Challenging boundaries to expand frontiers in gender and policy studies

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Emanuela LombardoMadrid Complutense University and Institute of Feminist Research, Spain

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Petra MeierUniversity of Antwerp, Belgium

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Gender and policy studies needs to face challenges and cross boundaries if the discipline is to develop. This article argues that gender and policy studies needs to explicitly foreground the centrality of politics – the analysis of power – in approaching policy. The discipline confronts boundaries in relation to inclusivity, diversity and relevance. Inclusive gender equality demands challenging the hegemonising and marginalising boundaries in the field, which contributes to its relevance by placing politics and power centre stage. Openness to the diversity of gender and policy approaches, a more systematic and thoughtful application of intersectionality, cooperation with LGBTQI+, critical race studies and normative political theory provide opportunities to challenge boundaries and advance knowledge. We argue that explicit reflexivity about power dynamics and knowledge production, employing a plurality of approaches, will better equip the discipline to navigate major challenges and crises, and offer more nuanced democratic and egalitarian societal contributions.

Abstract

Gender and policy studies needs to face challenges and cross boundaries if the discipline is to develop. This article argues that gender and policy studies needs to explicitly foreground the centrality of politics – the analysis of power – in approaching policy. The discipline confronts boundaries in relation to inclusivity, diversity and relevance. Inclusive gender equality demands challenging the hegemonising and marginalising boundaries in the field, which contributes to its relevance by placing politics and power centre stage. Openness to the diversity of gender and policy approaches, a more systematic and thoughtful application of intersectionality, cooperation with LGBTQI+, critical race studies and normative political theory provide opportunities to challenge boundaries and advance knowledge. We argue that explicit reflexivity about power dynamics and knowledge production, employing a plurality of approaches, will better equip the discipline to navigate major challenges and crises, and offer more nuanced democratic and egalitarian societal contributions.

Introduction

Gender and policy studies, also known as feminist comparative policy studies (Mazur, 2002), has become a highly developed field since the mid 1980s (Lovenduski, 1986). It comprises a large and diverse network of international scholars who access research funding and make a substantial contribution to scientific journals (Mazur, 2009). Gender and policy studies addresses the public problem of gender inequality through various epistemological and methodological approaches (Bacchi, 1999; Lombardo et al, 2013; Mazur and Hoard, 2014), issues (Verloo, 2007; McBride and Mazur, 2010; Blofield and Haas, 2013), and comparative analyses (Mazur, 2015; 2009), that have introduced new perspectives in policy studies. We refer to the field as both gender and policy and feminist policy studies, meaning with ‘feminist’ a project of changing society towards greater gender equality. While not all gender research is necessarily feminist in the sense of being committed to such societal change, the literature we discuss in this article is indeed feminist.

This article explores challenges both to, and within, gender and policy studies. In addition, it considers the boundaries that need to be fractured if gender and policy studies is to expand the frontiers it faces. It does so by addressing the three questions guiding this special issue. First, what have we learned in the field we investigate? Second, what challenges and opportunities are met when addressing the themes of inclusivity, diversity and relevance? Finally, what are key needs and strategies for advancing that field? We argue that gender and policy studies contributes to policy research by foregrounding the centrality of politics – the analysis of power – in approaching policy. Explicit reflexivity about power dynamics, employing a plurality of approaches, intersectionality and cooperation with critical race and sexuality studies will better equip the discipline to navigate challenges, thus moving gender and policy studies forward.

Given the centrality of both gender and policy in this article, it is important to provide a clear working definition of the concepts upfront and signpost the contribution of gender studies to the understanding of policy. Gender is meant here as complex socially defined relations between masculinities and femininities (Hawkesworth, 2013), and from an intersectional perspective that is cognizant of how gender interacts with class, race, ethnicity, sexuality, ability, age and other inequalities (Crenshaw, 1991). The article is underpinned primarily by the literature on gender policy, though it also draws upon accounts of gender in policies integrating a gender – sometimes intersectional – perspective within mainstream research that characterises the field (Mazur and Hoard, 2014; Mazur, 2017; Kantola and Lombardo, 2017). Gender policies aim to address gender inequalities, while gender in policies addresses gender issues within policies not explicitly concerned with gender inequalities. Policy is understood as the socially constructed output of processes of policymaking in which governments, at different levels, plan, formulate, adopt, implement and evaluate interventions aimed at addressing problems that political actors deem relevant in specific social contexts (Lombardo and Meier, 2016). Gender studies have contributed to show how policies are not gender-neutral but reflect androcentric, heteronormative, ethnocentric and other norms that hinder progress towards gender equality. For instance, policies (re)produce gender and other inequalities when they disadvantage women in the labour market by attributing the role of principal breadwinners to men and those of main caregivers to women, or deny homosexual people equal parental rights (Bacchi, 2017). By (re)producing these gendered norms, policies reinforce the power and privilege of hegemonic groups, that advantage – some groups of – men and disadvantage – among others – women according to race, class, sexual orientation and other social markers (Lombardo et al, 2013; Lombardo and Meier, 2016).

The article starts with lessons from gender and policy studies, to then reflect on challenges and opportunities in addressing the questions of inclusivity, diversity and relevance, and end with discussing the key needs and strategies for advancing gender and policy studies.

Lessons from gender and policy studies

This article draws lessons from accounts of gender and policy studies which reveal the substantive development of this field (Lombardo et al, 2013; Blofield and Haas, 2013; Lombardo and Meier, 2016; Kantola and Lombardo, 2017; Mazur, 2020; 2015; 2009; 2002). While such meta-level lessons might seem obvious, once unpacked, their ramifications for gender and policy studies become apposite in the light of the challenges and opportunities addressed in the next section. Overall, four main lessons are drawn.

The first lesson is that feminist agency in social movements and within institutions is key to unlocking gender equality policy agendas. The field cannot be understood without studying the struggles of feminist actors and movements to politicise new claims and put issues on governments’ agenda. Policies against gender-based violence are good examples of the pivotal role played by feminist actors at both adoption (Htun and Weldon, 2018) and implementation levels (Krizsan and Roggeband, 2019). The literature also shows that gender equality institutions, captured by the concept of state feminism, are key actors for the adoption and implementation of gender equality policies; such action being most effective when it is consistent with the demands of feminist movements (Mcbride and Mazur, 2010). The descriptive and substantive representation of women in feminist institutional agency is crucial not only in investigating the relationship between women’s presence and policy outcomes, but also as a means to improve democratic performance and practice (Mazur and Hoard, 2014; Engeli and Mazur, 2018; Celis and Childs, 2020). To understand why gender equality policies are made and implemented, not only the presence of a critical mass of women in parliament, but also the role of critical actors in substantive representation (Childs and Krook, 2009), actors committed to represent gender equality claims (Celis, 2009), and alliances among feminist actors from movements, institutions and academia (Woodward, 2004) have proven essential.

Related to feminist agency, is the second lesson, namely that contestation is inherent to gender equality policies. This contestation is, however, double edged. The literature shows that gender equality policies tend to arise from contestation among a variety of actors. This leads to progress in gender equality policies by creating new opportunities for claims to be put on the agenda and existing policy framings to become more inclusive (Lombardo et al, 2009). This was the case when, following contestation by feminist and human rights actors, the United Nations recognised that ‘women’s rights are human rights’ (Ferree, 2009) and human rights experts drafted the Yogyakarta Principles on the rights of sexual and gender minorities (Verloo and van der Vleuten, 2020). The literature also reveals how contestation equally means opposition to gender equality policies. The implementation of gender equality policies has always faced opposition and resistance in the form of institutional and individual inertia designed to maintain the status quo (Benschop and Verloo, 2011; Lombardo and Mergaert, 2013; Ahrens, 2018). In the last decade however, opposition against gender equality at a global level, has manifested in a more open and (pro)active way (Verloo, 2018b). The fragility of many gender equality policies has become apparent as anti-gender actors or coalitions have advocated claims and policies that attack sexual and reproductive rights as well as other LGBTQI+ and gender policies, and the concept of gender itself. These developments show how gender equality rights can be reversed within the broader evolutions of democratic backsliding linked to radical right populist and conservative parties, anti-gender actors and religious institutions (Kuhar and Paternotte, 2017; Krizsan and Roggeband, 2018; Dietze and Roth, 2020; Lombardo et al, 2021), especially if such actors access institutions promoting gender equality (Valkovicova and Meier, 2021). The contestation inherent to gender equality policies entails thus both progress and fragility.

This brings us to a third lesson which shows how, and to what extent, institutions and the macro political context affect gender equality policies. The relevance of politics, as formal and informal institutions, and the broader political or systemic context, in shaping gender equality (in) policies is high (Montoya, 2016). Gender and policy studies demonstrates how institutions and regimes are gendered. Gendered institutions affect public policies, through formal and informal rules and practices that structure opportunities differently for women and men (Mackay et al, 2010). This is illustrated by the (in)formal rules which attribute more prestigious and decision-making positions to men, and invisible and subordinate positions to women. The macro political context of autocratic or democratic regimes matters when explaining variation in gender equality policies, with research showing greater influence by women’s organisations on the state in democracies (Htun and Weldon, 2018) and gender equality policy setbacks where democracy is backsliding (Krizsan and Roggeband, 2018). Finally, gender equality policies are crucially shaped by multi-level dynamics that pressure governments at national and subnational levels to implement the gender equality policies adopted within specific world regions (Vickers, 2013), having different gender and intersectional effects on people. In the European Union, for example, while the multi-level pressure has pushed member states to adopt gender equality policies (van der Vleuten, 2007), discrimination against ethnic minority women has not emerged as a priority (Haastrup and Kenny, 2016).

This leads us to the fourth lesson of gender and policy studies: the understanding of gender equality policies as a codification of power relations. Indeed, gender equality policies fix particular interpretations of gender relations (Lombardo et al, 2009), defining what meanings gender equality should take and what gender roles are legitimate. The codification of gender relations in policy documents, while (re)producing unequal power relations between people, may also serve to overcome them (Ferree, 2009). For example, extending the length of paternity leave to equalise it with maternity leave transforms the understanding of what gender roles are legitimated in care towards greater equality.

The centrality of politics in the development of policy is evident in the power struggles, processes and practices that shape policy (Celis and Lovenduski, 2018). Gender and policy studies address the politics of policy by showing how actors are involved in struggles over the construction of gender equality policy problems and solutions. The centrality of politics in the development of policy reveals the pertinence of power in at least two respects. First, it underscores the need for a feminist concept of power as people-oriented and second, it conceives of contestation as a transformative engine of gender equality policy. With regard to the former, power in feminist conceptualisations is people-oriented, rather than being only a matter for states and institutions (Kronsell, 2012). Power is understood as people-oriented because people are marked by gender, class, race and ethnicity, sexuality and other inequalities (Fraser, 1989; Connell, 2002), and these social markers create unequal relations between dominant and subordinated groups of people. In respect of the latter, power, according to feminist theories, is conceptualised as both domination on the part of hegemonic actors that defend the unequal status quo, and the empowerment of subordinated actors to achieve greater equality (Allen, 1999). It is in the interplay between domination and empowerment that gender equality policies get shaped. This interplay manifests in the ongoing contestation around the meaning of gender equality that takes place not only within the diversified feminist community (Verloo, 2007), but also between actors advocating and opposing the policies (Verloo, 2018a; 2018b). In processes of contestation, unequal gender relations can be transformed through feminist agency in social movements and institutions that leads to expanding gender equality policies (Ferree, 2009), or they can be opposed by civil society and institutional actors, thus leading to the regression of existing rights from former achievements (Krizsan and Roggeband, 2018). Indeed, the struggles and contestation described earlier are about transforming codified power relations, which is explored in the remainder of this section.

Gender and policy cycle and approaches

Gender and policy studies has analysed the pre – and post – adoption of policy, giving important insights to the ways in which the policy cycle and its attendant processes are political and construct power relations between people with intersected inequalities (Verloo, 2007; Bacchi, 2017; Mazur, 2017; 2002; Engeli and Mazur, 2018). Similarly, agenda-setting and adoption have been extensively analysed by feminist comparative studies of western democracies, identifying the role of women’s policy agencies in promoting women’s representation in policymaking and in gendering policy debates over abortion, employment, prostitution, or political representation, especially when they are consistent with the women’s movement (Mazur, 2002; McBride and Mazur, 2010). Research on defining policy problems from gender perspectives has exposed and questioned the gendering, racialising, classing, or hetero-normalising inequalities that policies (re)produce over a wide variety of issues, the multiple ways in which a policy problem can be framed, and the effects for gendered readings and other norms that are embedded in them (Verloo, 2007; Ferree, 2009; Bacchi, 2017; 2009; 1999). Gender-based violence policies, for example, can be framed as a gender equality problem in which domestic violence is connected to structural gender inequality reflecting unequal power relations between women and men. The issue can also be degendered, insofar as violence is presented in gender-neutral terms both for victims and perpetrators, side-lining its prevalence against women (Kantola, 2006; Krizsan et al, 2007). Such analyses reveal how gender equality gets stretched to incorporate new meanings, when it intersects with other inequalities, gets narrowed down, or dovetailed with other goals, such as economic growth (Bacchi, 2009; Lombardo et al, 2009; 2010).

Gender and policy research on implementation and impact, which has intensified since the Gender Equality Policy in Practice (GEPP) network, has shown that implementation, impact (Mazur, 2017) and evaluation (Bustelo, 2017) are gendered, intersectional, and must be studied systematically (Engeli and Mazur, 2018). Gender studies expose the gendered political nature of implementation and the aforementioned power dynamics of domination and empowerment. Implementation is understood by some as a battleground of gender norms in which discursive political struggles are played out by actors with different interpretations of the policies to be put in practice (Ciccia and Lombardo, 2019). An example of power as domination is when actors resist the implementation of gender equality policies to maintain the status quo (Benschop and Verloo, 2011). By contrast, power as empowerment, arises when gender equality actors counteract such resistances through individual and collective strategies for implementing gender equality policies (Tildesley et al, 2021). Gender and policy studies also contribute to assessments of how far adopted policies successfully include gender and minorities’ claims, and achieve gender transformation by dismantling power bases that underpin gender, race and other inequalities (Krizsan and Lombardo, 2013; Engeli and Mazur, 2018).

The aim of improving policy to achieve a more equal and democratic society explains the orientation to policy practice, and the diversity of approaches in addressing policy (Hoard, 2014; Lombardo et al, 2013). While this diversity allows scholars to capture political phenomena from different angles, most are partial in their analytical capacity, especially with regard to power. This was the conclusion of an overview that discussed five such approaches in detail: women, gender, deconstruction, intersectionality and post-deconstruction (Kantola and Lombardo, 2017). We illustrate our point about the partiality of each analytical approach, by considering their capacity to critically address power inequalities.

Taking women as the main object of analysis immediately reveals who is (not) in power. On the downside, it risks a simple essentialism which obscures different experiences of inequality and renders less visible male domination unquestioned. A gender approach focuses on socially constructed relations between women and men, and is thus able to highlight unequal gender structures and norms that facilitates questions about the systemic causes of patriarchal power. Notwithstanding this, gender is often presented as a fixed binary socio-demographic categorisation of man and woman, not recognising the plurality of men and women or the power dynamics that go with them. An intersectional approach allows for the exposure of, and challenges to, the mechanisms of inequality, marginalisation and domination that the complex interactions of gender, race, class and other systems of inequality produce. Intersectionality calls for the analyses of power relations, and the privileges of dominant groups, to be integrated with studies of policymaking and the institutional practices that promote, or counteract, gender and other inequalities. While it is the most helpful theoretical approach to capture power dynamics, it tends to be unsystematically applied, often reductively, to highlight multiple (rather than intersecting) discrimination in policy practice, undermining its potential to capture nuanced power dynamics (Kantola and Lombardo, 2017).

Deconstruction, and especially post-deconstruction approaches, while being highly influential in gender studies, have been more marginalised in the field than those mentioned here. Focusing on gender as contested and constructed discourse, deconstruction approaches make power more explicit by exposing the subtle gendered norms and meanings present in discourses. In showing how the discursive prioritisation or marginalisation of policy problems and solutions has gendering effects on people, this approach unravels how hegemonic versus marginalised subjects are constructed. Its limitation lies in overemphasising discursive over socio-political power. Post-deconstruction relocates the focus on emotions and affects, relating them to structures of power and privilege that produce racialised or gendered effects on people, and connecting the embodied experience of affect to a potential of social transformation. While promising, its analytical potential to address power inequalities is yet to be fully exploited in gender and policy studies (Kantola and Lombardo, 2017).

The four lessons of gender and policy studies addressed foreground the centrality of politics – the analysis of power – in approaching policy. While power is crucial to the conceptualisation of gender, and while gender in policy studies show how policies codify and (re)produce power relations which are contested, not all research addresses power issues, let alone makes them explicit. Gender and policy studies might require more explicit reflection on power, if they do not want to reproduce existing hegemonies and marginalisation.

Challenges and opportunities in terms of inclusivity, diversity and relevance

While the four lessons come with limitations to gender and policy studies when addressing inclusivity, diversity and relevance, the current context also contains opportunities to expand existing frontiers. Inclusivity in this article has to do with how ‘gender’ is approached in policy studies, and how the concept is inclusive of power inequalities. While gender and policy studies have gradually evolved from women to gender, a gender approach still tends to put ‘female’ centre stage. As much as gender is about the social constructions of masculinities and femininities, this understanding is built on the idea that these social constructions tend to be historically to the advantage of men and the disadvantage of women. Research taking on a gender perspective predominantly tends to look at what goes wrong for women and where and how men are in a more powerful position. This tendency shows in gender and policy studies in that whatever is being studied is understood to contain a gender bias to the disadvantage of women. It has been labelled as a ‘feminist taboo’, in that research does not question such underlying premises (Lombardo et al, 2010). While this tendency is understandable – why should research aiming at addressing power imbalances focus on unproblematic situations – it implies that research, even when addressing issues from a gender perspective, might overlook the inequalities some men experience.

An intersectional approach to gender is more inclusive and capable of exposing inequalities, marginalisations and dominations that the interactions of gender, race, class, and other systems of inequality (re)produce (Hill Collins and Chepp, 2013). This allows scholars to reach beyond prioritising the female component in gender. While intersectionality theory allows the recognition of interconnectedness between different social markers, translating it into empirical research faces the methodological challenge of explaining relationships between a multiplicity of different social groups that compose a particular inequality category, be it gender, race or class (McCall, 2005). For instance, in an intersectional study of gender, class and race, a minimum of two gender groups will be systematically compared (women and men), across a minimum of three for class (working, middle and upper) and a minimum of two for race (black and white), which means that at least 12 groups have to be analysed (McCall, 2005). This results in its unsystematic application in policy analysis. While an intersectional approach contains an opportunity to reach beyond a focus on women in gender, there is thus still a challenge to overcome feminist taboos and methodological issues.

LGBTQI+ studies provide opportunities to further develop intersectional approaches. LGBTQI+ work points at the fact that gender is often applied as a fixed dichotomy, focusing on (mostly heterosexual) men to the extent that their position and situation is of relevance to those of (mostly heterosexual) women (Verloo and van der Vleuten, 2020). This excludes intragroup differences, lacks recognition of a third sex, intersex or trans people, and mainly follows a heteronormative logic. Greater openness toward, and cooperation with, LGBTQI+ research would generate opportunities to foster a more intersectional approach in gender and policy studies by transgressing existing boundaries. For practitioners, intersectionality offers inclusiveness (Rolandsen, 2013), and inclusive policy(making) is considered a quality criterion by gender research since it accounts for the differentiated impacts of interacting systems of domination over people (Fraser, 1989).

Diversity invites a reflection about how apparently positive calls for research diversity in the field might silence existing power inequalities. Boulila (2019: 130) argues that while the politics of diversity conveys a message of multicultural unity, it can conceal existing racial inequalities, making it difficult for antiracists to contest unequal institutional practices and white privilege without being labelled as a ‘troublemaker’. The question of which voices are legitimate is an important, though hitherto unproblematised, challenge to making power explicit in gender and policy studies. Although gender and policy studies is characterised by a diversity of theoretical, methodological and empirical approaches, challenges to the recognition of this diversity are numerous. Two processes of hegemonisation and marginalisation constitute important boundaries.

The first challenge is how to deal with the tendency to prioritise some approaches as described earlier while marginalising more (post) deconstructionist approaches. This harbours analytical costs as it is challenging to conduct comprehensive theoretical and empirical analyses of power inequalities while privileging some approaches at the expense of others (Kantola and Lombardo, 2017). The pluralism of gender and policy approaches opens an analytical window to observe policies from different angles, each offering a relevant, but partial, vision of the same issue. This invites scholars to avoid marginalising particular approaches while obtaining a more comprehensive understanding of policy problems.

The second challenge is that gender and policy studies, similar to other branches, tends to drive on hegemonic voices in a research world that is predominantly English functioning, and takes US research as referent (Mendoza, 2012). This ignores the diversity of non-hegemonic voices of gender in policy studies, including colleagues from Latin America, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. This hegemony not only reinforces race and class privileges by excluding gender and policy scholars from the global south, but also impacts upon research content and approaches by focusing on, and being influenced by, policy issues of relevance to hegemonic voices (Medie and Kang, 2018). By definition, this influences which types of feminist agency and struggles get studied, in what sites and contexts, on what subjects, and through what perspective.

Opportunities to break boundaries in gender and policy studies regarding diversity arise from multiple sites. Research by less hegemonic scholars on issues of race and sexuality is beginning to be promoted in academic journals and conferences,1 opening spaces for diverse voices and content. The mobilisation of scholars to denounce exclusion of voices from academic events, such as the initiative People of Color Also Know Stuff,2 has put marginalisation on the agenda. Similarly, critiques of racial denial in gender scholarship, such as Boulila (2019), make white scholars aware of how some intersectionality approaches downplay race as a relevant inequality in analyses of the European context. Reactions of femo – and homo – nationalism, whereby feminist scholars side with anti-gender actors against migrant people to defend native women and homosexual rights (Boulila, 2019), might create opportunities for other feminist scholars to more pro-actively engage with issues of race, ethnicity and sexuality in their work, forging intersectional academic alliances, and speaking out for making the field more diverse.

A further tendency might provide opportunities to break frontiers in gender and policy studies. In recent years, gender expertise has been increasingly attacked as being ideologically grounded by readings of gender relations based on nature, nation and norms. These readings understand gender to have a biological, evolutionary foundation (Verloo and Paternotte, 2018; Verloo, 2018a). Eventually anti-gender actors aim to construct an alternative societal narrative about gender and sexuality (Verloo, 2018a; 2018b), to project a new epistemic paradigm based on what they perceive to be the erasure of social relations embedded in conservative values based on religiously grounded truth about family, sexuality and society (Korolczuk, 2020). They expose an epistemic struggle by questioning what constitutes legitimate data, research and expertise, and to what extent gender and policy studies can be considered legitimate knowledge (Korolczuk, 2020).

While such anti-gender approaches threaten the legitimacy of gender and policy studies, academic freedoms and positions of scholars (Paternotte and Verloo, 2020), and gender equality policies themselves (Verloo and Paternotte, 2018; Verloo, 2018b), they also provide an opportunity to overcome boundaries drawn by processes of hegemonisation and marginalisation. Indeed, they push gender and policy studies’ scholars to question how to define gender expertise. Such a reflection on knowledge based on gender allows scholars to reflect upon the current lack of diversity and recognise voices from Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa (Mendoza, 2012; Medie and Kang, 2018). It also constitutes an opportunity to push gender and policy studies’ scholars to explore approaches centred on discourses and emotions that offer helpful insights for grasping epistemic struggles.

We understand relevance as the extent to which gender and policy studies addresses power, in both its constraining and transformative potential. Gender and policy issues address social inequalities between people based on gender and other inequalities, diagnose the problem of gender inequality in different policy sectors, differentiate the effects policies have on diverse groups of women and men, and sometimes suggest gender equal solutions to policy problems. Gender and policy studies often investigates highly controversial normative issues such as gender-based violence, access to sexual and reproductive health, bodily autonomy, the interference between the public and private sphere, causes and responsibility of poverty, and other gendered power dynamics between individuals, or between individuals and the state.

In this sense, gender and policy studies’ research is, by definition, relevant for addressing power inequalities. However, as argued earlier, such research may serve certain agendas more than others, (re)producing hegemonies within the field, and potentially creating boundaries for the relevance of gender and policy studies in capturing power dynamics. Indeed, the importance of agency and contestation, and the transformative potential of power, also apply to gender and policy studies per se. The field thus faces the challenge to critically reflect upon how power could be deployed to transform society and how a gender equal society should look.

While the field ably critiques what is wrong, explicit reflection on how society ought to look has been relatively neglected. Positive projects, however, from a gender equality perspective might help to push the frontiers of gender and policy studies towards becoming more inclusive. The deployment of broader imaginative capacities to produce new representation of the world is what political theory does. However, political theory is a marginalised subdiscipline (Brown, 2002). Bringing in normative political theory could create opportunities to increase the relevance of gender and policy studies in developing the transformative potential of power in practice.

Two recent evolutions provide opportunities in this respect. The first is a deeper exploration of the relationship between democracy and equality. Democratic backsliding in the form of radical right populism, anti-gender movements, and broader opposition to gender equality have had an impact on gender equality policy backsliding (Krizsan and Roggeband, 2018; Verloo, 2018b). Democratic backsliding negatively affects women and minorities’ rights and equality policies won through years of social movements’ struggles and state feminism (Lombardo et al, 2021). Central feminist issues such as sexual autonomy, freedom from gender violence, economic equality, care equality and women’s equality in politics are under threat. The imperative becomes not only to investigate how democratic backsliding affects gender equality, but also to develop new, positive, more inclusive visions of society, politics and policy.

The second loci of interest are major crises, such as the 2008 financial crisis, the COVID-19 crisis, and the climate change crisis. Events such as the financial crisis challenged gender policies and equality by shifting the blame toward women in the labour market and cutting equality policies that were seen as luxuries (Karamessini and Rubery, 2014). Similarly, the major exposure to COVID-19 and climate change have compounded unequal gender roles, entrenching the predominance of women in (un)paid care work and increasing the risks of poverty and violence for women (Kaijsen and Kronsell, 2014; Politics and Gender, 2020). The challenge for gender and policy studies consists in proposing new, positive and more inclusive conceptualisations of the world in the context of these crises. Such proposals are present, for example, in ecofeminism and feminist care policy studies’ solutions placing the care of people and the planet at the centre of political priorities (Merchant, 1980; Fraser, 1994; Ciccia and Sainsbury, 2018), albeit as marginalised voices in the field of gender and policy studies. Nevertheless, recent evolutions do provide space for bringing positive visions of a more equal society, and to place social transformation at the centre of the discipline.

While there are a number of lessons to draw that reflect the boundaries of the field when looked at through the lenses of inclusivity, diversity and relevance, there are also prospects for pushing the frontiers of the field to make it more inclusive, more diverse and therefore more relevant. Gender policies are a codification of power relations; feminist agency and contestation are important in renegotiating them to reach a more equal codification of them. Inclusive gender equality requires challenging hegemonising and marginalising boundaries in the field of gender and policy studies, which will contribute to the relevance of the field in placing politics and power centre stage. Openness to the diversity of gender and policy approaches, a more systematic and thoughtful application of intersectionality, cooperation with LGBTQI+ and critical race studies and normative political theory, all constitute fruitful opportunities to challenge boundaries and move the field of gender and policy studies forward. Explicit reflexivity about power dynamics through a plurality of approaches, might help the field better capture major challenges and crises, as well as offering projections of a more democratic and egalitarian society.

Key needs and strategies for advancing gender and policy studies

Identifying primary needs, and devising strategies for addressing them, is relevant for a field committed to understanding the gendered implications of societal imperatives, both longstanding, such as the unequal division of care or violence, and new challenges, such as (neo)conservative movements and the COVID-19 pandemic. The core need we deem central to advancing gender and policy studies is increased attention to the power dynamics that underpin knowledge production, and more explicitly, issues of power within gender and policy studies’ research.

Feminist scholars have underlined how power shapes the production of knowledge in many ways (Harding, 1991) and how knowledge has a key role in the (re)production or countering of gender inequality (Verloo, 2018b). An important aspect of the knowledge and power issue concerns how researchers’ embodied positions within social and academic institutions influences the knowledge they produce (Harding, 1991). Members of dominant social groups in terms of gender, race, class and sexuality have more chances to participate in the construction of knowledge than members of marginalised groups. Unequal gender and intersectional power dynamics operating in processes of knowledge production tend to make visible, and legitimise, the voices, understandings and truths of hegemonic groups (Verloo, 2018b). These power dynamics shape who are systematically considered experts (Manne, 2020) by virtue of belonging to (one or more) dominant social groups, and those who are not. Those denied such epistemic authority experience different forms of epistemic injustice, ranging from being afforded unequal scholarly credit and authority, to simply being not believed because they belong to a discriminated group (Fricker, 2007). These dynamics affect gender and policy studies by denying the entitlement and recognition of epistemic authority to scholars who belong to discriminated groups, and critically to the message(s) they deliver. This demands a decolonisation of the field, that goes beyond the usual contexts of the US, and the west in general (Mendoza, 2012), to a process that integrates the knowledge and perspectives of minoritised scholars (Engeli and Mügge, 2020), and marginalised analytical approaches.

A strategy for advancing increased attention for the power dynamics that underpin knowledge production is that of reflexivity; an attitude to develop academics awareness of the biases that shape thinking and research (Bacchi, 2017). These biases can be informed by gender, race, class, sexuality and other inequalities, and by our situated position in academia, dominant approaches in the field, the region of the world where we develop our research, access to material resources, and so on.

Scholarship in gender and policy studies has suggested a number of practices to enhance reflexive research (Bacchi, 2017), that might widen and deepen the scope of research. First, Cavaghan and Kulawik (2020: 4) argue that the creation of ‘robust, recognized venues for the criticism and contestation of knowledge claims’ is important to advance the frontiers of knowledge, with the awareness that ‘access to such venues and other resources remains subject to gender and race hierarchies’. It logically follows that scholars of the global north need to consult academic work by non-hegemonic scholars and practitioners, on non-hegemonic issues, including authors from the global south, in order to confront diversity from their own academic mindset (Medie and Kang, 2018). Second, reflexivity demands pluralism in approaches to policy analysis, to think about political problems in innovative ways, and to alert academics to the possibility of creating new knowledge ‘when you sit comfortably within your own approach’ (Kantola and Lombardo, 2017: 16). Third, it implies exposing the field to inter – and trans – disciplinary work, that elicits thinking out of the box to face the challenges that interdisciplinarity poses, and to experience the learning and explanatory opportunities of a more holistic approach to important questions for gender policies.

Recent research in gender and policy studies has generated interesting examples on how to address issues of power more explicitly. In a special issue dedicated to the gender politics of knowledge and expertise, Cavaghan and Kulawik (2020: 1) underline the current ‘transformations from industrial to knowledge-based economies and the increasing complexity of policy problems’, that have turned ‘governing through knowledge’ into a key policy style. While the contributions by Korolczuk (2020) and Rothermel (2020) investigate the struggles between gender and anti-gender activists, demonstrating how situated or embodied knowledge and affective solidarity may help a feminist agenda, two other contributions in the special issue contain interesting strategies that put power central to the analysis of policies and policy processes.

Cavaghan (2020) analyses attempts to practice intersectionality in gender budgeting in the United Kingdom, showing how they ignored white women’s privilege and thus a key part of the problem. Indeed, her analysis demonstrates how activists ignored racial hierarchies in the production of economic knowledge and consequently the problems of minoritised groups. She shows how intersectional approaches to economic policies need to address knowledge production beyond western feminist – often positivist – epistemology. Similarly, in analysing Chilean pension policies, Azocar (2020) shows how economists gained expert status by gendering their expertise. While this might look promising, she unpacks how such experts give shape to particular forms of knowledge while dismissing others, especially knowledge supporting citizens’ demands, by tapping into – and reproducing – hegemonic masculinity. Both analyses show how enhanced attention for the power dynamics that underpin knowledge production allows gender and policy studies to move forward in understanding unequal social relations and to provide lessons that transform the world into a more equal place to live.

Conclusions

Gender and policy studies offers four lessons: the crucial role of feminist agency; the characterisation of gender equality policies as interventions forged through ongoing contestation; the importance of institutions and the macro political context in shaping gender equality policies. All of these underline the centrality of politics, the analysis of power, in approaching policy, which leads neatly to the fourth lesson: that policies are a codification of power relations.

In addressing the issues of inclusivity, diversity and relevance, these four lessons embody boundaries to gender and policy studies. Inclusive gender equality requires challenging the hegemonising and marginalising boundaries in the field, which contributes to the relevance of the field in placing politics and power centre stage. Openness to the diversity of gender and policy approaches, a more systematic and thoughtful application of intersectionality, cooperation with LGBTQI+, critical race studies and normative political theory all constitute fruitful opportunities to challenge boundaries and move the field of gender and policy studies forward. Explicit reflexivity about power dynamics and knowledge production through a plurality of approaches might better capture major challenges and crises, as well as offering projects which show what a more democratic and egalitarian society would look like. Important for all of this is the centrality of power, both as a theoretical, and an analytical category within our research, but also a significantly increased sensitivity to the conditions under which knowledge production takes place.

Notes

1

See Journal of Women, Politics and Policy’s open interest in intersectionality or European Journal of Politics and Gender’s aims of advancing the field in all its diversity.

Acknowledgements

We wish to thank the three anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments and the editors for helpful guidance in the reviewing process.

Conflict of interests

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

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    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
  • Fricker, M. (2007) Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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    • Export Citation
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Emanuela LombardoMadrid Complutense University and Institute of Feminist Research, Spain

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Petra MeierUniversity of Antwerp, Belgium

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