The Importance of Terminology on Gender Mainstreaming in International Affairs

by Global Women

When approached to write an article about “women’s empowerment” for this publication, the authors had several questions and concerns. Why “women’s empowerment?” This phrase is one frequently used in a number of humanitarian and legal fields to imply capacity-building for women through the provision of material resources, educational programs, or professional training. In a landscape where international and non-governmental organizations have refocused much of their programming to include gender analyses and where women and children are put forward as the emblematic victims of conflict and famine, donor funds seem to flow towards projects centered around on women and “women’s empowerment.”

While fully recognizing the importance of building gender analyses into programming, the structural vulnerabilities often faced by women, and the vital role that women play in contributing to peace-building and the economic, political, and social health of a nation, we take issue with the reduction of “gender” to “women” and the implication arising from the phrase “women’s empowerment:” that women are particularly lacking in power.

The word “empowerment” inherently acts in a counterproductive manner. It means “to give power or authority to,” signifying that someone is giving the power or authority — in this case, that men are giving that power or authority to women, thereby reinforcing the power disparity that we are attempting to combat. The term “women’s empowerment” places women as the object receiving the action of the phrase rather than the subject executing the action.

The true strength of a gender analysis derives from its deconstruction of the societal roles and needs of both men and women and the way in which programming is likely to affect these groups differently. It is not possible to fully understand the societal role and conception of women without understanding the societal conception of men and how these roles are constructed in opposition to or as complementary to each other. Further, any attempt to build the resources, political role, or economic opportunities available to women in a society will require support from and engagement with a range of actors, both male and female.

Logically, implying that powerless women are acted upon by men does no service to conceptions of masculinity as an identity. It may come as no surprise to those studying gender that the theme of masculinity as an “unmarked” category is often brought up in discussions about gender and power dynamics. This idea, crafted by the sociologist and professor Herbert Sussman, points out that masculinity as a concept has not been nearly as prodded, dissected, or disturbed as other social identities. It is the default, when a choice must be made about what is “normal.” In fact, because so many pursuing gender-relevant work often consider the definition of masculinity to be clear, when (and if) it finally comes time to define its fundamental nature the resulting products are often confused and discordant. Or impossible to create at all.

So how can understanding masculinity as “unmarked” contribute to a discussion about the phrase “women’s empowerment?” The study of gender and international affairs invariably involves knowledge about relationships. Humanitarian aid, security studies, economic policy, international development, business, and peace-building all manage, to differing extents, the actions and expectations of individuals. These individuals prescribe to a socially constructed gender identity and instructions about how to manage this identity are then laid out in a social roadmap. Some groups become dominant while others are marginalized (normally, non-males).

Focusing only on marginalized groups not only reminds them and everyone else that they are not dominant, it feeds inequality. And inequality does not help anyone trying to provide services to human beings. The reality in any field is that relationships and gender equality require balance. Whose needs are being missed, because they are male and unmarked? How can we help “empower” women more constructively? This is where the idea of gender mainstreaming comes in. Rather than “empowering women,” gender mainstreaming forces policymakers and implementers to consider the implications of their policies and programs on men and women.

The real issue is one of framing, or language. Marginalized groups, like women and children, do need support in a wide range of contexts. They almost always need more support than non-marginalized groups. However, how does their environment change when they are favored, or re-objectified as a needy group that needs help without being properly consulted? How can a wider range of actors be engaged to support different groups? Actions and expectations of individuals matter, regardless of gender. Maintaining diverse relationships matter. The sooner these ideas are realized and linguistic categorizations are adjusted for, the sooner more productive work towards gender mainstreaming can commence.

About the Author

Fletcher’s Global Women group is led by students Kiely Barnard-Webster, Abby Fried, Rachel Rosenberg, and Lauren Spink. The group seeks to mainstream gender issues and raise awareness regarding the critical role that women play in international affairs.

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