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European gender equality experts under scrutiny

They claim to know European women's experiences and needs. Some argue that more expert power makes EU gender equality policies less democratic. Researchers have studied what kind of expertise is involved.

The European Women's Lobby has considerable impact in Brussels (Photo: EWL via Flickr)

When various EU bodies deal with gender equality issues, they tend to ask the umbrella organization European Women’s Lobby (EWL) for advice. Here national coordinators represent their respective country’s women’s organizations, which again claim to speak on behalf the countries’ women. The organization has a significant impact.

– What we call ‘representative expertise’ is likely to be an important reason why the EWL’s views are heard. The organization claims to know what the full breadth of European women want and need, but the analyses and policy suggestions it provides are quite unambiguous. From a democratic perspective, this is not unproblematic, Cathrine Holst explains. She is senior researcher at ARENA Centre for European Studies and affiliated with the Centre for Research on Gender Equality (CORE).

Along with ARENA colleague Helena Seibicke, Holst has analysed the lobby organization’s reports, press releases, statements and notes. They presented their findings at this summer's world congress of political science in Canada, and are currently revising the analysis for publication as a scientific article.

Not always science-based expertise

The researchers find that the EWL’s expertise can be broken into four different categories.

First, the organization offers factual expertise. This is often relatively simple statistics framed by a general feminist social analysis.

– In addition, the organization points to effective policies of individual countries, which in its view provide good examples. A rigorous research-based justification for such suggestions is not really involved. It is more about assembling readily available information in an efficient manner, Holst explains.

Second, the organization’s Brussels expertise is noteworthy. This consists in commanding the EU system, talking the ‘EU language’ and knowing where to address their concerns – and how – in order to gain influence at the different stages of a policy-making process.

Benefit arguments increasingly important

The third type of expertise is the already mentioned ‘representative expertise’, which is an acquired competence in speaking ‘good’ on behalf of European women.

The EWL in front of the Palais the Justice in Brussels in a campaign to support women victims of violence (Photo: EWL via Flickr)

Finally, the researchers argue that the EWL offers a kind of ‘moral expertise’, a developed ability to deliver viable arguments for why women’s rights and gender equality policies are important. Here the organization, in a pragmatic manner, alternates between radical feminist rhetoric, more ‘neutral’ arguments that emphasize equal treatment and equal opportunities, and a socio-economic cost-benefit perspective.

– The argument that ‘gender equality pays off’ seems to become increasingly important. As an example, the EWL claims that good gender equality policies will help the EU out of the economic crisis, Holst explains.

But in her view, the women's movement in Europe is facing a dilemma. Through the EWL, the women's movement is being centralized and governed top-down, which can contribute to more effective influence and greater impact.

– And when good gender equality policies gain acceptance, this benefits all female citizens. But at the same time, centralization comes with obvious costs in terms of democratic participation and diversity, Holst says.

 

This article was first published by CORE on 29 August 2014 (in Norwegian).

Translation by Marit Eldholm.

By Marit Eline Lervik Christensen, Centre for Research on Gender Equality (CORE)
Published Sep. 19, 2014 09:56 AM - Last modified Sep. 29, 2016 10:30 AM