CritCom | Homepage

Are EU Attempts to Gender Mainstream Realistic? The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) as an Example.

0 Comments 🕔16.Sep 2015

This article is part of our feature People, Power, Policy.

Shortall leader image

Farmers after work in Ukraine. Photo credit:


by Sally Shortall

While there are many case studies looking at gender mainstreaming in national contexts, this article offers a pan-European perspective to examine how a stated commitment to gender mainstreaming at this meta-level works in practice. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is used as an example. It is the single most expensive European policy, accounting for approximately 40% of the EU budget.

First, we need to consider the general principles of gender mainstreaming, and then we will examine how it might be implemented through the CAP.


What is gender mainstreaming?

Article 3 of the 1999 Amsterdam Treaty integrated gender equality into the foundation of the European Community; it “places an obligation on the Community to eliminate inequalities and promote equality between women and men in all its activities.”[1] The Community strategy for achieving this rests on the promotion of “gender mainstreaming.” Gender mainstreaming means the inclusion of a gendered perspective into all European Union (EU) policies and programs, together with specific actions in favor of women. Gender mainstreaming is seen as the most ‘modern’ approach to gender equality. While gender mainstreaming is technically supposed to refer to equality between men and women, it is usually understood to be addressing women’s inequality.

Previous equality strategies tried to achieve equal treatment (making women’s position more like that of men) or followed positive action approaches (specifically focusing on women). Gender mainstreaming is different because it goes beyond a focus on individual men and women and looks at how the practices and cultures of organizations can actually maintain gender inequality. This includes the very organizations that try to advance gender equality. In other words, we need not just to look at women and men in a society, but also how social practices and social structures embed and prolong gender inequality.


How does gender mainstreaming work?

The biggest claim gender mainstreaming makes is that it is ‘transformative,’ that it aims to transform or fundamentally change organizational practices by eliminating gender biases from existing routines. It does this by getting policy makers and civil servants to think about the gendered assumptions in how a policy is constructed and executed. This requires policy makers to acquire the necessary skills, methods and procedures to implement gender mainstreaming. Gender mainstreaming requires action, and in the first instance, tools are needed. Manuals are prepared, training is provided, toolkits and checklists are used. A key practical instrument is the Gender Impact Assessment, also called the Equality Impact Assessment (EIA). Policies are initially ‘screened’ to assess if they require a full EIA. If they do, then the policy is assessed to see how adverse gender impacts might be mitigated or what alternative policies might better achieve gender equality. While the policy is implemented, it is monitored to see if it has an adverse impact. Baseline information is crucial to this process in order to assess whether progress is made or not.


What does gender mainstreaming hope to achieve?

This is not clear. The idea and the practices of gender mainstreaming are confused and vague and are criticized for being too ‘technocratic.’ The entire focus is on training policy makers to ensure they better understand how to do gender mainstreaming and fill out the appropriate forms and paperwork, rather than having a clear statement or vision about what gender mainstreaming any particular policy hopes to achieve. For example, what, specifically, do we want to be different at the end of the policy implementation or program? How will success be measured? Often these basic questions are not asked. Examples of good practice of gender mainstreaming tend to document how gender equality concerns were made central to policy planning and implementation, rather than focusing on changed outcomes.


Some difficulties with implementing gender mainstreaming

Theory and practice

One problem with gender mainstreaming is the ‘divorce’ between theory and practice. In practice it has become a technical project, where the goal is to show that due regard has been paid to the principle of gender mainstreaming. However, this is a long way from the initial underpinning theory, which aimed to challenge gender inequality and unequal power relations.

Who is responsible?

Some reviews of gender mainstreaming suggest that responsibility is given to quite junior staff and it is under-resourced. While the resources such as manuals and toolkits are often excellent, other reviews have found that these are rarely used. Another problem that arises is that people try to avoid engaging with gender mainstreaming, and there is a tendency to lean towards ‘screening out’ documents, saying that they do not need an Equality Impact Assessment in order to avoid gender mainstreaming.

Tensions between gender and the mainstream

Gender mainstreaming presumes that ‘gender’ and the ‘mainstream’ go together like a happy couple, but this is not necessarily the case. The gender component is, in theory at least, about feminist goals. The mainstream component usually tends to be about business needs or economic growth goals. Each of these goals commands a different amount of power— everyone is committed to goals of economic growth, and these have been established for much longer. Business rationale uses language that seems more legitimate and convincing than gendered language. Political and policy commitment tends to be with the mainstream part of gender mainstreaming in the first instance.

Woman Leading a Cow in Rosenau, Romania. Photo credit: Dennis Jarvis

Woman Leading a Cow in Rosenau, Romania. Photo credit: Dennis Jarvis


The Common Agricultural Policy as an example:

European Agriculture:

While we can speak generally about agriculture in the European Union, we must always be mindful of the vast regional differences, particularly between new and old Member States, but also within each of these categories. We can also say that the Common Agricultural Policy, still the most expensive of the EU policies, has shaped and will continue to shape how agriculture develops across Europe. In addition, there are considerable gaps in the information available to examine the position of women across Europe. Statistics provide partial information; a lot of available evidence is qualitative, and provided for individual Member States. Available data is not always analyzed by gender.[2]

The European Union has had a long commitment to family farming as the European model of farming. Family farming is seen as the most democratic means of land ownership in Europe, and preservation of the family farm is a key commitment of the EU. Only 4.4% of holdings in the EU are not family farms. Therefore, the bulk of work on family farms is provided by the holder and his/her family, and nine out of ten persons working on agricultural holdings are family labour force.[3] Men and women on farms actively work together to develop strategies to secure the future and viability of the family farm, including diversification activities and supplementing farm income with income earned off the farm. While feminists have argued against using the household as the unit of analysis, research suggests that members of farm families do not behave as ‘maximising individuals’ but instead adopt a family strategy influenced by the needs of the farm[4].

While women do not behave as maximising individuals within the family farm, this is not to suggest that there is gender equality within the family farm – far from it. Only 24% of women are holders/ owners of farms across Europe[5]; 78% of women are classified as spouses of holders.

Within EU agricultural policy, the owner/ holder of the farm is seen as the producer. As the figures above show, with 41% of women constituting the farm labor force, this view of the owner/ holder as the producer is not true for family farms in the European Union. While on the one hand, the EU has enshrined the idea of the family farm, its policies interact with one person, the holder/owner, who in the majority of cases is the man. The holder is the public face of farming, regardless of the division of labor within the farm family. This has implications for access to benefits, capital for investment, and training and professional advice. Women are very under-represented in lifelong agricultural training programs and in farming unions. The fact that the public domain of farming is almost entirely male takes on a cultural power of its own, making it even more difficult for women to participate.

What are described above are the symptoms of gender inequality in agriculture. The cause of these symptoms is that women in the European Union rarely inherit land. Access to property has fundamentally shaped women’s role in farming. What makes women’s limited inheritance of land even more interesting is that it is governed by different legal and economic frameworks across Europe. Despite the different cultures and political ideologies across Europe, it remains the case that women rarely inherit land.


Gender mainstreaming and the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)

All EU policies must include a gender perspective together with specific actions in favour of women. With respect to the Common Agricultural Policy, gender mainstreaming was an obligation of the Council Regulation (EC) No 1698/2005 governing the Rural Development Regulation 2007-2013. The Rural Development Regulation governs the CAP. In Article 8, it states that Member States and the Commission shall promote equality between men and women…this includes the stages of design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation.” This is all it says. There are no targets, objectives or goals identified. How it will be achieved is not discussed. What success might look like is not considered.

This is the second RDR that included a commitment to gender mainstreaming. The last program, which ended in 2006, did not provide gender assessments of ex-ante evaluations of future national plans, indicators broken down by sex, the composition of committees, or any general information on how attempts were undertaken to promote equality between women and men. There is little evidence of a commitment to gender mainstreaming[6].

In addition, there is no discussion of the fact that while legislatively, gender mainstreaming is integral to the RDR, the reality is more complex. Equality legislation at Member State level remains important. There remains considerable scope for Member States to implement these requirements within their own institutional and legislative frameworks. There is evidence to suggest that the RDP is adopted in ways that reflect existing gender imbalances, and that gender mainstreaming is not considered in how programs are implemented. In other words, gender mainstreaming is sometimes circumvented by cultural norms and established patterns of practice. Where there have been attempts to address gender mainstreaming issues, either through projects across Europe or feminist research calling for change, they have in general tended to focus on the symptoms of gender inequality in agriculture, rather than addressing the cause.

While women are rarely the holder, they are key contributors to the farm family labor force. Women undertake all kinds of unpaid farm labor, and frequently provide full cover if their partners need to be away from the farm for the day. A recent study suggests that farms likely to be viable in Europe are those that can rely on underpaid or unpaid family labor[7]. However it is unclear how gender mainstreaming can apply to an industry that is intrinsically premised on the exploitation of family labor, and particularly women’s labor.

For gender mainstreaming to be transformative, it would need to address the unequal gendered ownership of land. It is difficult to see how this could be achieved through a European policy, when the laws surrounding inheritance are determined at the national level and shaped by societal ideology and values.

Moving forward, close vigilance of gender mainstreaming should be maintained, and the success of this approach to gender equality questioned.


Sally Shortall is based in Sociology in Queen’s University Belfast. She is recognised for her research on agriculture, rural development, farm families, women on farms, rural development theory and practice, food, governance, community and stakeholder engagement in policy processes, how knowledge gains legitimacy and how evidence is used to inform policy.


This article is part of our feature People, Power, Policy.

[1] European Commission. Equal Opportunities for women and men in the European Union Annual Report 1999, (Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, 2000).

[2] Shortall, Sally. Women working on the farm: how to promote their contribution to the development of agriculture and rural areas in Europe. (European Parliament: Brussels, 2010).

[3] Eurostat.. Agricultural statistics. Main Results 2007-2008, (Luxembourg, Official publications of the European Communities 2009).

[4]Shortall, Sally,  “Gender and farming: an overview,” in Rural Gender Relations: Issues and case- studies eds. Bock B.B. and Sally Shortall, (CABI Oxfordshire, 2006), 19-26

[5] We do not technically have an EU wide evidence base regarding the gendered ownership of farms, the Eurostat definition of holder stands as a reasonable proxy (communication with Eurostat, September 2010). The holder is the person in whose name the holding is operated, and who has economic responsibility for the holding (Shortall, 2010).

[6] Sally Shortall, “Gender mainstreaming and the Common Agricultural Policy,” Gender Place and Culture 22, 5 (2015):717-730; B.B. Bock, “Gender mainstreaming in rural development: the trivialisation of rural gender issues,” Gender, Place and Culture 22, 5 (2015):731-730

[7] LEI Report, Farm Viability in the European Union: assessment of the impact of changes in farm payment, by H. Vroliijk, C. de Bont, P. Blokland, and R. Soboh, Project code 31964, (Wageningen UR, The Hague, 2010). 2010-1

No Comments

No Comments Yet!

No one has left a comment for this post yet!

Write a Comment