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close this bookUNRISD Annual Report 1998-1999 (United Nations Research Institute for Social Development , 1999, 46 p.)
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View the documentILO Gender Focal Point System
View the documentWar-Torn Societies Project

ILO Gender Focal Point System

In this project UNRISD and the ILO used an action-research methodology to explore the critical role that gender focal points can potentially play in gender mainstreaming.


This project was elaborated by UNRISD and the International Labour Organization (ILO) in response to the 1997 ECOSOC (United Nations Economic and Social Council) Agreed Conclusions on mainstreaming a gender perspective into all policies and programmes of the United Nations system. Set up in 1989 in all headquarters departments and the field structure of the ILO, the gender focal point system was designed to support efforts to mainstream gender concerns in the organization's activities - ranging from standard setting and technical co-operation to research and policy advice. Ten years on, lessons can be drawn from the ILO's experience that contribute to wider debates about the strategy of gender mainstreaming and the kind of institutional and policy changes that might support its implementation. The main findings of the joint UNRISD/ILO research, outlined below, are based on questionnaires, structured interviews and a participatory, process-oriented methodology involving professional staff from the field structure and headquarters, carried out between March 1998 and January 1999.


The research found that despite some positive initiatives in this direction, institutional arrangements for the integration of gender concerns remain relatively weak. The research points to three main sets of issues that have undermined the gender focal point system as a tool for main-streaming gender concerns.

Ad hoc nature of the system

The gender focal point system is not fully institutionalized: it has functioned in an ad hoc manner since it was created. In part, this is a result of the inability of the central Women in Development (WID)/gender unit to play a co-ordinating role across the institutional structure. It is also related to the composition of the gender focal point system itself. As in many other organizations, the designated gender focal points are a mixed group in terms of grade, knowledge and experience on WID/gender issues. At one end of the spectrum are staff members who work full-time on WID/gender issues in WID/gender units or posts. At the other are those who have the gender focal point function “added on” to their regular job description, many of whom admit having little knowledge or experience on gender issues and neither the time nor the authority to promote attention to gender concerns in their department.

WID/gender units not systematically supported

Structures such as the central WID/gender unit and the gender focal points, which are already relatively weak, have not been supported in any systematic way by procedures “to make routine” attention to gender concerns in the activities of the ILO. Guidelines on the integration of gender concerns into programmes and projects are discretionary and appear to be used very unevenly by staff members. Anecdotal evidence suggests that opportunities for promoting attention to gender concerns in the main ILO programming mechanisms, such as the Programme and Budget Exercise for each biennium and the Country Objective Exercise, have been insufficiently used. Gender staff claim that their inputs into these processes are often dropped at later stages.

Gender mainstreaming strategy

Third, the research raises broader questions about the gender main-streaming strategy itself. For many years, development institutions have taken up gender mainstreaming unquestioningly as an appropriate strategy for the integration of gender concerns. Attempts to translate political commitment into practice, however, have exposed gender main-streaming as a contested terrain. Differences are evident in the understandings of “gender” that are being mainstreamed. They are also apparent in using “mainstreaming” as a strategy. It therefore needs to be acknowledged that while slow progress in mainstreaming gender concerns is often put down to bureaucratic resistance, in practice, resistance also comes from WID/gender staff themselves. Some reject the term gender main-streaming on the grounds that its obscurity confuses and alienates colleagues - an assertion that was supported by the research - although in practice they work to mainstream gender concerns.

The preliminary findings emerging from the questionnaires and interviews were fed into experience-sharing and capacity-building workshops in which gender focal points participated during this reporting period. A gender main-streaming policy and action plan for the ILO is being drafted to include a strengthened gender focal point system, taking into consideration many of the issues raised in the research. This process has already led to some positive outcomes, such as the organizational strengthening of the central WID/gender unit, which will report directly to the Director-General of the ILO.


A synthesis report of the findings was circulated to gender focal points and ILO management in January 1999. A final report, including analysis of the research process, is being prepared for publication and dissemination.