Sunday, 23 December 2012

What I learned in school today episode 1: Gender mainstreaming

Alas, it’s the end of an era. That’s not me packing it in with blogging before I’ve even really begun, or worrying about the Mayan calendar (although I did spend far to long on the 20th thinking about Majora's Mask, culminating in this, which is amazing if you get the references). What actually happened is I’ve now done my last ever class presentation for this master’s degree, and although having to do class presentations has not made me particularly happy or, it has to be said, much better informed over the last year and a half, it still feels like a bit of a milestone. No more will I break out the Foundry theme to explain the wonders of urban planning in Hefei, or the European tax haven structure, or… whatever else I did presentations on, it’s all a bit vague now to be honest. I am surprisingly reluctant to be educated at times, it has to be said.

Useful things I did with my degree #431

Anyway, I was expecting to commemorate this final one by churning out something super rushed and boring given that it’s Christmas and term is almost over and, really, who does good stuff when it’s so cold outside oh god, but actually I ended up getting really into the topic, which was about gender mainstreaming. I’ve already whinged enough about how studying in China and being interested in gender is a bit like being a camel specialist in Newfoundland- i.e. very confusing for everyone involved. So when I discovered I needed to do an end of term presentation for a social policy course, which is incidentally the only academic course I’ve had taught by a female professor*, I figured this might be a good opportunity to get a vague handle on the world of gendered policymaking- given that it’s sort of what I want to do and all.

So, here's my version of the gender mainstreaming story. Back in 1985, at the end of the Decade forWomen (you know, one of those international things where if you put a label on a period of time it automatically makes it SUPER EMPOWERING), someone who was chilling out in Nairobi for a conference was like ‘hey you know what would be amazing’, and a nearby person was probably like ‘I am familiar with a lot of potential amazing things but not sure which you are specifically referring to’, and the first person said ‘so I had this crazy idea, where maybe when governments make policy, they could take into account not only the needs of man people but also the other half of the human population as well.’

And the second person probably raised an eyebrow and was like ‘do you mean to suggest that we should consider gendered analysis not just as its own separate policy area, or as something that should be tacked onto existing policies, but as a necessary aspect of all policy which should after all take into account people as they are, not just work from a rubbish reductionist definition of “people” which actually just means “heterosexual men of culturally dominant ethnicity?”’

And the first person was like ‘yeah that’s exactly what I’m saying mate**. It’s like if policy is a river ecosystem, right, and at the moment gender is in the backwaters, like with specific gender equality policies, or in the sidestream, like with gender related updates to “gender neutral” policies- and we all know what gender neutral really means, yeah- and what we should be doing is moving it from those places into the mainstream, and then maybe policies will actually be better and stuff.’

And the second person was like ‘Well that certainly merits further thought, let’s discuss it further at this women’s conference that we are conveniently at.’

And that is my story of how gender mainstreaming made the agenda at the Nairobi women’s conference. Fast forward one non-female decade, and a group of similar people decided to have another conference for women (I know, one every ten years, how superfluous), this time in the land of Beijing! This time, gender mainstreaming was not only talked about, but was actually made a focus of the conference. That’s right, in 1995 it was finally made crystal clear that policy should be formulated taking into account the needs of both genders rather than assuming that what is good for men must be good for women. They talked about it at an international conference, it must be important.

After this, of course, what happened is that the entire world realised what a good idea it was to include the interests of women in all policymaking and men and women lived happily ever after. No, I’m joking, that’s not what happened. What actually happened is that a lot of institutions wrote a commitment to gender equality down in their constitutions and then decided that writing down that they were doing a thing absolved them from actually doing the thing, or, indeed, continuing any previous initiatives related to the thing that they were involved in before they decided to show how committed they were to the thing.

Interestingly, most of what comes up if you image search "Gender mainstreaming" is in German, because Austria is big into the concept. It's also a key concept in Taiwan.

Which brings us to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the wonderful, wonderful things that have been going down in the government for the last few years. As most of my readers are probably aware, we currently have a government in the United Kingdom whose policy leanings aren’t exactly in line with the desires of a woman with a Marxist double entendre in her online handle. Whilst British women are able to live in a country with a fair bit of decent gender equality legislation, and there is no co-ordinated political attack on our rights like our sisters over in America have to deal with, there are some pretty eyebrow raising gender implications of some of the government’s decisions over the last couple of years which suggests they really weren’t paying attention to the cool kids over in Nairobi and Beijing back in the day.

Here is a helpful picture of George Osborne to channel rage at whilst reading on.
Most of these exist in that big disastrous realm of The Cuts- the things that the country must go without so some elites can continue to get very rich out of fiddling around with imaginary numbers. Gender budget analysis of the cuts in 2010 showed that over 70% of the costs of cutting benefits and public services will be paid by women. How about job losses in the public sector? Well, 65% of their employees were female (again in 2010), disproportionately concentrated at lower-end jobs, so that’ll also hurt women more than men. Women receive 20% of their income in benefits and tax credits, compared to 10% for men, but changes to the benefit system from 2013 onwards will “simplify” the working age benefits system by paying all benefits to the family’s “primary earner” (read: manly breadwinner types, except in the 90% female headed single parent families, but what are they doing existing anyway, haven’t you heard of family values, keep your legs shut next time because immoral sex is literally the only way this situation could have come about etc. etc. etc). This particularly means the loss of directly paid child tax credits for a lot of mothers and increases women’s economic dependence on men when they are in families. And unfortunately, as long as we retain parental leave systems which focus specifically on maternity rather than providing flexible time off for both parents, we lock women into being the caregiving economic dependents unless families are well enough off to completely lose the second income.

I draw a couple of things from this. The first is that I honestly do think feminism is incompatible with right wing politics not just from a social perspective but from an economic one as well. The economic system we operate on is predicated on an enormous quantity of unpaid work that is disproportionately done by women, and ensuring an economic fair deal for is not going to happen just because the door is also open to earn money in the current system when we’re not too busy discharging our natural womanly caring-and-housework duties. Redistribution seriously needs to happen, and whilst the ideal would be a radical overhaul of the way we value and reward work so that traditionally “female” labour is valued just as highly as “male”, in the interim having governments provide benefits and services is a decent enough medium. So when, as a government, you design your budgets without taking into account gendered effects, and you end up enacting a double whammy of both disproportionately firing women and taking away government assistance***, and then you still leave gendered analysis to other government branches even after the Fawcett Society takes you to court about it, I have to seriously doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion gender mainstreaming.. It’s all very well and good saying you want more people in work, but when you’re also from a socially conservative party and are trying to uphold “family values” which are traditionally all about using women as unpaid carers, you are failing to take into account what most women actually need from your government and the fact that it is often different from men’s needs.

But seriously George I doubt your commitment to these girls. I do. Sorry George.

Another thing also worries me, however, and it goes a bit beyond “ugh Tories”. When systems do take into account gender differences in providing social welfare, by recognising women as carers, the implication isn’t of reward- it’s about utilising a carer to pass on money to their dependent. That’s why the two big working age benefits for women are child tax credits and child benefit, and their existence is supported by research that shows that benefits paid to women tend to be spent on supporting the family (i.e. children) whereas benefits paid to men are more often spent by the man on himself. This is a worldwide trend, and is very similar to one of the main arguments used to advocate education for girls- that female empowerment is valuable primarily in terms of the benefits it provides for children, rather than being inherently valuable to, or a fundamental right of, the woman herself. 

On the benefit side of things, this is why we’re able to have negative stereotypes of “welfare queens” who apparently reproduce in order to force innocent men to give them child support which they may then partly spend on themselves- the fact that they are spending time looking after said man’s child is not considered an activity worthy of remuneration, because women are supposed to be carers and caring involves necessary and natural sacrifices that we must make in order not be morally awful. I’m not saying neglectful single mothers don’t exist at all, but the way the system is infused with gendered norms seems to suggest that anything short of angelic sacrifice on the part of mothers can be construed as women “playing the system”. If we don’t have the policy making ideology to recognise and combat these potentially damaging ideologies within politics, how are we ever going to eradicate them from real life?

Forget institutionalised poverty or climate change or global epidemics, the greatest problem faced by humanity is definitely "spending decisions that strangers can't immediately endorse" 
Hence: gender mainstreaming. Because the personal is political, and politics is personal, and, contrary to general belief- or, indeed, the make-up of our elected representatives- most people are in fact women. If policymakers aren’t recognising that in everything they do, things are a bit hopeless really.


*I specifically say academic because all of my Chinese classes have been with women. Language is a ladylike teaching topic, after all! Hard academia is more for men.

** I’m not actually sure if the person who invented gender mainstreaming was British or Australian or indeed perhaps part of the much larger group of people who would not use “mate” in this context. But roll with it. I’ve also got a translate link on the side if you’d like to put the whole conversation into another language instead of the lingua franca of the oppressor!

*** Triple whammy if you take into account that these cuts are necessary largely because of the actions of elite decision-makers in banks, who are 96% male. But saying that low income men and male public sector employees should bear the brunt of something caused by elite men just because they are both men is definitely a bit far even for this rampant misandrist...