Gender-based Analysis: Will it make things better for women?

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By Wendy Williams

Call it gender main-streaming, gender lens, or gender-based analysis, the tool is fairly new to Canada and it is not yet widely used. Will it be used to justify decisions that have already been made, or will it make things better for women?

An Old Idea

To some women's movement activists gender-based analysis is a new term. But the idea is not new. For decades women have been analyzing government policies and programs to see if they meet women's needs. Often they found they did not. Women not only complained about this, but they did something about it. They set up services, such as sexual assault centres, birth control and abortion clinics, to meet women's needs.

Now the federal and some provincial governments have said they will change the way they work. They will ensure that their future policies and programs will fit the needs of both women and men using a process they are calling gender-based analysis.

  • EQUITY acknowledges that all people are not the same and do not have similar status or contexts. For example, it recognizes the different situations and needs of diverse groups of women such as women of colour, women with a disability, women living on low incomes and lesbians.

  • GENDER refers to the differential roles, responsibilities and activities of females and males.

  • GENDER-BASED ANALYSIS describes a process that assesses the different impacts of proposed and existing policies program and legislation on women and men.

Where Did Gender-based Analysis Come From?

The idea has been evolving over the past 30 years in the international arena especially in the United Nations. It was in 1975 in Mexico City at the World Conference for International Women's Year when the idea that governments needed internal mechanisms to help the advancement of women was first raised.

At the conference a Plan of Action was released and it included the idea of internal government mechanisms. Internal mechanisms include both bureaucrats to do the work and processes with which to work. During the Decade for Women (1976 to 1985) many countries adopted this idea. In the language of the United Nations these internal mechanisms are now called national machineries and they are using a gender-based analysis to work.

The Canadian government has developed its own national machinery to help achieve equality for women. Status of Women Canada, the Women's Health Bureau and the Secretary of State are all part of this national machinery. These institutions have the responsibility for promoting the integration of gender-equality perspectives in Canadian government policy development and decision-making.

In 1995, the Canadian government adopted a policy requiring federal departments and agencies to conduct gender-based analysis of future policies and legislation.

The Use of a Gender-based Analysis

While gender-based analysis is discussed in various provincial and federal government documents and there have been training sessions on its use, the development of policies using it is almost non- existent. One example is the changes in the Employment Insurance Act introduced by the federal government several years ago. Government officials presented the House of Commons Committee with a gender-based analysis showing the legislation might be more "favourable" to women than to men, because men's benefits would be reduced more than women's, and because the new hours-based system would allow more part-time workers, most of whom are women, access to benefits. But, a recent review on the impact of the legislation found that fewer women and young people qualify.

At the provincial level British Columbia has had experience with a gender-based analysis starting in December 1993. They started with an initiative at the cabinet level. All cabinet papers were required to have been through what they called a gender lens before going to the cabinet. Cabinet papers are not public and the process has not been evaluated. One person's assessment of the process was that it has not worked as the gender lens is often applied after the big decisions are made.

Where is Gender-based Analysis Going?

It appears that gender-based analysis and related ideas ("main-streaming", gender-based management) will be part of the world of governments in the future. There is a gradual adoption of these processes across both the provincial and federal governments. The United Nations has adopted this process in agencies like the World Health Organization. Some federal government departments are using it. Apart from BC at the provincial level, Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec will start using it soon.

The Quebec provincial government has promised to adopt a gender-based analysis, starting in 2000. The first departments will be the Ministry of Health and Social Services.

The use of a gender-based analysis by federal and government departments is new. As government departments adopt this process there must be a mechanism to document both its use and the results of its use. Case studies that describe using a gender-based analysis, which resulted in a policy or program that reflect the diversity of women's lives, would be a welcome publication from a government department.

Is Gender-based Analysis a Safety Net?

Few women work in women friendly places. Many workplaces are toxic. Most feminist leaders pay a very high price for speaking out for women. Most need a safety net. Gender-based analysis may be a safety net for women inside government bureaucracies.

Main-streaming: Will the New Stream Look Like the Old Stream?

One feminist has said: "After main-streaming gender, will the new stream look like the old stream?" Here are some of the concerns about gender main-streaming and gender-based analysis:


Language is an important aspect of the women's movement. There are concerns that a gender- based analysis is not a feminist analysis. If it were, it would be called a feminist-based analysis. Will women disappear as they often do, when gender-neutral language is used?

Gender-based analysis did not come from the activist community. Activists are unsure of what it is. Women do not talk about gender. They speak about their lives and experiences. Will women even know that a gender-based analysis is about putting both women's and men's experience into the policy process?

Who will be doing this work ?

Who will be doing this work and what training or experience will they have? Can any anyone be taught to do a gender-based analysis? Will people be using this process with no training? These questions must be raised in the many places this work will be done.

Will a Gender-based Analysis Take Diversity into Account?

Much public policy is developed using statistics. These statistics are not collected to reflect the diversify of women. For example, there are almost no statistics on lesbians. How will diversity be addressed in this process? Given that many issues of diversity are not captured in statistics will governments fund qualitative research to see if the diversity of women's experience is reflected in the new policy or program?

Another concern is that dealing with gender alone is not reflective of women's lives. Some women thought race and gender must be dealt with at the same time and that this separation of gender was a feature of a dominant white culture.

Does a Gender Based Analysis Work?

To find out we will have to wait for governments to report where and how they have used gender-based analysis to improve polices and programs for women and men. Then the process needs to be evaluated.

The article is excerpted from Wendy Williams' paper, Will the Canadian Government's commitment to use a gender based analysis result in public policies reflecting the diversity of women's lives? produced for Made to Measure: Designing Research, Policy and Action Approaches to Eliminate Gender Inequity (October 3-6, 1999). The symposium was hosted by the Maritime Centre of Excellence for Women's Health (