominant frames that characterize each of the issue-areas examined above. What is surprising, however, is the speed and efficiency with which the Commission has succeeded in introducing a gender perspective across a broad range of issue-areas, including four of the five cases studied here, and others (such as education and agriculture) beyond the scope of this study. Indeed, we would go so far as to suggest that, in terms of its procedures for gender mainstreaming as well as the development of gender-sensitive policies that are admittedly still in their infancy, the European Union is rapidly emerging as one of the most progressive polities on earth in its promotion of equal opportunities for women and men.

Nevertheless, the gender mainstreaming approach is not without its dangers, and its critics, and we therefore end on a cautionary note, with three critical observations. The first of these criticisms concerns the fear that a policy of gender mainstreaming will lead to the abandonment of specific, positive actions on behalf of women. In the words of tentative supporter of the new approach, "If gender is everybody's responsibility in general, then it's nobody's responsibility in particular."14 Specifically, critics of the new approach fear either that specific policies on behalf of women will be discontinued, or that the Equal Opportunities Unit, which has played a key entrepreneurial role in the development and management of the new mainstreaming approach, will itself be weakened in the name of mainstreaming. Such a development would, in our view, represent a significant setback to the promotion of equal opportunities in the EU, and women's advocates may therefore be expected to campaign for the retention of the Commission's dual-track approach, and the maintenance of a central role for the Equal Opportunities Unit.

A second criticism of the EU's mainstreaming approach is that, thus far, many of the initiatives undertaken under its mandate fail to create and legally enforceable rights, such as the equal pay guarantee of Article 119, relying instead on untested administrative procedures and "soft law" proclamations that are likely to be felt unevenly, if at all, by the women and men of Europe. This is a serious concern, and it is for this reason that the Commission has consistently proposed a mainstreaming approach, not as a substitute for equal-treatment guarantees or positive actions, but as a supplement to them. More generally, we would argue that the greatest promise of the mainstreaming approach lies not in the short-term creation of legally enforceable rights, but in the long-term transformation of the EU policy process to serve the goal of equal opportunity between women and men.

This brings us to a third and final criticism, raised by Rounaq Jahan, Teresa Rees and others, concerning the nature of a mainstreaming process which, according to Jahan, can take either one of two forms. The first of these approaches, which Jahan labels "integrationist," essentially introduces a gender perspective into existing policy processes, but does not challenge existing policy paradigms. By contrast, a second and more radical approach, which Jahan calls "agenda-setting," involves a fundamental rethinking, not simply of the means or procedures of policymaking, but of the ends or goals of policy from a gender perspective. In this approach, "Women not only become part of the mainstreaming, they also reorient the nature of the mainstream" (Jahan 1995: 13). As appealing as the latter approach may seem, we would agree with Rees (1998) that the European Union has generally adopted an integrationist approach to gender mainstreaming, integrating women and gender issues into specific policies rather than rethinking the fundamental aims of the European Union from a gender perspective. Indeed, we would argue that the Commission's integrationist approach is the inevitable consequence of the strategic choices of mainstreaming advocates, who have consistently framed, and "sold," gender mainstreaming as an effective means to the ends pursued by policymakers, rather than an overt challenge to those ends. The EU agenda will, therefore, not be transformed overnight from a gender perspective, as feminists (including ourselves) might prefer. Nevertheless, the social-movement framework adopted in this article suggests that the strategic approach adopted by mainstreaming advocates was a necessary one, and that a more radical approach would most likely have been rejected for its lack of fit with the existing views of EU policymakers. Furthermore, we remain optimistic that, within individual issue-areas, the gradual introduction of a gender perspective into existing policies has the potential of transforming the discourse, procedures, and participants of both EU and, ultimately, national policies to the mutual benefit of the women and men of Europe.

14 Interview, Commission official, June 1999.



This site is part of the Academy of European Law online, a joint partnership of the Jean Monnet Center at NYU School of Law and
of the Academy of European Law at the European University Institute.
Questions or comments about this site?