The view from Europe: protecting policy from populism 

By Barbara Helfferich

Gender equality has been recognized for decades not only as a fundamental principle of the European Union but as one of the EU’s long-term success stories, a part of its identity. The  introduction of the concept of gender mainstreaming in the European treaties in the 90’s reflected the idea that gender equality was about more than adding a few women into decision-making positions. Instead, it required a fundamental review of policy – including the principles of democracy, transparency and inclusiveness.

Introducing a gender perspective into the elaboration, decision and implementation of policies opens policy making processes to the inclusion of new actors and new perspectives. It is the key to social transformation.

New challenges

In the early 2000s, gender equality was one of the EU’s greatest policy success stories. Back then, no one could have imagined our progress could be undermined and deconstructed.

Gender equality worldwide is facing new challenges. New and emerging actors on the far right not only undermine basic democratic principles, but are actively trying to shape authoritarian styles of governance.  The annual colloquium on fundamental rights organized by the European Commission in November 2017 concentrated on “Women’s rights in turbulent times”, raising the concerns of EU decision makers regarding the spread of anti-gender ideas and nationalist backlash against women’s rights. In 2018, the Polish government, under political pressure from the Catholic church, tried to push through an act outlawing around 95% of abortions. Hungary’s far right government is backsliding on women’s and refugee rights, and refuses to allow NGOs and rights advocates the space to contribute to policy.

At the same time the EU gender equality index revealed that gender equality has been advancing “at a snail’s pace in all member states,” during the decade 2005 to 2015. Moreover a study compiled by the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) underlined the persistence of gender discrimination and gender-based violence, experienced mostly by women and girls, across the EU. Rising intolerance towards the idea of gender equality presents a serious challenge for democracy.

From a practical perspective, since the introduction of gender mainstreaming in the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997, academic and practical knowledge on gender equality and gender mainstreaming in the EU has flourished more than in any other political entity in the world, making the EU a living laboratory for knowledge and experiences.

Still, despite all this, gender equality remains an elusive goal. This makes it difficult to uphold the fundamental principles of the EU, to reduce poverty and discrimination, to do away with the human and financial costs of gender-based violence, and to invest our shared knowledge and experience towards future equality.

A need for gender governance

From a democratic perspective, but also in terms of efficiency of decision-making, there is an obvious need to transform the culture of organisations from a hierarchical patriarchal model towards more shared power. We must develop democratic, project-centered models, be they private or public, economic, political or social.

The word governance, as opposed to government, entails ideas of shared responsibility, accountability, transparency, inclusiveness and participatory practices which go hand in hand with including women and opening up decision making processes. Moreover, the #metoo movement, which has revealed serious abuses of power, including within organisations, creates a favorable context to introduce change, including cultural change.

The biggest challenge is to get people to understand that gender is not about a corporatist defence of women but a transformative issue; not about women vs men but about accepting “the other” as a source of inspiration and innovation to improve the quality of decisions.

The analysis of the different types of resistance against gender equality can help identify the challenges to inclusion. Bias is both conscious and unconscious. But one should never dismiss the fact that the redistribution of gender roles is linked to power. So let’s ask who has the power and what that power is used for.  


Barbara Helfferich is a founding member of Gender 5 Plus, a Brussels-based feminist policy thinktank. A former Secretary General of the European Women’s Lobby and EU spokesperson on environmental issues, she is now an independent consultant on women’s rights policies.