Contested gender mainstreaming in the European Parliament: political groups and committees as gatekeepers

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Anna ElomäkiTampere University, Finland

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Petra AhrensTampere University, Finland

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This article analyses the implementation of gender mainstreaming in the European Parliament and aims at deciphering the role of its committees and political groups in advancing or hindering the integration of gender perspectives. The article engages with feminist institutionalism and micro-political approaches, and is based on interview and documentary data. It examines how formal and informal institutions and micro-political strategies within committees and political groups affect the abilities of this representative European Union institution to ensure a gender perspective is present in European Union policies. We suggest that although the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (the gender-focused parliamentary body) oversees gender mainstreaming, committees and political groups, as the core actors of European Parliament policymaking, are the gatekeepers that determine the outcomes. Our findings advance understandings of the limits of gender mainstreaming in European Union policymaking and shed light on the specific challenges of gender mainstreaming and broader gender equality change in parliaments.

Abstract

This article analyses the implementation of gender mainstreaming in the European Parliament and aims at deciphering the role of its committees and political groups in advancing or hindering the integration of gender perspectives. The article engages with feminist institutionalism and micro-political approaches, and is based on interview and documentary data. It examines how formal and informal institutions and micro-political strategies within committees and political groups affect the abilities of this representative European Union institution to ensure a gender perspective is present in European Union policies. We suggest that although the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (the gender-focused parliamentary body) oversees gender mainstreaming, committees and political groups, as the core actors of European Parliament policymaking, are the gatekeepers that determine the outcomes. Our findings advance understandings of the limits of gender mainstreaming in European Union policymaking and shed light on the specific challenges of gender mainstreaming and broader gender equality change in parliaments.

Key messages

  • The article provides an in-depth account of gender mainstreaming in the European Parliament.

  • Committees and political groups are gatekeepers for the mainstreaming of gender in European Parliament policies.

  • Party politics and committee structures play a critical role in gender mainstreaming in parliaments.

Introduction

The European Union (EU) was an early adopter of gender mainstreaming, which was endorsed as the official strategy to promote gender equality in the EU in 1997. The European Parliament (EP) strongly supported gender mainstreaming at the supranational level, and it has committed to incorporating this strategy in its own work and organisation. This makes the EP one of the few parliaments worldwide to have officially adopted gender mainstreaming (Ahrens, 2019). Despite early advances, the past decades were difficult for gender mainstreaming at the EU level. Consecutive crises and the predominance of economic issues have pushed this strategy aside (see, for example, Jacquot, 2015), and the rise of radical right populism has contested gender equality and the very concept of gender (see, for example, Kuhar and Paternotte, 2017). This context has affected the EP too. Simultaneously, this representative institution is needed more than ever to ensure gender is mainstreamed in all EU policies. Given the EP’s expanded legislative powers after the Lisbon Treaty, it is equipped for the task. The question remains as to how the EP uses its powers to incorporate gender perspectives into EU policies – and what may prevent it from doing so.

Generally, parliaments are crucial for gender mainstreaming given their role in adopting legislation and scrutinising governments. They are well positioned to ensure gender oversight across policy fields and integrate a gender perspective where it is omitted (see Sawer, 2020). Yet, gender mainstreaming in parliaments remains an under-researched topic. Research on gender equality change in parliaments has focused on gender-specific parliamentary bodies and on reforming parliaments as gendered workplaces (see, for example, Palmieri, 2018; Sawer, 2020; Childs, 2022; Erikson and Josefsson, 2022). Less attention has been paid to how parliaments integrate gender perspectives in policies and what obstacles they face in this task.

In this article, engaging with feminist institutionalism (FI) and micro-political approaches, we examine the implementation of gender mainstreaming in the EP. We are particularly interested in how the EP’s main parliamentary actors – its political groups and committees – engage with gender mainstreaming, advancing or hindering the integration of a gender perspective into EP and EU policies. We ask: ‘How do formal and informal institutions within the EP’s political groups and committees affect the implementation of gender mainstreaming?’; ‘How and by whom is opposition expressed?’; and ‘What kind of micro-political strategies do different actors use to advance or block gender mainstreaming?’. We build on a 133-interview data set originating from the 2014–19 and 2019–24 parliamentary terms with Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and staff from all political groups and EP administration, complemented with documentary data.

Our analysis shows that political groups and committees are gatekeepers for gender mainstreaming in the EP, with some actively supporting and others directly opposing the integration of gender perspectives. Through exposing the critical role of party politics and committee structures for gender mainstreaming in the EP, we shed light on the specific challenges of gender mainstreaming and broader gender equality change within parliaments. We first provide a background on the EP and its formal gender mainstreaming rules. We then discuss our theoretical starting points, after which we describe our data and methods. The analysis is divided into two parts, zooming in on two sets of critical actors for gender mainstreaming implementation: the political groups and standing committees.

Gender mainstreaming in the EP

Gender mainstreaming as a political strategy aims to tackle structural inequality and gendered institutional practices by considering gender in all aspects and phases of policymaking, and requiring all actors to promote gender equality (Rees, 2005; Woodward, 2012). The implementation and outcomes at the national and EU levels have been disappointing. Instead of transforming policies and institutions, gender mainstreaming has led to integrating gender into pre-existing priorities and functions, becoming a technocratic tick-box exercise (Meier and Celis, 2011; Jacquot, 2015). Scholars have discerned several reasons for these problems. Gender mainstreaming obligations often lack clear responsibilities, goals and sanctions (Hafner-Burton and Pollack, 2009: 123–4). The lack of resources and expertise, and insufficient understandings of gender mainstreaming and gender equality, pose other challenges (Ylöstalo, 2016). Direct and indirect resistance plays a role too (Mergaert and Lombardo, 2014; Cavaghan, 2017). Resistance often has an institutional dimension: established ways of doing things, collective understandings and gendered practices exclude gender concerns (Mergaert and Lombardo, 2014; Cavaghan, 2017; Minto and Mergaert, 2018).

Earlier research on gender equality reform in parliaments has shown parliaments to be gendered institutions where change is slow. Change often takes place thanks to feminist critical actors, including gender-focused parliamentary bodies and feminist members of parliament (MPs) and staff (see, for example, Sawer, 2020; Childs, 2022). Indeed, in national parliaments, gender-focused parliamentary bodies have played an important role in gender mainstreaming (Sawer, 2020; Sawer et al, 2013). What separates parliaments from other institutions implementing gender mainstreaming is that they are marked by partisanship. Previous literature has highlighted conflicts between political parties and their different positions on gender equality (see, for example, Lovenduski and Norris, 1993; Lovenduski, 2005), as well as addressed conservative parties (Celis and Childs, 2014) and far-right parties (Köttig et al, 2016; Kantola and Lombardo, 2020). Scholars have also drawn attention to the collaboration of women MPs across parties that reconfigures traditional ideas of parliamentarianism (Childs, 2022).

In line with the limited scholarly attention given to gender mainstreaming in parliaments, the extensive research on EU-level gender mainstreaming has rarely investigated the EP (see, however, Ahrens, 2019). Over time, the EP has turned from a talking shop into a co-legislator, amending and adopting directives proposed by the European Commission together with the Council of the European Union (Héritier et al, 2019; Bressanelli and Chelotti, 2020). The EP is thus well equipped to correct the well-known gaps in gender mainstreaming in other EU institutions (see, for example, Cavaghan, 2017; Minto and Mergaert, 2018).

Yet, the EP’s impact depends on its political groups, which compete to influence legislation. The groups negotiate the EP’s positions in a compromise-oriented manner due to the absence of a government–opposition divide at the EU level (Hix et al, 2007). In the 2019–24 term, these are, in order of size: the centre-right and conservative Group of the European People’s Party (EPP); the centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D); the centre-right and liberal Renew Europe (previously the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE)); the radical-right and populist Identity and Democracy (ID, previously Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF)); the Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA); the increasingly radical-right European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR); and the Left of the European Parliament (GUE/NGL). Despite their importance for policy outcomes, the political groups lack a formal role in EP gender mainstreaming. EP parliamentary politics is polarised around gender. Gender equality causes conflicts along the left–right axis between value-conservative and value-liberal parties along the Green-Alternative-Liberal and Traditional-Authoritarian-Nationalist (GAL-TAN) axis, and is also a divisive issue within the groups (Kantola and Rolandsen Agustìn, 2016; Berthet, 2022). The rise of radical-right populism and anti-gender views has increased opposition to gender equality in the EP (Kantola and Lombardo, 2021).

Given diverse party positions and the increasing opposition to gender equality, gender mainstreaming is well institutionalised in the EP, at least compared to many national parliaments (Shreeves and Hahnkamper-Vandenbulcke, 2021: 58). The EP’s gender mainstreaming strategy was formally launched in a resolution adopted in 2003 (Ahrens, 2019; Shreeves and Hahnkamper-Vandenbulcke, 2021). In the EP, gender mainstreaming has encompassed both policymaking and achieving gender balance at different levels. Regarding policymaking – the focus of this article – among the main practices are the own-initiative reports, opinions and amendments of the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM Committee), aimed at integrating a gender perspective across policy fields. Until recently, these practices were set in the regular gender mainstreaming resolutions drafted by the FEMM Committee and adopted by the EP. In 2019, gender mainstreaming was integrated into the EP rules of procedure, that is, the formal rules guiding the EP’s work. In 2020, the EP’s Bureau – the body adopting its rules and deciding on administrative matters – adopted the first-ever EP gender action plan, with concrete actions and targets regarding gender mainstreaming. This has partly shifted the responsibility for monitoring implementation from the FEMM Committee to the EP administration (Shreeves and Hahnkamper-Vandenbulcke, 2021).

In the EP, the FEMM Committee coordinates and further develops gender mainstreaming. It also works to incorporate a gender perspective in the EP’s legislative and non-legislative procedures across policy fields (Lodovici et al, 2018; Ahrens, 2019). As the FEMM Committee is rarely allocated legislative files, it focuses on influencing other committees. Opinions to other committees are a formal part of the EP legislative procedure, allowing the FEMM Committee to give input on files falling within other committees’ remit. Since the 2009–14 parliamentary term, so-called ‘gender mainstreaming amendments’ have allowed the FEMM Committee to introduce a gender perspective in the form of amendments, which are on equal footing with amendments made within the lead committee. Gender mainstreaming amendments are an informal practice not included in the EP rules of procedure. Additionally, the FEMM Committee uses non-legislative own-initiative reports to highlight the gender dimension of different policy areas (for example, taxation, trade, climate change, green jobs, artificial intelligence and so on) and to collaborate with other committees.

The impact of FEMM Committee opinions and amendments depends on the willingness of other committees to take them on board. The committees are the locus of the EP’s legislative work, where political groups draft and negotiate legislative proposals (Neuhold, 2001; Yordanova, 2013). There are 20 permanent standing committees, with three subcommittees. Some committees are more prone to take FEMM Committee opinions and amendments on board than others (Lodovici et al, 2018), and there are large differences between the committees in how receptive they are in general to gender perspectives (Elomäki, 2021). Additionally, EP gender mainstreaming resolutions tasked committees with formal responsibilities. Committees must appoint an MEP and a staff member from the committee’s secretariat to oversee gender mainstreaming within the committee and to take part in the EP Gender Mainstreaming Network – a platform to share information and practices among committees. Since 2016, committees have been asked to devise a gender mainstreaming action plan, stating how they integrate gender perspectives in their work (Ahrens, 2019; Shreeves and Hahnkamper-Vandenbulcke, 2021).

Based on previous research, we identify three actor groups playing a crucial role in gender mainstreaming and interacting in various ways (see Figure 1). These are: (1) political groups; (2) the FEMM Committee and other specialised gender equality bodies; and (3) standing committees. We focus on political groups and committees as the two key parliamentary actors shaping EP policymaking. Concentrating on these actors, rather than specialised gender equality bodies, increases understanding of the possibilities and obstacles for gender mainstreaming in the EP and parliaments more broadly.

Figure 1 Roles of the three main groups of actors for gender mainstreaming in the EP: FEMM committee, committees and political groups.
Figure 1:

Three groups of actors for gender mainstreaming in the EP

Citation: European Journal of Politics and Gender 5, 3; 10.1332/251510822X16547712638806

Theorising gender mainstreaming implementation through FI and micro-politics

To study how the EP political groups and committees engage with gender mainstreaming, we combine two theoretical approaches that shed light on institutional practices, actors and power relations: FI and micro-politics. FI allows engaging with the formal and informal rules that enable and constrain institutional change towards gender equality. FI scholarship provides analytical insights explaining the gendered foundations of political institutions, the gendered mechanisms of continuity and change, and the impact of gendered actors (Kenny, 2007; Krook and Mackay, 2011; Waylen, 2017). From the FI perspective, gender mainstreaming is an institution that challenges the status quo by promoting gender equality (Ahrens, 2019). FI suggests that there is often a gap between formal rules inscribed in official documents and how they are taken up in practice. Gendered informal rules – unwritten norms, expectations and practices – are a major factor that not only shapes formal rules, but may also contradict or undermine them in ways that may dilute gender equality reforms, including gender mainstreaming (Lowndes, 2014: 687; Waylen, 2017). Moreover, political institutions can enable actors to effectively implement gender mainstreaming by providing hierarchical backing and resources, or can constrain implementation through everyday norms and practices (Mergaert and Lombardo, 2014). Also, formal rules may contradict those regarding gender mainstreaming and pose implementation challenges (Minto and Mergaert, 2018).

Focus on the interplay between formal and informal rules helps reveal the hidden challenges to institutional change towards gender equality. Mergaert and Lombardo (2014: 16) found that ‘in the institutional battleground between formal norms demanding the implementation of gender mainstreaming and informal patriarchal norms socialising individuals to preserve the gender-unequal status quo, gender mainstreaming gets “filtered out”’. In other words, gender mainstreaming likely faces opposition in cultures tending to protect masculine privilege and power. Others working on resistance and opposition to institutional gender equality change have shown how informal institutions let actors forget formal gender mainstreaming rules given their nested newness and perceived contradiction to old practices (Mackay, 2014). Gender mainstreaming may also get trapped due to institutional layering, where new rules are added on top of old rules instead of replacing them (Minto and Mergaert, 2018). Building on March and Olsen’s (1989) concept, Chappell (2006) connected these challenges to the logics of appropriateness underpinning political institutions and how these logics are gendered. Logics of appropriateness comprise formal and informal aspects, and play out differently in different institutions by constraining or encouraging certain types of behaviour, and steering which norms and values are accepted. For instance, in the European Commission, the idea of a neutral EU bureaucracy contrasts with the promotion of gender equality, which is often (mis)understood as ideological and politicised (Minto and Mergaert, 2018).

We complement FI with a micro-political approach engaging with the interests, strategies and power struggles of actors in defined institutional settings (see, for example, Willner, 2011). The term ‘micro-politics’ is used for the actions of individual and collective actors that create, undermine and change formal rules and structures (Willner, 2011: 159–60). Every day, small-scale actions can either advance or resist institutional change, and shift the power balance between (intra)institutional actors (Parsons and Priola, 2013; Wiesner, 2018). For instance, Wiesner (2018: 380) suggested that the dynamic change of a system of rules can be advanced internally by actors acting within predefined rules, eventually changing or reinterpreting them using the explicit and implicit possibilities of action offered by these rules. We use the micro-political approach to draw attention to the different interests and strategies of the EP’s internal actors. It allows for examining the power relations among its core collective actors – committees and political groups – and how these collective actors and individual MEPs strategically use, reinterpret or change formal rules for gender mainstreaming. From a micro-political perspective, gender mainstreaming implementation is more than a question of formal and informal rules and institutional resistance. It also concerns actors pushing rules either favouring or rejecting gender mainstreaming.

Methods and material

Our qualitative analysis relies on policy documents and interviews, which together allow for analysing formal and informal practices, and the clashes between them. We used documentary data, including EP rules of procedure, committees’ gender mainstreaming action plans and political group documents on gender mainstreaming, to assess formal gender mainstreaming rules within the EP, committees and political groups. Regarding informal practices and opposition, we relied on a data set of 133 interviews with MEPs, their assistants, political group staff and parliamentary staff conducted from 2018 to 2021 in the framework of the Gender, party politics and democracy in Europe (EUGenDem) project. The interviews cover all political groups and committees, though to varying extents (see Table 1). Regarding committees, the FEMM Committee, Employment and Social Affairs (EMPL) Committee and Economic and Monetary Affairs (ECON) Committee are represented best due to the EUGenDem project’s focus on gender equality, social and economic policies. This emphasis supports our analysis, as it allows us to compare policies often regarded as either responsive to gender mainstreaming (social policy) or resistant to it (economic policy). For the sake of anonymity, we refer to the interviews with group name and interview date only (for example, S&D, 02/03/2020).

Table 1:

Interviews by political group, position and sex

Political group MEP F MEP M Staff F Staff M Total
EPP 10 4 4 1 19
S&D 10 6 11 3 30
Renew (previously ALDE) 4 2 5 5 16
ID (previously ENF) 1 4 3 8
Greens/EFA 8 2 6 2 18
ECR 2 7 2 11
GUE/NGL 2 2 3 6 13
Non-attached/other 4 6 2 12
EP Secretariat 2 4 6
Total 42 33 31 27 133

Using an extensive interview population, rather than a limited focus on gender experts typical of gender mainstreaming research, enables analysing how gender mainstreaming as a formal rule has trickled down to the daily work of MEPs and staff across political groups and committees. The interviewees include individuals involved in gender mainstreaming (for example, FEMM Committee members, group policy advisors on gender equality, MEPs and committee staff in charge of mainstreaming), ‘mainstream’ actors uninterested in gender equality and actors opposing gender mainstreaming. These different perspectives facilitate a nuanced analysis of clashes between formal and informal rules and opposition in different parliamentary arenas. Although the interviews cover two parliamentary terms (2014–19 and 2019–24), they do not allow us to analyse change. Rather, we provide a snapshot of a specific moment in time.

The interview protocol addressed gender mainstreaming both directly and indirectly. Interviewees were asked how gender equality was discussed in relation to key policy issues within their political groups and committees. In addition, general questions about political group practices and parliamentary work allowed the interviewees to bring the issue up. Such indirect questions prompting narratives on daily parliamentary work yield information on informal rules when reinterpreted by the researcher (Lowndes, 2014). Interviews on social and economic policy, and interviews with individuals in charge of gender mainstreaming, addressed the topic at length. All the interviews were coded in a reiterative process in Atlas.ti. For a closer analysis, we chose the explicit uses of the term and all references to the substance of gender mainstreaming, for instance, the integration of gender perspectives in group, committee or EP policies.

We compared the formal rules of official documents with informal rules and practices facilitating or impeding gender mainstreaming implementation within political groups and committees. Taking a constructivist approach, we treated the interviews as narratives that examine competing understandings of gender mainstreaming and institutionalised settings (re)produced by actors (see Lombardo et al, 2009). Narratives repeating across interviews were used to identify informal rules. In the following analysis, we zoom in first on how the EP’s political groups engage with gender mainstreaming and then on the committees facilitating or impeding its implementation.

Political groups: divergent understandings, practices and strategies

The political groups negotiating the EP’s positions are crucial for either carrying gender mainstreaming forward or undermining it. We investigate political groups’ engagement with gender mainstreaming and their differences by analysing: (1) understandings and practices of gender mainstreaming; and (2) micro-political strategies to either undermine or push gender mainstreaming forward. Our analysis shows that groups’ understandings and practices broadly follow the GAL–TAN divide regarding equality policies (Kantola and Rolandsen Agustìn, 2016). Party-political differences in support for, understandings of and practices of gender mainstreaming influence integrating gender perspectives in the EP’s legislative work.

Political groups’ gender mainstreaming understandings and practices

The political groups cover the whole spectrum from fully supporting to completely opposing gender mainstreaming, and their understandings of what it entails and practices for implementing it are equally diverse. This shows that not all groups have internalised the EP’s formal gender mainstreaming rules and commitments.

The Greens/EFA, which brings together European Green parties and MEPs representing regions and stateless nations, is the strongest group. The group sees gender mainstreaming as integral to all policy fields, as illustrated in the following quote by a female MEP: “I think, in this group, we are very much committed to it, and we hope to get it everywhere basically.… We really want to go into all the policies” (Greens/EFA, 10/03/2020). The responsibility for gender mainstreaming is put on everyone in the group, rather than a few gender experts. The Greens/EFA has formal gender mainstreaming practices. In the 2014–19 term, it adopted an internal gender mainstreaming plan that, for instance, ensures all political group briefings include a gender mainstreaming section. Furthermore, the group organised gender mainstreaming trainings by the European Women’s Lobby for all members and staff (Greens/EFA, 21/03/2019, 01/04/2019, 10/03/2020, 13/03/2020). Several interviewees mentioning similar formal procedures confirmed the high importance given to them within the group. As an informal practice, FEMM Committee members of the group amend the group’s positions if gender perspectives are not sufficiently integrated (Greens/EFA, 13/03/2020). Despite these formal and informal practices, Greens/EFA interviewees were self-critical and suggested more trainings and further formalisation (Greens/EFA, 01/04/2019).

Also, the GUE/NGL, comprising left-wing parties ranging from populists to communists, sees gender mainstreaming as a transversal issue important in all policy fields and the responsibility of everyone in the group. The GUE/NGL has formal structures too: a working group in charge of gender mainstreaming looks at gender perspectives in the group’s initiatives (GUE/NGL, 10/03/2020). Sometimes, however, gender perspectives disappeared in parliamentary work and colleagues had to be reminded of their importance (GUE/NGL, 15/06/2019, 07/02/2020). This shows that even in receptive political groups, gender mainstreaming may be forgotten due to established informal practices (see Mackay, 2014).

The idea of integrated responsibility and formalised practices distinguish Greens/EFA and the GUE/NGL from the next two political groups, the social-democratic S&D and the centre-right liberal Renew Europe. Both support implementing gender mainstreaming across policy fields, including areas often seen as gender-neutral, such as transport or economic policy. The S&D as a group is formally committed to gender mainstreaming, for instance, in its position paper on gender equality (S&D, 2021: 33). Nevertheless, a political group identity of gender mainstreaming as everyone’s task is missing. Interviewees from both groups tend to put the responsibility on gender experts within the group and the EP, with women mainly considered to be in charge. For instance, when asked about gender mainstreaming in the group’s committee work, a female Renew Europe interviewee noted: “that’s I guess why we have the FEMM Committee” (Renew Europe, 04/03/2020). Such mismatches between general commitments and everyday parliamentary work may lead to filtering out gender mainstreaming commitments (Mergaert and Lombardo, 2014).

S&D and Renew Europe’s informal practices included organising events and adopting position papers bringing gender perspectives to current issues, including Brexit, trade and COVID-19 (S&D, 02/03/2020; see also, for example, Renew Europe, 2021; S&D, 2021). An S&D interviewee for the 2019–24 term also described greater attention to integrating gender perspectives across policy issues in the president’s cabinet’s work, partly attributed to the new group leader, Iratxe García Pérez (S&D, 26/02/2020), illustrating the importance of hierarchical backing for gender mainstreaming (Mergaert and Lombardo, 2014). Without collective responsibility and formal rules, integrating gender perspectives depended on committed individuals, often FEMM Committee members and feminist MEPs. Gender perspectives were often sidelined in the groups’ parliamentary work, for instance, concerning economic policy (ALDE, 29/01/2019; S&D, 16/05/2019).

The biggest political group, the centre-right conservative EPP, understands gender mainstreaming narrowly and is divided regarding its implementation. Feminist EPP interviewees subscribed to gender mainstreaming as a political strategy to transform policies and processes. Others understood gender mainstreaming as promoting gender balance (EPP, 04/11/2020) or saw gender mainstreaming as a subordinate issue (EPP, 22/03/2019). This sometimes resulted in direct opposition, as described by a female MEP:

‘There’s the report I’m negotiating on our behalf about gender budgeting. And surprise, surprise, our group is opposing it. The reasons: “Why do you have to bring gender everywhere?”, and “Why do you have to bring it on the things it doesn’t belong to? Money is money. What has it to do with gender?” So, there’s a lot of this total not understanding the concept.’ (EPP, 29/11/2018)

The role of individuals was particularly emphasised in the EPP, where only a few feminist MEPs pushed for gender mainstreaming. Despite facing resistance and harsh comments, these women engaged in micro-political strategies to institutionalise mainstreaming within the group. One strategy was the EPP policy paper on gender equality initiated by feminist members and group staff and adopted in December 2020 (EPP, 2020). The paper purposefully included themes connected to different committees to ensure “There’s something for everyone there, so everyone could see themselves in the paper” (EPP, 06/03/2020). This was a proactive approach to avoid ‘layering’ and contradictions with existing, old practices (Mackay, 2014).

Unsurprisingly, the conservative and increasingly radical-right ECR and the radical-right and populist ID described gender mainstreaming as something problematic and imposed from above, as exemplified by a male ID interviewee: “So, that’s something that they are always trying to force, but it’s against nature in our perspective” (ID, 11/03/2020). Similarly, a male ECR interviewee said:

‘They try to push something about gender equality in everything. So, you are talking about – I make a stupid example – battery strategy for the future of Europe. They try to put in amendments in which they say there should be more funds for the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans] community. I hate these because we are talking about batteries. Let’s talk about batteries.’ (ECR, 12/05/2021)

Such views reflect the conceptualisation of gender mainstreaming as so-called ‘gender ideology’ and opposition to the concept of gender typical of anti-gender movements (see, for example, Kuhar and Paternotte, 2017). It is also an ideological and politicised tactic to protect masculine privilege and discredit gender mainstreaming (Minto and Mergaert, 2018). Taking a more modest approach, some ECR interviewees interpreted gender mainstreaming as a question of descriptive representation (ECR, 06/02/2019). The ECR and the ID had no internal practices for gender mainstreaming.

Opposition versus strategies to push gender mainstreaming forward

The political groups’ divergent understandings and practices of gender mainstreaming clash in the EP’s legislative work. In the EP’s negotiation culture, where size matters (Ripoll Servent, 2018), the ambiguous position of the EPP as the biggest group affects outcomes. The strongest supporters of gender mainstreaming – the Greens/EFA and the GUE/NGL – are small groups that are often sidelined in EP decision-making.

Raising gender perspectives in committee debates and tabling gender equality amendments to committee reports were key strategies for pro-mainstreaming groups to integrate gender perspectives in EP policies. As described by a Greens/EFA interviewee:

‘I think, for us, it’s always been part of the amendments that we’ve tabled, the aspects that we’ve put to it. We know that women are differently affected with, in issues around, the whole economic sphere, whether that’s in terms of pension disadvantage, lack of childcare facilities, the whole additional burdens that there are on women, so we’ve always tried to factor that in from the very beginning.’ (Greens/EFA, 31/01/2019)

The ECR, the ID and also sometimes the EPP opposed these efforts. Proponents of gender mainstreaming recalled eye-rolling and ‘the look you get’ from other groups. For instance, as a female Greens/EFA MEP who raised gender budgeting in a committee meeting described: “The rest of the people just sort of sat there looking at me, ‘Oh God, the Green, the gender budgeting, you know. There comes the crazy one’” (Greens/EFA, 30/09/2019).

The groups opposing gender mainstreaming tried to remove references to gender from reports and voted against gender-related amendments. The strength of the opposition depended on the committee and issue, with the EPP sometimes taking a supportive and sometimes an opposing stance. An EPP interviewee suggested that the EPP would “do away with” amendments related to gender equality on a report on economic policy because “they do not have a place in a report like this one” (EPP, 22/03/2019). Regarding industry, research and energy issues, the EPP was described as less opposing but not supportive either (EP Secretariat, 20/02/19). Also, the extent of gender perspectives caused conflict between the groups:

‘I think what tends to be the most controversial is how many times you say “gender” and whether you do it as an overarching amendment or to try … stick it in every paragraph, in which case you then find that there’s a general sigh at some point about, “Look, we’ve said it, how many times do we have to repeat it again? It’s there.”’ (Greens/EFA, 31/01/2019)

With direct opposition from the ECR, the ID and partly the EPP, the other political groups have turned to coordinating actions to get gender perspectives integrated into EP policies (GUE/NGL, 01/04/2019; Renew Europe, 04/03/2020; S&D, 06/03/2020; Greens/EFA, 29/05/2020). Connections in the FEMM Committee were useful to get other political groups on board. One micro-political strategy to secure majorities was to approach FEMM Committee members from the hesitating group to convince their colleagues (S&D, 06/03/2020; Greens/EFA, 10/03/2020). These informal cross-party alliances of like-minded, mainly women, MEPs illustrate the importance of informal networks for gender equality change in a parliamentary context (see Waylen, 2017; Childs, 2022). Networks compensate for the gaps in formal gender mainstreaming mechanisms, which leave the final decisions about integrating gender perspectives to the political groups. The case of how the EP integrated several references to gender equality in the EU’s COVID-19 recovery fund exemplifies the power of such informal networks. Working across the political groups, FEMM Committee members and other feminist MEPs managed to include several references to gender equality in the EP’s position (Elomäki and Kantola, 2022).

Committees: a weak backbone in gender mainstreaming implementation

The conflicts between the political groups regarding gender mainstreaming materialise in committees, which are the EP’s legislative backbone (Neuhold, 2001). Committees are not just institutional arenas for political struggles; they are powerful intra-institutional actors that follow, bend, break and make rules. To analyse committees’ role, we assess: (1) the enactment of formal gender mainstreaming rules; and (2) the integration of gender perspectives in legislative work. In addition to routinely ‘forgetting’ formal requirements, we suggest that committees are gatekeepers for integrating gender perspectives into the EP’s legislative process. We attribute differences between committees to different logics of appropriateness and informal patriarchal norms. Also, formal and informal rules about the relationships between committees sideline gender mainstreaming rules.

Divergent formal rules and invisibility

All permanent standing committees and subcommittees fulfilled the formal requirement for a gender mainstreaming action plan, though some plans were from the 2014–19 term. The action plans showed differences in committees’ understandings of gender mainstreaming and their self-made formal rules. Most plans were detailed on ensuring gender balance in different functions (for example, staff appointments and expert hearings) but vague on policies, illustrating a narrow understanding of gender mainstreaming as descriptive representation.

Rules about policymaking were weak. Almost all committees had formal rules about integrating gender perspectives into draft reports and opinions. Nine committees, including Budgets (BUDG), Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) and Constitutional Affairs (AFCO), had rules about considering FEMM Committee opinions and amendments. However, the action plans did not state who was responsible for doing this and how it should happen in practice. They often included softening formulations, such as references to relevancy, which made bypassing the rules legitimate. Some plans restricted gender perspectives to specific issues. For instance, the ECON Committee only committed to considering gender for board nominations of economic institutions and corporate governance. Only the EMPL Committee stated that ‘this perspective needs to be implemented in all reports and opinions’ (EMPL, 2018: 2).

Only two committees – Regional Affairs (REGI) and Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) – had rules about discussing gender mainstreaming. Instead, the responsibility for monitoring was put upon the members in charge of gender mainstreaming. While this task sometimes fell on FEMM Committee members and feminist MEPs, the members in charge often did not have the expertise needed to carry it out. Based on a list of appointed members that we acquired, nine out of 24 were FEMM Committee members and at least two more had, in our assessment, other gender expertise. Some persons tasked with gender mainstreaming, according to our assessment of their background, had no expertise in gender matters. Only three were men, illustrating that gender mainstreaming is seen as a woman’s task. Also, the committee staff responsible for gender mainstreaming did not necessarily have relevant expertise (EP Secretariat, 20/02/2019). The lack of expertise showed. Whereas some appointed members actively pushed their committees to work on gender issues, others only had the role on paper and did not even want to do the job (S&D, 27/01/2020).

Although the committees implemented the formal EP-level rules on adopting action plans and appointing gender mainstreaming persons, and made formal rules of their own, gender mainstreaming was hardly visible to committee members and staff. Some interviewees did not even know about the action plans or the appointed members. This is illustrated by an interviewee connected to the ECON Committee in the 2014–19 term: “I only got informed about this by my FEMM colleagues, but nobody in ECON ever raised this, never ever” (S&D, 15/05/2019). The invisibility indicates that despite the formal EP and committee-level rules, gender mainstreaming lacks an institutionalised place in committees’ agendas. In line with McKay’s (2014) concept of nested newness, the gender mainstreaming rules do not translate into changes in everyday committee work. Instead, the committees routinely ‘forget’ the new rules aimed at gendered change.

Integrating gender perspectives in the legislative process

Like previous studies (Lodovici et al, 2018), our interviews reveal differences between committees’ approaches to the integration of FEMM Committee proposals. The EMPL Committee was described as particularly supportive of the FEMM Committee’s suggestions (S&D, 04/03/2020). The interviewees noted that in the EMPL Committee, even EPP members understood gender issues and voted in favour of FEMM Committee amendments (Greens/EFA, 31/01/2019; S&D, 04/03/2020). In contrast, the ECON Committee was described as particularly resistant. As put by one ECON Committee interviewee: “I think I would not exaggerate if I say that [FEMM Committee opinions] are, in most cases, put to the dustbin without any kind of consideration or, I would say even endeavour, to take them seriously” (Greens/EFA, 22/02/2019). Interviewees described ECON Committee members as conservatives, taking stricter stances on social issues, including gender equality, than their political groups (EPP, 22/03/2019). Even interviewees from the political groups supportive of gender mainstreaming acknowledged that gender perspectives were not very visible in the groups’ ECON Committee work (ALDE, 29/01/2019; GUE/NGL, 16/05/2019; S&D, 15/06/2019).

However, even interviewees from committees favouring gender mainstreaming described the FEMM Committee’s suggestions as “too much”, “too persistent” or even “annoying”. As expressed by an S&D interviewee from the EMPL Committee: ‘[S]ometimes, I feel that some FEMM members are, or colleagues are, overdoing it.… Even so there is a good cause, it might be one step or two too much’ (S&D, 04/03/2020; also EPP, 04/12/2018). Such remarks nuance narrative about ‘supporting’ and ‘opposing’ committees and illustrate the general disregard of the FEMM Committee within the EP (Ahrens, 2016).

Portraying gender equality as irrelevant was a common discursive oppositional strategy in the resistant committees. For instance, one interviewee described the ECON Committee’s policies as “technical” and could not see a role for gender in the functioning of markets or public finances, despite the ample evidence of gender impacts on economic policies and austerity: “We mainly deal with very technical issues in financial services. It’s about how a market functions, how a financial instrument functions, how sanction regime, public finances, how obligations function. So, there are many things not necessarily, let’s say, with a gender dimension” (ALDE, 29/01/2019). Also, interviewees in favour of gender mainstreaming had encountered this strategy when raising gender concerns in the ECON Committee: “They’ll say, ‘What’s gender got to do with competition, or competitiveness, or economic policies?’, that anything to do with gender belongs in either Employment or the FEMM Committee” (EPP, 04/03/2020). In the AFCO Committee, women’s descriptive representation issues, like quotas, were increasingly acknowledged as a relevant issue, but “beyond that, it’s super difficult” (Greens/EFA, 10/03/2020).

We suggest that differences between the committees are partly connected to their different gendered logics of appropriateness (Chappell, 2006). The ECON and AFCO Committees – identified by several interviewees as resistant to gender mainstreaming – are among the EP’s most male-dominated committees. In the 2014–19 term, more than 75 per cent of their members were men (EP, 2018: 11). Several ECON Committee interviewees described disregard for women’s expertise, such as difficulties getting important reports (EPP, 18/11/2018; Greens/EFA, 26/02/2019; Greens/EFA, 19/03/2019) and sexist behaviour (S&D, 16/06/2019; EPP, 18/11/2020). Similarly, the AFCO Committee was described as “blokey” (S&D, 27/01/2020). Independently of one another, several interviewees constructed specific committees as difficult for gender equality, indicating the existence of informal patriarchal norms in these committees. Hence, opposition to gender mainstreaming and seeing gender as irrelevant implies a script of informal unequal gender rules of behaviour (Mergaert and Lombardo, 2014). Earlier EP research that showed how committees operate on their own logic and attract MEPs with different profiles supports this interpretation (Yordanova, 2013).

The disregard for FEMM Committee proposals in committees was shaped by other factors too. Next to the opposition from some political groups discussed in the previous section, we also identified institutional resistance connected to committees’ policymaking practices. FEMM Committee opinions and amendments often simply disappeared in the negotiation process. The FEMM Committee’s suggestions were often nominally considered to be covered by the compromises, even if hardly any of their substance was included (S&D, 26/02/2019; EPP, 22/03/2019). For instance, when we asked an ECON Committee MEP about what happened to FEMM Committee amendments in a report about the EU’s socio-economic priorities, they showed us a list of compromise amendments, with FEMM Committee amendments marked as included. Nevertheless, the adopted report only included one passing reference to gender equality.

We suggest that institutional resistance goes beyond informal patriarchal norms and connects with the strict division of labour between committees formally defined in the EP’s rules of procedure. Based on the interviews, respecting other committees’ competences, including not intervening in their issues, is a deep-seated norm in EP policymaking. The rules about the division of labour are connected to the disregard towards other committees’ input that was raised by interviewees from different groups and committees (for example, EPP, 04/12/2018; ALDE, 19/02/2019). We interpret this disregard as an informal everyday practice within the EP. Committees high in the EP’s power hierarchy, such as the ECON Committee, pay even less attention to others (Greens/EFA, 16/03/2019; Renew Europe, 04/03/2020). In this siloed and hierarchical institutional environment, formal gender mainstreaming rules are put in the backseat and FEMM Committee proposals become a threat. This shows, again, the nested newness of gender mainstreaming as an institutional innovation (Mackay, 2014) and the difficulties involved when gender mainstreaming rules are layered on top of existing rules without replacing the status quo (Minto and Mergaert, 2018). Unsurprisingly, efforts to change formal rules to give FEMM Committee gender mainstreaming amendments a stronger standing in committees were rejected. As a FEMM Committee interviewee explained, other committees are afraid that “FEMM could just say whatever they want in our committees” (Greens/EFA, 10/03/2019).

Our analysis also reveals the FEMM Committee’s micro-political strategies for pushing gender perspectives forward in difficult committees. For instance, the FEMM Committee used own-initiative reports to push gender mainstreaming forward and reluctant committees to collaborate. The report on gender and taxation in the 2014–19 term is a good example of such a strategy. According to several interviews, the ECON Committee, which has the competence over taxation, first tried to block the report, and the FEMM Committee had to fight hard for its authorisation. Eventually, the ECON Committee co-authored the report with the FEMM Committee instead of letting the FEMM Committee discuss taxation without its involvement (S&D, 29/01/2019; Greens/EFA, 22/02/2019; Greens/EFA, 21/03/2019). This induced historic cooperation between the two committees and forced the ECON Committee for the first time to discuss a topical gender equality matter in depth. As described by one interviewee, the report was a Trojan Horse to smuggle gender equality into the most resisting committee (Greens/EFA, 22/02/2019).

Conclusions

The EP is considered a vanguard in the implementation of gender mainstreaming among parliaments worldwide (Ahrens, 2019). Yet, the EP is not a homogeneous actor, and this article has deciphered the roles of EP standing committees and political groups in implementation or the lack thereof. Engaging with FI and micro-political approaches, we examined how formal and informal institutions and micro-political strategies within political groups and committees affect gender mainstreaming implementation and the EP’s abilities to integrate the often-omitted gender perspective in EU policies. We have argued that political groups and committees, as the core power players of EP policymaking, are gatekeepers for gender mainstreaming. While the FEMM Committee, as the gender-focused parliamentary body, oversees gender mainstreaming, the committees, as the locus of legislative work, and the political groups that negotiate policies eventually determine whether and how gender perspectives are integrated into EP policies.

Our analysis, focused on the turn of the 2014–19 and the 2019–24 legislative terms, found that ideological differences between political groups affect gender mainstreaming implementation. The political groups’ attitudes towards gender mainstreaming largely follow the GAL–TAN divide. The Greens/EFA and GUE/NGL are the most determined gender mainstreaming promoters. The S&D and Renew Europe are committed but less systematically, while the EPP is split internally, and the ECR and the ID reject gender mainstreaming completely. Given the EP’s consensus-seeking policy formation and the importance of the EPP for majorities, the future of gender mainstreaming implementation looks rather bleak. Thus, it will likely continue relying on small wins, such as single reports by political groups on the GAL end of the spectrum. Other factors impeding the integration of gender perspectives are the formal and informal rules about committee competences and not working on other committees’ issues. Some committees, such as the ECON Committee, are particularly resistant given their informal patriarchal norms that regard gender perspectives as irrelevant.

Even in this difficult environment, gender equality actors navigate the EP’s formal and informal rules and try to use them to their advantage. Our analysis shows the importance of informal cross-party networks of gender mainstreaming promoters. The FEMM Committee remains a strategic hub influencing other committees’ decisions and convincing political groups to support certain gender equality issues.

Our findings illuminate the specific challenges for gender mainstreaming in parliaments, extend the field of gender mainstreaming research and contribute to scholarship on gender equality change in parliaments. Parliaments are well placed to integrate gender perspectives across policy fields and address the omissions of executive bodies. The gatekeeping roles of committees and political groups – actors present in most national parliaments – provide valuable information for efforts to introduce and institutionalise gender mainstreaming in parliaments. The illustrated mismatch between formal and informal institutions in the EP’s gender mainstreaming implementation invites future comparison with other attempts at institutional change in the EP, thus allowing for a nuanced estimation of its ability to reform itself.

Funding

This work was supported by the European Research Council under Grant 771676 and the Academy of Finland under Grant 338556.

Acknowledgements

We wish to thank the 2021 European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR) General Conference Virtual Event panel participants, our EUGenDem colleagues Valentine Berthet, Barbara Gaweda, Johanna Kantola and Cherry Miller, and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments that improved our thinking and argumentation.

Author biographies

Anna Elomäki is a senior researcher at the Faculty of Social Sciences at Tampere University, Finland. Her research focuses on gender equality policies and the intersections of economy, politics and gender in the EU and EU member states.

Petra Ahrens is an Academy of Finland Research Fellow at the Faculty of Social Sciences at Tampere University, Finland. She focuses on gender equality policies and politics in the EU and its institutions, parliaments and parties, as well as gender equality in EU member states.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

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  • View in gallery
    Figure 1:

    Three groups of actors for gender mainstreaming in the EP

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ahrens, P. (2019) Working against the tide? Institutionalizing gender mainstreaming in the European Parliament, in P. Ahrens and L. Rolandsen Agustín (eds) Gendering the European Parliament: Structures, Policies, and Practices, London: Rowman & Littlefield International, pp 85101.

    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bressanelli, E. and Chelotti, N. (eds) (2020) The European Parliament in the Contested Union: Power and Influence Post-Lisbon, London: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cavaghan, R. (2017) Making Gender Equality Happen. Knowledge, Change and Resistance in EU Gender Mainstreaming, New York: Routledge.

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    • Export Citation
  • Childs, S. (2022) Feminist institutional change: the case of the UK Women and Equalities Committee, Parliamentary Affairs, online first, doi: 10.1093/pa/gsab066.

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    • Export Citation
  • Elomäki, A. (2021) ‘It’s a total no-no’: the strategic silence about gender in the European Parliament’s economic governance policies, International Political Science Review, online first, doi: 10.1177/0192512120978329.

    • Search Google Scholar
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  • Elomäki, A. and Kantola, J. (2022) Feminist governance in the European Parliament: the political struggle over the inclusion of gender in the EU’s Covid-19 response, Politics & Gender, online first, doi: 10.1017/S1743923X21000544.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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  • Erikson, J. and Josefsson, C. (2022) The parliament as a gendered workplace: how to research legislators, Parliamentary Affairs, 75(1): 2038. doi: 10.1093/pa/gsaa049

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hafner-Burton, E. and Pollack, M. (2009) Mainstreaming gender in the European Union: getting the incentives right, Comparative European Politics, 7(1): 11438. doi: 10.1057/cep.2008.37

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Héritier, A., Meissner, L.K., Moury, C. and Schoeller, M.G. (2019) European Parliament Ascendant: Parliamentary Strategies of Self-Empowerment in the EU, Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kantola, J. and Rolandsen Agustìn, L. (2016) Gendering transnational party politics: the case of European Union, Party Politics, 22(5): 64151. doi: 10.1177/1354068816654321

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kenny, M. (2007) Gender, institutions and power: a critical review, Politics, 27(2): 91100. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9256.2007.00284.x

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Anna ElomäkiTampere University, Finland

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Petra AhrensTampere University, Finland

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