3. Legal frameworks, institutional design and strategic planning for gender mainstreaming

Giulia Morando

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated gender inequalities across OECD countries and further reinforced the importance of understanding the differential policy impacts on various population groups (OECD, 2021[1]). Rising inequalities, a potential economic recession looming large and declined levels of citizens’ trust in public institutions are all putting pressure on governments to provide the best policy responses, while considering difficult trade-offs. Countries are also facing new global challenges that span across multiple policy domains such as the climate transition, the digital transformation and the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic (OECD, 2022[2]) (Chapter 18). Targeted policies to tackle gender inequalities can help address specific forms of gender-based discrimination. But in order to fully realise gender equality in key areas such as professional life, green and digital governance, the care economy, leadership, as well as to eliminate gender-based violence, it is important to ensure that policies, regulations and other strategic tools of public governance do not embed structural and systemic biases and stereotypes. Gender mainstreaming, as a strategy integrating a gender lens in policy making, helps governments make more inclusive decisions and achieve better outcomes for all. When gender equality awareness is built within all government institutions and consequently all policies and policy processes integrate gender considerations, better and more equitable outcomes are more likely to be achieved, thus contributing to good governance (OECD, 2018[3]). In turn, good governance improves the fairness and responsiveness of policy delivery and outcomes, which are strong predictors of people’s trust in governments (OECD, 2017[4]), and helps reinforce democratic institutions and norms (OECD, 2022[5]).

Ensuring a strong political leadership’s commitment to gender equality at the highest levels of government is critical to make the topic a priority for the government’s agenda (OECD, 2016[6]). Incorporating a medium- to long-term whole-of-government vision for gender equality into key strategic documents and legal frameworks can convey a country’s goal for a gender-equal society and act as a measurement of its leader’s commitment to those values.

OECD governments are increasingly integrating gender equality and gender mainstreaming requirements into key strategic documents to advance the gender equality agenda. As confirmed by responses to the 2021 OECD Survey on Gender Mainstreaming and Governance (2021 GMG Survey), there has been a growing leadership commitment to gender equality by governments over the past years (OECD, 2021[7]; 2022[2]). Several OECD countries have introduced specific requirements to advance gender equality priorities in government programmes (e.g. Austria, Denmark, Iceland, Lithuania, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) or in national development plans (e.g. Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Czech Republic, Lithuania and Mexico) since 2017. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has further evidenced the importance of gender equality and gender-sensitive policy making for an inclusive and sustainable recovery (OECD, 2022[2]), offering an opportunity for countries to mainstream policies that promote gender equality and women’s economic empowerment as part of their recovery efforts (OECD, 2021[7]).

The same survey showed that an increasing number of countries have integrated gender equality and mainstreaming requirements in legal frameworks and other statutory obligations (OECD, 2022[2]). Since 2017, at least nine OECD countries have enacted new legislation, regulation or directive to promote gender mainstreaming, making it a total of 29 OECD countries that reported having some form of legal basis or a binding decision in place underpinning gender mainstreaming in 2021.

Figure 3.1 shows that across the OECD, provisions to promote gender mainstreaming can take various forms, including laws and binding decisions on gender equality and mainstreaming; general obligations for public servants to advance gender equality in all actions; and gender mainstreaming requirements enshrined in other legislation (e.g. budget, impact assessment, procurement, planning, economic recovery, and emergency management laws). Some countries have also set gender mainstreaming requirements in legislations focusing on specific policy fields (not reflected in the figure due to the lack of systematic data). For example, Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act includes a requirement to provide Gender-based Analysis (GBA) Plus in the reporting to Parliament on immigration (Chapter 4).

However, enactment of laws on their own is not a sufficient indicator of the actual implementation of gender mainstreaming, since this also requires a strong institutional set-up, adequate resources and capacities, effective co-ordination mechanisms and whole-of-government strategic planning (OECD, 2016[6]). OECD Gender Reviews show that the implementation of legal requirements for gender mainstreaming has been relatively uneven in the absence of a clear allocation of responsibilities, resources and accountability mechanisms. For example, in Iceland, gender mainstreaming has been a legal requirement for over three decades, but it started being implemented only when gender budgeting was introduced in the country thanks to ad hoc interventions following the 2008 global financial crisis (OECD, 2019[8]). Other elements can also indicate strong government commitment to improve gender equality, including requirements to advance gender equality and remove implicit and explicit barriers in key government documents (e.g. policies and laws), the existence of cabinet committees to lead the gender equality agenda, and the allocation of the responsibility to promote gender equality at the highest level of office.

By requiring strong institutional and co-ordination mechanisms to overcome silos, cross-cutting work and data-sharing, gender mainstreaming can facilitate an administrative culture and institutional infrastructure that help manage other horizontal and global challenges (e.g. pandemic preparedness and climate change) which also involve a variety of domains, actors and interests (OECD, 2021[1]; 2022[9]).

Across the OECD, there is no standard blueprint for the institutional set-up to implement, co-ordinate and advance the government’s gender equality agenda. Conventionally, a central gender institution (CGI) or body is responsible for the co-ordination and implementation of gender equality at the central or federal level. CGIs can be a separate ministry, paired with other portfolios within a single ministry, or located at the Centre of Government within the office of the head of government or state. Figure 3.2 shows the institutional arrangements commonly used in OECD countries. Since the first collection of data on this topic in 2011, units located within the Centre of Government have progressively become the most common institutional arrangement in the OECD area (ten countries). This may be explained by the countries’ recognition of the gender equality agenda as a cross-cutting priority, and by their willingness to steer and co-ordinate it from the centre and at the highest political level, in line with the 2015 OECD Recommendation on Gender Equality in Public Life (OECD, 2016[6]). As of 2022, seven OECD countries have units on gender equality in ministries of social affairs (or equivalent). Other arrangements include having a single ministry with Cabinet representation, a ministry with combined portfolio, units within a ministry other that social affairs, and public bodies with or without Cabinet representation.

The lack of adequate resources, mandate and capacities limits CGIs’ ability to facilitate gender mainstreaming across the government (OECD, 2019[8]; 2022[2]). These challenges, which were reemphasised during the COVID-19 crisis (OECD, 2020[10]), have prompted some governments to allocate increased resources to gender equality institutions. At least 21 OECD countries have expanded the budgetary allocation for CGIs or gender equality measures in the past five years. In seven of these countries, the increased budget came in the context of the COVID-19 crisis and was earmarked for interventions addressing gender-based violence, among others. At the same time, one OECD country did not report any change, while four reported a decrease in resource allocation.

A whole-of-government effort for gender equality engages the Centre of Government, line ministries and agencies – including in policy areas not traditionally associated with gender (e.g. environment, economic affairs and defence), data-collecting and producing bodies, and independent oversight institutions. Twenty-one out of 24 OECD countries that responded to the 2021 GMG Survey reported having formal mechanisms or formalised practices for co-ordination across the central/federal government, while 12 countries reported having established systems to promote co-ordination with sub-national governments. Box 3.1 provides country examples of both horizontal and vertical co-ordination mechanisms for gender equality.

However, several gaps remain. Competing priorities and lack of interest at the central level, limited funding, and insufficient capacities and expertise of policy makers represent the most commonly reported challenges for horizontal co-ordination. Insufficient funding is also one of the main reported obstacles for vertical co-ordination, together with the lack of appropriate structures and frameworks for the engagement of subnational governments (OECD, 2022[2]). Reinforcing institutions with sufficient resources, capacities and co-ordination mechanisms is vital to make progress in the area of gender equality.

Strategic planning is a key tool to implement a government’s gender equality policy, as it guides every step of the policy making process through a systematic, structured and co-ordinated approach (OECD, 2021[1]).

Since 2017, a growing number of OECD countries have adopted strategic frameworks to set clear objectives, targets and outcomes for gender equality, recognising their potential contribution to advance society-wide goals for gender equality and facilitate accountability. In 2021, 30 OECD countries reported having an active strategic framework for gender equality in place, either in the form of an overarching strategy or in that of a strategy addressing specific gender equality issues, such as violence against women. In particular, since 2020, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and the United States have adopted their first-ever strategies for gender equality, while other 19 countries have renewed or expanded their commitments since 2017.

However, challenges remain when it comes to their effective implementation. In 2021, OECD countries reported the limited enforceability of strategic frameworks for gender equality as the most common barrier, paired with the absence of data and resources, the limited involvement from line ministries, and funding shortfalls against the approved action plan or strategy (OECD, 2022[2]).

In addition, in the COVID-19 crisis context, several countries integrated gender equality considerations in other strategic planning documents to support an inclusive economic recovery. Twenty-two out of 27 OECD countries that reported having a strategic plan to respond to the COVID-19 crisis that integrated a gender equality lens, through targeted actions or by setting gender equality as a cross-cutting pillar. Other countries, such as Japan, have instead included dedicated sections in their national gender strategies, outlining actions to uphold gender equality in emergency and crisis situations (OECD, 2022[2]). Countries can also consider integrating gender equality considerations in recovery and resilience strategies by taking into account potential gender-specific impacts and gender-disaggregated data as well as linking these to broader national gender equality objectives.


[5] OECD (2022), Building Trust to Reinforce Democracy: Main Findings from the 2021 OECD Survey on Drivers of Trust in Public Institutions, Building Trust in Public Institutions, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/b407f99c-en.

[2] OECD (2022), Report on the Implementation of the OECD Gender Recommendations, OECD, Paris, https://www.oecd.org/mcm/Implementation-OECD-Gender-Recommendations.pdf.

[9] OECD (2022), Stronger Open Democracies in a Globalised World: Embracing the Global Responsibilities of Governments and Building Resilience to Foreign Influence. Background note for the Meeting of the Public Governance Committee at Ministerial level, OECD, Paris, https://one.oecd.org/document/GOV/PGC(2022)17/REV1/en/pdf.

[7] OECD (2021), 2021 Survey on Gender Mainstreaming and Governance.

[1] OECD (2021), Policy Framework on Gender-sensitive Public Governance, OECD, Paris, https://www.oecd.org/mcm/Policy-Framework-for-Gender-Sensitive-Public-Governance.pdf.

[10] OECD (2020), Mapping good practices and challenges faced by the National Gender Equality Institutions, OECD, Paris, http://www.oecd.org/coronavirus/policy-responses/women-at-the-core-of-the-fight-against-covid-19-crisis-553a8269/.

[8] OECD (2019), Fast Forward to Gender Equality: Mainstreaming, Implementation and Leadership, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/g2g9faa5-en.

[3] OECD (2018), OECD Toolkit on Mainstreaming and Implementing Gender Equality, OECD, Paris, https://www.oecd.org/gov/toolkit-for-mainstreaming-and-implementing-gender-equality.pdf.

[4] OECD (2017), Trust and Public Policy: How Better Governance Can Help Rebuild Public Trust, OECD Public Governance Reviews, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264268920-en.

[6] OECD (2016), 2015 OECD Recommendation of the Council on Gender Equality in Public Life, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264252820-en.

Metadata, Legal and Rights

This document, as well as any data and map included herein, are without prejudice to the status of or sovereignty over any territory, to the delimitation of international frontiers and boundaries and to the name of any territory, city or area. Extracts from publications may be subject to additional disclaimers, which are set out in the complete version of the publication, available at the link provided.

© OECD 2023

The use of this work, whether digital or print, is governed by the Terms and Conditions to be found at https://www.oecd.org/termsandconditions.