It’s increasingly common in speeches, meetings, conferences and policy documents today that organizations/governments/companies reaffirm that they have incorporated a gender-based approach or gender perspectives.

And of course we include a gender perspective and recognize the important role of women.

It’s the “of course” that should make us nervous. It implies that it’s so damn obvious that we should not doubt it. It’s pronounced with an air of the obvious, but it’s also somehow defensive. It’s almost like an insurance policy against criticism for failing to take gender perspectives and the role of women into account. But we’re often left wondering how gender perspectives were actually included, how did women participate in this (whatever it is), and did women actually shape its outcome? We’re left asking, “Okay, but did this gender perspective actually change anything?”

Reading through recent reports and policy documents from a number of international institutions, including UN agencies, the World Bank and its the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the IMF, there are constant references to gender perspectives, gender-based approaches and gender-sensitive policies. There’s even gender-based resilience now.

Whole chapters are dedicated to gender perspectives. In most cases it simply means women are included in the data now. There’s a gender breakdown in the facts and figures that wasn’t there a decade ago. So women are visible for the first time in the data. Governments, companies and international agencies can now say “of course”. But what happens with this data? How does it change the situation women are in? How do women use it change the situation they are in? Ten years from now, will the data show this change? (During the pandemic the data did change. The gender pay gap widened again, setting women back a decade or more.)

In these gender perspectives there are boxes with case studies, stories, and the voices of women. Or more precisely, the voice of a woman: a women who was resourceful enough to battle her way out of poverty or force her way in from the margins. No doubt it was a struggle and we absolutely respect that. But more often than not it’s about individual women. Not groups of women. Not collectively organized women. Not women whose combined power disrupted the privilege, power and status of men.

These success stories tend to show how women (or a woman) closed the gender gap and reached or surpassed whatever men were doing. Again, we don’t take this lightly and we respect how hard that is. But we rarely see in this gender-based approach or gender perspective men doing anything to close the gap. Men stay still, women work ten times harder to get to where the men are. In other words, men preserve the privilege and power of patriarchy and women have to figure out how to get past them.

The point is that gender perspectives and gender-based approaches are meaningless if they do not address the issue of power. By extension, gender perspectives and gender-based approaches are only of consequence if they contribute to women combining to exercise their collective power to bring about fundamental change. A gender perspective shouldn’t be static point of view (a snapshot, profile or dataset). It has to be a dynamic process of interaction between the systemic and institutionalized vulnerability and marginalization of women, women’s collective confidence and their ability to organize, and the collective struggle of women to overcome discrimination, oppression and exploitation.

As I’ve argued elsewhere: Patriarchy is not an attitude. It is an arrangement of power (a regime) designed to oppress and exploit women. It intentionally restricts the collective power of working people, and undermines the power of our organizations. It is not cultural, it is political.

For gender perspectives and gender-based approaches to be meaningful, they must be political. To be consequential they must contribute to increasing the collective power of women.

In this context we need critically assess any claim to include gender perspectives and gender-based approaches. We must ask how do women have more power in decision-making? How do women have more control (in the allocation of resources and exercise of rights and representation) to determine both the action and its outcomes? How do women use their collective power to institutionalize (lock in) these gains and ensure that whatever was gained isn’t taken away?

If gender perspectives in research, policies, programs and state actions don’t guarantee more power for women in decision-making and control over resources, then they are just points of view. Of course then nothing changes, everything remains the same.