A bit of horizontal feminism and a bit of kicking down doors: The case of the National Directorate of Economy, Equality and Gender

There are currently more than seventy specialized gender and diversity units in the federal administration alone, most of them created after December 2019. Can agencies and instrumentalities successfully promote policies that advance women’s rights and gender equality policies within the state?

This paper provides a case study of the National Directorate of Economy, Equality and Gender (DNEIG), under the orbit of the Federal Ministry of Economy. The focus is on gender institutionality and their capacity to challenge the patriarchal bases of the State itself, mainstreaming gender perspective in the most masculinized portfolios. The paper also analyzes to what extent they have managed to effectively enforce public policies that benefit women and diversities.

It has been a long and winding road from the Undersecretariat for Women created by Raúl Alfonsín’s administration to the Ministry of Women, Gender and Diversity established by President Alberto Fernández in 2019. Over this period, gender institutionality grew in the three branches of the federal State, as well in provinces and municipalities. There are currently more than seventy specialized gender and diversity units in the federal public administration alone, with most of them established after December 2019.

The Federal Directorate of Economy, Equality and Gender (DNEIG) was established in the course of this process of proliferation of gender-specialized units, as part of the organizational chart of the Federal Ministry of Economy. The purpose of this office is to design and influence economic policy from a gender perspective. This report details the evolution of the DNEIG since its creation with the aim of providing academic insights and sharing learned lessons.

State feminisms

This gender institutionalization is not new to state bureaucracies. State offices and programs focused on policies aimed at women can be traced back to the early 20th century in countries like Canada and the United States. This process lagged behind in Latin America due to the wave of dictatorships, but the gradual return to democracy opened the path to regional experimentation in this field in the 1980s.

In our country, the path towards the consolidation of gender institutions has been erratic. This can be partly explained by the limited relevance of gender policies in the governmental agenda until a few years ago. This give-and-take is often perceived by feminist teams as inadequate reciprocity, as they provide deliverables, visibility and commitment in exchange for meager rewards or precarious jobs.

The concept of “state feminism” refers to the study of state gender structures and, in particular, to the evaluation of their impact. In its most recent version, the term seeks to capture the modes, causes and effectiveness of alliances between women’s movements and state gender agencies in consolidating feminist public policy. It is necessary to assess the extent to which they have been able to foster improvements in the social position of women and/or gender equality.

The case of the Federal Directorate of Economy, Equality and Gender (DNEIG)

The demands of organized feminist movements have been part of the national debate for decades. However, gender issues are still considered minor or secondary when it comes to the allocation of public funds. The economic agenda continues to dominate the agenda. The Ministry of Economy plays a key role in public life, and constitutes a decision-making hub that concentrates high levels of power and authority.

The National Directorate of Economy, Equality and Gender (DNEIG) stands half way between these two legitimate interests. It is the first attempt to establish a unit within the organizational structure of the Ministry of Economy dedicated to specialized gender measures. It represents the starting point for the institutionalization of gender policies in the economic field in our country and in the region.

The Directorate was created in late 2019 coincidentally with Martín Guzmán’s appointment as Minister of Economy. Its responsibilities include guiding economic policy pursuant to the principles of reducing gaps in the distribution of income and social wealth. Among the lines of work defined upon its creation, the DNEIG has prioritized the adoption of a Gender and Diversity approach in preparing the federal budget and the design and implementation of economic indicators to measure inequality gaps.

“One of the main pillars is the data, to ensure the diagnosis is present in all economic cabinet tables. The other is the budget, which will allow us to monitor, identify, plan or see and quantify what gender policy is.”

Resources to implement change

The implementation of gender policies and their mainstreaming is dependent on state capabilities, that is, the extent to which the Directorate can influence State actions and social behavior using its available resources.

Human resources — A team with a different take on things

The DNEIG was created with only one job position in the organizational chart (the director), a four-person team and a group of external consultants who collaborate on specific projects. The workgroup has a clear technical and interdisciplinary profile. It is further characterized by its strong engagement—feminist and/or partisan— and their belonging to advocacy spaces such as the Ecofeminita organization.

Not only are the profiles of the team essential, but so are their figures. While its first director is a noted feminist in international forums, her successor is a young researcher with a background in party and feminist militancy. The team agrees that they have played a key role in creating the space, guiding the work and shaping their political approach.

Normative resources — Power and mandates

"When we first analyzed the organizational chart, we entertained a couple of alternatives. It ended up with the Directorate, but at one point we had also thought of a unit (...) The Ministry of Economy has an IMF unit, a debt unit, an international unit, and so on and so forth. I was set against it being a unit because units have a temporary mandate, so that they are dissolved when that mandate is filled. There were no undersecretariats available, because the ones that were available were micro, macro, and I do not know what else. What we had found in the mix was a Directorate that, despite its lower hierarchy, I took under condition that it could sit in all cabinet meetings, i.e., that it would interact with secretaries, undersecretaries and the like.''

Two indicators may be used in assessing power and influence: location in the organizational chart and distance from the decision-making center. The DNEIG reports to the Secretariat of Economic Policies. This position has permitted the Directorate to pivot between the different governing areas —Treasury and Finance— and to claim a symbolic position of higher hierarchy than those formally conferred upon it as a national directorate, thus getting a seat at different discussion tables. Members of the DNEIG reflect that its relative distance from the center of power of the Ministry of Economy may paradoxically have contributed to its survival, which has by now outlived two changes of administration, usually characterized by a certain level of institutional turmoil.

Economic resources — “We make jam with what we have on hand”.

It is challenging to manage a budget for a team that for years did not have any full-time administrative resources or lacked experience in the customs and processes of the state bureaucracy. That is the reason why some of its most impactful initiatives have been financed by international organizations, through strategic alliances with the International Labor Organization (ILO), the United Nations Organization for Women (UN Women), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).

Implementing change with available resources

Mainstreaming the gender perspective

Has the DNEIG been able to incorporate gender equality issues into the ministerial agenda? Is it able to modify work processes in other areas of the organization?

“I believe our main achievement has been driving a cross-sectional approach throughout the Ministry of Economy. Basically, this involves getting certain areas to embrace principles that can be maintained over time, regardless of the permanence of the Directorate [the DNEIG], certain individuals or relations.”

DNEIG members consider that their mainstreaming strategies have proven effective, particularly within MECON. They point out that the success of these alliances depends to a large extent on personal and political alignment and the level of complexity of the administrative processes involved.

Federalizing the gender perspective

They are extremely satisfied with the impact of the work focused on the provinces. The Federal Roundtable on Economic Policies with a Gender Perspective serves as a success case of capacity transfer and the creation of a public forum where the Directorate can receive demands coming from other territories and where provincial officials can obtain discursive resources, technical tools and a network of contacts to improve their management and consolidate their political careers.

“I believe that one of the most important advances has been for the provinces to start creating gender units, in the understanding that gender gaps and inequalities are not consistent across the country.”

Moreover, the DNEIG has inspired the creation of other similar units at the provincial level with similar missions and functions, as well as thematic agendas.

Channeling citizen demands

The robustness of gender institutionalities is linked to the connections they build with women, feminist and LGBTIQ+ advocates and their ability to represent the interests of these communities. It refers to descriptive representation (which ensures the presence of members of these communities in public policy-making) and substantive representation (which ensures that policy objectives accurately reflect the perspective and demands of these communities).

In this regard, one example worthy of note as a forum for discussion, information exchange and alliances among women and transvestites in public office and political careers is the Mujeres Gobernando (Governing Women) network. This strategy aims at strengthening the institutional presence of everyone involved and serves as a mechanism to counterbalance the disadvantages of feminine socialization as to the exercise of leadership.

“In this regard, Mujeres Gobernando was an alliance and a resource especially useful for the preparation of the national budget, because it provided contacts, dialogues, meetings, talks, everything. And that is how the national budget was prepared, with the assistance of Mujeres Gobernando. In turn, the Federal Roundtable with the provinces facilitated the transition of this project to a federal level, by providing the necessary tools for a more comprehensive articulation. There was not much five people could do unless we could rely on the work done by other people.”

Recommendations for the development of gender institutions

Although we are aware that case studies may only be generalized to a certain extent, we believe that certain recommendations may be drawn from the analysis of this landmark experience that are useful for similar institutionalization processes.

Understanding and financing politics

We have already referred to the budget as a constraint. Obtaining institutional support to finance the various lines of work remains a structural obstacle due to limited economic resources. The challenge of securing funding for projects contributes to the resistance towards the transformation brought about by the gender perspective. Even if some issues have gained some support, others will still require some efforts before being included on the public agenda. The most controversial now is menstrual management, that many would rather not speak about. Another issue still creating conflict is domestic work, and —most generally— the issue of care, which is yet to become a part of the agenda and whose role in the economy is yet to be understood.

Rethinking the scope of action from a gender perspective

One of the greatest strengths of the DNEIG is its ability to broaden the view of the economy, not only revisiting classical issues but also factoring others that can only be addressed through an intersectional approach articulating gender, class, race, age, among other factors of inequality. There have also been advances in tax policy, as well as the implementation of menstrual management initiatives (previously scattered among jurisdictions and agencies). Last but not least, it is also worth noting that the Ministry of Economy has established a dialogue with sectors and groups that traditionally did not interact with it, such as informal workers associations, territorial organizations and transgender movements.

Formalizing processes and strengthening leaderships

DNEIG employees agree that one of the key learnings that has allowed them to develop a sustainable gender approach relates to the institutionalization and formalization of processes. The only lines of work that have translated into administrative instruments have been the Gender-Sensitive Budget and the Federal Table of Gender-Sensitive Economic Policies. This formalization channels actions and favors what we could call a “policy of no return”. Another key aspect is the need to strengthen the leadership capabilities of women and LGBTIQ+ individuals. Identifying the unique challenges they face can help ensure their access to public administration, representation and decision-making domains.

Six learned lessons

  1. The State can replicate gender inequalities or represent an opportunity to promote greater equity.
  2. Although women and diversities have gained a central role, ministers turnover present a challenge for their continuity.
  3. It is not enough to create an ambitious program: it is essential to allocate sufficient funds to finance it.
  4. Violence is not the only problem that requires State attention: gender issues require a comprehensive approach, and the development of new agendas.
  5. Appealing to the organizational culture of each ministry and to the language that is most legitimized in each area is key to strengthening advocacy.
  6. Federalizing technical and political capabilities is critical for extending the change to the entire national territory.

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