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Understanding Institutional Change: A Gender Perspective

Final Report Summary - UIC (Understanding Institutional Change: A Gender Perspective)

The UIC project explored the gender dynamics of institutional change. Despite big changes in the position of women, many institutions – such as the judiciary, parliaments and governments - are still male dominated, despite longstanding efforts to change them. Understanding how institutions work is therefore an important priority for gender equality actors who want reform or to understand why attempts to change institutions do not work as hoped by their designers. UIC has developed two main insights to help us better understand institutional change and how to make institutions more gender-friendly. First, we need to distinguish between two types of institutional change: the creation of new institutions and the reform of existing ones. These two forms of change have different implications for the achievement of gender-equal institutions and for gender actors pursuing gender equality strategies. However, gender equality actors are rarely in the position to create big new gender-friendly institutions and the wholesale creation of new institutions is relatively rare. So reforming or working within existing institutions is more likely.
UIC initially focused on the creation of new institutions, both where gender equality actors were part of bigger processes of institutional design such as constitutional negotiations in South Africa and Northern Ireland; and cases where newly-created institutions were ‘layered’ on top of existing ones (such as the recent electoral quota in Ireland). Although obviously different, we found that gender equality actors can make headway within institutional design processes to ensure that outcomes were more gender friendly than they would otherwise have been.
We found four ways gender equality actors can overcome obstacles in the creation of new gender-friendly institutions. First, gender equality actors must be on the inside from the start to help determine the institutional design processes, rather than pressuring from the outside. Second, institutional design needs robust formal rules to promote women’s meaningful participation at all levels and roles (e.g. chairing, legal, ‘expert’ technical and administrative roles) so women do not just rubber-stamp decisions in large powerless bodies. Third, leadership matters. Critical gender actors in key places need to develop strategic thinking on goals, tactics and alliances. Individual women and men in strategic alliances can make a significant difference (an aspect of institutional design often underplayed by institutional scholars). Fourth, a seat at the table is not enough. To understand why, we must open the ‘black box’ to look at both formal and informal processes. Informal networks from which gender equality actors are excluded and/or marginalized are often very significant. Our findings underline the importance of male networks built on trust and bonding (‘homosocial capital’). We saw these even in the South African constitutional negotiations, considered relatively open and transparent.
But the second route - making existing institutions more gender friendly – is the more common form of change, as gender equality actors rarely have sufficient power to create new institutions and face considerable resistance, so need different strategies. Our research showed that this slower, more incremental, but still significant, change needs more analysis. We showed how gender actors can ‘convert’ existing institutions to new, more gender-friendly, ends. Actors utilize gaps or ambiguities in the rules to subtly change how institutions operate. Actors can use a range of venues and make alliances with sympathizers. We examined Michelle Bachelet’s first presidency in Chile. Although Bachelet’s programme included improving gender equality, she was constrained by the formal and informal rules of the post transition Chilean political system, and for much of her presidency did not have a majority in congress. To achieve change, she had to reinterpret existing rules and use non-legislative mechanisms, e.g. introducing free emergency contraception in public health centers when all improvements in reproductive rights were hugely contested.
The second over-arching theme of UIC is the hugely significant, but still under-researched, role of the informal, whether norms, networks, or practices. This is key in both preventing and also promoting gender-friendly institutional change, as informal rules and norms around gender are so pervasive and powerful. We saw how existing informal norms and practices can undermine changes in formal rules. UIC has improved our understanding of how to change informal rules, norms and practices that undermine efforts to increase gender equality.
In conclusion, to explain the gender dynamics of institutional change, UIC considered, not just formal rules and structures, but also informal norms and practices (both positive and negative). It explored why ‘big bang’ change, creating new gender friendly institutions, is hard to achieve, requiring powerful gender equality actors on the inside to counter resistance. It demonstrated that gradual gender-friendly institutional change is more likely, but needs a range of mechanisms, actors and arenas. And crucially, the informal is key. Gender actors need to create new, reinforcing informal rules to bolster formal gender-friendly institutional change.