Resistance to Implementing Gender Mainstreaming in EU Research Policy

Europe of Knowledge |

Lut Mergaert and Emanuela Lombardo[i]

The European Union (EU) officially committed to gender mainstreaming in the 1990s, fixing the principle in treaty articles, action programmes, and communications, and setting up institutional bodies and mechanisms to promote the incorporation of a gender perspective into policymaking. However, the implementation has not reflected these official commitments. This is, in part, because individual and institutional resistances prevent an effective implementation of the strategy. This flags the need to analyse manifestations of resistance to gender initiatives within institutions, as resistances are factors that help to understand the failure of gender policies.

In our article, we analyse the implementation of gender mainstreaming in the European Union through the study of ‘resistance’ to gender equality initiatives in the EU research policy. Contributing to feminist institutionalist theories, we identify resistance to gender initiatives within the Directorate General Research and Innovation, showing that there has been obstacles to an effective implementation of gender mainstreaming in the European Commission’s 6th Framework Programme (FP6). We argue that the encountered resistances reveal tensions between the European Commission’s official mandate of mainstreaming gender equality into all policies and its actual implementation, which results in the evaporation of transformative gender equality goals. To operationalise our analysis, we developed a typology of ‘resistances’ that we briefly present here.

What is meant with ‘resistance’?

Resistance generally means the refusal to accept or comply with something. In our analysis, it specifically means opposition to the change that gender mainstreaming promotes (Benschop and Verloo 2011; Lombardo and Mergaert 2013). Resistance is thus meant as a phenomenon aiming to preserve the status quo rather than to question a particular dominant social order.

Scholars have raised awareness on the genderedness of institutions and suggested that ‘dynamics of institutional power relations, resistance, reproduction, continuity and change, need to be filtered through a gendered lens’ (Kenny 2011; Mackay 2011: 188). Benschop and Verloo (2011: 286) write: ‘(r)esistance to change is typically strong when an organization’s cultural norms, beliefs, attitudes, and values are the target of change efforts. This is certainly the case with projects that target the gender bias in organizational routines.’ Thus, resistance is likely to occur among the main actors involved in the implementation of mainstreaming.

Types of resistance

The concept of resistance we employ includes two main types: the individual and the institutional resistance. This distinction helps to differentiate, for analytic purposes, the resistance exercised by an individual through his or her action (or inaction) from the resistance that is revealed by a pattern of aggregated action (or inaction) that is systematically repeated and that suggests a collective orchestration against gender change.

‘Resistance to feminism’, write Bergqvist, Bjarnega, and Zetterberg (2013: 281) ‘is often seemingly invisible and implicit, and it seldom manifests itself explicitly as such’. This suggests that resistance is not necessarily a conscious, deliberate action, but rather an expression of the unequal gender norms that individuals have learnt and therefore tend to preserve. We agree with Bergqvist, Bjarnega, and Zetterberg (2013: 286) that precisely because ‘[t]he resistance is not always made explicit (…) it is important to study it empirically’. To do this, we further need to distinguish between explicit and implicit resistance (Mergaert 2012). Explicit resistance to gender change occurs when actors overtly oppose gender equality initiatives through their actions or discourses, or do not do what they ought to do in order to advance gender equality even when they are made aware of their institution’s gender equality commitments. Implicit resistance does not manifest overtly but it can be verified by observing the extent to which actors, in their discourses and (in)actions, distance themselves from the goal of gender equality itself. In reality, however, this distinction is not always clear-cut, as our observations show.

Reasons for resistance

The reasons for resistance to gender change vary and are often combined (Lombardo and Mergaert 2013). Individual resistance can originate from a feeling of ‘incapacity’ that is caused by a lack of resources such as gender knowledge and skills, time, financial resources, and power (Mergaert 2012: 63-64). This individual resistance is however connected to institutional resistance, if the institution does not provide actors with knowledge and capacity for performing the gender mainstreaming task. Resistance can also be rooted in opposition to the goal of gender equality, itself motivated by the aim of retaining particular privileges. Another reason for resistance comes from the fact that gender mainstreaming challenges people’s personal identity and beliefs, as gender mainstreaming provokes reflections about people’s own gender role and stereotypes. Additional reason for resisting can be that the goal of transforming gender relations is considered to be ‘feminist’ and thus excessively based on ideological and emotional rather than rational, scientific, or legal arguments.


The typology of individual and institutional resistance to gender equality, both implicit and explicit, devised for analytic purposes, helps to scrutinise resistances within the European Commission DG Research. The study of resistances to gender initiatives in the EU research policy confirms that individual and institutional resistances have hindered the implementation of gender mainstreaming as endorsed in EU official policy documents. The analysis of resistances – understudied in the literature – is therefore relevant to shed light on the invisibility of gender in the EU and to understand why the implementation of gender mainstreaming has been problematic and ineffective.

Dr. Lut Mergaert holds a PhD in Management Sciences from the Radboud University Nijmegen (NL). For her dissertation, she studied gender mainstreaming implementation by the European Commission in the research policy area. She works as research director at Yellow Window, where she is partner and member of the management team. Her main focus is on decision-support studies for the public sector, with a specialization in gender-related subjects. She has most recently been principal investigator and coordinator of three pan-European research projects on gender issues for the European Institute for Gender Equality: a study of collected narratives on gender perceptions in 27 EU Member States (2011); a study into the current situation and trends regarding female genital mutilation in the 27 EU Member States and Croatia (2012); and a study on institutional capacity for gender mainstreaming in the European Commission and the 28 EU Member States (2013).

Dr. Emanuela Lombardo, PhD in Politics at the University of Reading (UK), is Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science and Administration II of Madrid Complutense University (Spain). She has worked as researcher in different European projects (European Commission FP4, FP5, and FP6, and POM Programs). Her research concerns gender equality policies, particularly in the European Union and Spain. On these issues she has published articles in journals such as Comparative European Politics, Political Science, Social Politics, European Journal of Women’s Studies, Feminist Review, Journal of Women Politics and Policy, Women’s Studies International Forum, International Feminist Journal of Politics, Citizenship Studies, as well as chapters in edited volumes. Her last book, edited with Maxime Forest, is The Europeanization of Gender Equality Policies (Palgrave 2012). Her forthcoming monograph, authored with Petra Meier, is titled The Symbolic Representation of Gender (Ashgate).


Benschop, Yvonne and Verloo, Mieke (2011), ‘Gender Change, Organizational Change, and Gender Equality Strategies’, in Emma L Jeanes, David Knights, and Patricia Yancey Martin (eds.), Handbook of Gender, Work and Organization (Wiley-Blackwell), 277-90.

Bergqvist, Christina, Bjarnegård, Elin, and Zetterberg, Pär (2013), ‘Analysing Failure, Understanding Success: A Research Strategy for Explaining Gender Equality Policy Adoption’, NORA – Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research, 21 (4), 280-95.

Kenny, Meryl (2011), ‘Gender and Institutions of Political Recruitment: Candidate Selection in Post-Devolution Scotland’, in Mona Lena Krook and Fiona Mackay (eds.), Gender, Politics and Institutions: Towards a Feminist Institutionalism (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan), 21-41.

Lombardo, Emanuela and Mergaert, Lut (2013), ‘Gender Mainstreaming and Resistance to Gender Training: A Framework for Studying Implementation’, NORA – Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research, 21 (4), 296-311.

Mackay, Fiona (2011), ‘Conclusion: Towards a Feminist Institutionalism?’, in Mona Lena Krook and Fiona Mackay (eds.), Gender, Politcs and Institutions: Towards a Feminist Institutionalism (Gender and Politics; Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan), 181-96.

Mergaert, Lut (2012), ‘The Reality of Gender Mainstreaming Implementation. The Case of the EU Research Policy’, (Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen).



[i] This contribution is based on an article published in European Integration Online Papers: Mergaert, Lut and Emanuela Lombardo (2014): ‘Resistance to implementing gender mainstreaming in EU research policy’, in: Weiner, Elaine and Heather MacRae (eds): ‘The persistent invisibility of gender in EU policy’ European Integration online Papers (EIoP), Special issue 1, Vol. 18, Article 5.