Relational Politics of Gender Equality

Political strategies to advance gender equality fall into three categories: the unilateral, the bilateral, and the relational paradigms. The unilateral paradigm of the gender equality agenda stemming from the 1980s and 1990s is explicitly concerned with supporting women to achieve equal participation in the economy and the just distribution of political and economic power among women and men alike. Here, the target group and agents of change are primarily women, with men “supporting” the political work and/or “making room for women.”

In the past 10 to 15 years, and with the adoption of gender mainstreaming, the bilateral paradigm has been gaining traction. This approach continues to rely on the logic of primarily supporting women but, in contrast to the unilateral paradigm, men are considered a target group of advocacy efforts (not as autonomous agents in their own right, however). The gender equality agenda is predefined, and thus the wishes, needs, and demands of boys, men, and fathers do not play a role (at least if they were to put the set agenda into question). Instead, men are asked to assume the role of allies whenever women’s political efforts cannot succeed without men’s support. This indirectly legitimizes measures specifically aimed at men: paternity leave, for instance, is seen not as a matter of fathers needing to spend time with their kids but rather is necessary because women lack time to engage in substantial paid work unless fathers agree to take care of the kids for some of the time. As the persistent inequality in the distribution of paid and unpaid work shows, this approach to gender equality has its limits. We should not be surprised, however, since it is self-evident that men do not particularly like being no more than a means to an end—there is a difference in actively participating in the emancipation movement and “being emancipated” by others.

Transitioning to a relational paradigm may seem like a small step at first glance, as the latter approach continues to see both men and women as targets of the political agenda to advance gender equality. Yet there is a considerable qualitative leap: boys, men, and fathers become actors and agents of change in their own right. To take this demand seriously pushes us outside of our comfort zone quickly. After all, we are no longer talking about implementing a predefined agenda with men’s support but rather defining the agenda together. This means that political efforts are now legitimate even if they “only” increase opportunities for boys, men, and fathers (such as young men’s opportunity to learn an “unmanly” yet promising job in the health or care sector, for instance). The power to define the politics of gender equality is supposed to be shared; in reality, this rarely happens. The common argument against it is that defining gender equality measures together will only be a reasonable suggestion once all disadvantages women face have been elinimated. One could call this perspective “equalizing injustice”—sadly a common way to look at politics in the gender equality arena. Nevertheless, steps are being taken toward relational approaches: for instance, Germany’s Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women, and Youth has created a department concerned with political measures that advance gender equality for boys and men.

Transitioning from the bilateral to the relational paradigm has a further consequence: gender issues, previously the sum total of concerns on the part of women and men, become a matter of relationships as we come to recognize the role of interdependence. At the micro level, this concerns the relationship between individual partners; at the macro level, it pertains to gender relations; and at the political level, it means gender dialogue.

From the perspective of progressive men, the following principles serve as guidelines for the relational paradigm (cf. Theunert 2012):

1. Self-Perception: Men and women together form a system[1]. Changes among one gender affect the other. Transitioning from legal rights alone to real gender equality can only happen if we recognize the relational character of gender. Women, men, and their interdependence are all equally important matters. In the implementation of the political agenda, the perspectives of each gender as well as shared concerns all receive the space they deserve and are all treated as legitimate.

2. Vision: Equal opportunity for individuals (i.e. every man and woman may do as they please) and collective gender justice (fair distribution of paid and unpaid work, participation in care work, health, and other matters affecting both genders) are realized. The politics of gender equality ceases to function as a calculus of disadvantages and instead employs a qualitative approach to ensuring that women and men can live lives of their own choosing regardless of gender, socioeconomic background, sexual identity, etc.

3. Goal: A relational politics of gender equality goes beyond supporting women and/or men as separate target groups. The goal is an overall redesign of gender relations with an eye toward real equality of opportunity. The political agenda will be reviewed and redesigned to ensure it is both gender-specific as well as overarching (that is, it addresses the needs of both men and women).

4. Measures/Policy: The politics of gender equality requires awareness of the relational character of gender relations ought to have following the overall redesign. Awareness means tailoring policy to both/all genders. On the one hand, there must be specific strategies and measures for each gender; on the other hand, the reciprocity of these measures must be reflected upon through gender dialogue, and insights from reflection must shape future strategies (simply regarding both women and men as separate target groups for the gender equality agenda is not sufficient!).

5. Culture: A relational politics of gender equality cannot be the predicated upon each gender issuing demands that the other is supposed to accept. Instead, it is a matter of establishing a benevolent culture where each gender values the contributions made by the other. The result is a complete redesign of gender relations that prioritizes cooperation and solidarity. The power to define the political agenda is shared, and gender dialogue happens heart-to-heart.

The implementation of relational gender politics is always a threefold endeavor comprising questions, strategies, and approaches pertaining to each gender separately as well as addressing overarching concerns shared between genders.



[1] This statement is descriptive—it is not normative! The vast majority of people alive today experience themselves as men or women. For gender politcs, this fact is the starting point. Dissolving the gender binary is the perspective we employ to guide our work, but we cannot disregard the effect of the gender binary on the lived experience of people.