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date: 27 February 2024

Gendering Institutional Changefree

Gendering Institutional Changefree

  • Georgina WaylenGeorgina WaylenDepartment of Politics, University of Manchester


Many institutionalist scholars—historical institutionalists in particular—have recognized for some time that our understanding of institutional change needs to be improved. Taking this premise as a starting point, this article develops it by arguing that we not only need to understand institutional change better but that we also need to improve our understanding of how it is gendered. The chapter combines key elements from institutional analysis with recent gender and politics scholarship. This combination will form an analytical framework that can be used to examine how different instances of institutional change are gendered, highlighting, for example, the importance of some key concepts such as informal institutions and their role in either promoting or stymieing attempts to promote institutional change. After exploring the gaps in many current gender and politics analyses such as their capacity to explain many instances of institutional change, the paper charts the development of key insights on institutional change from both historical institutionalism and feminist institutionalism. It delineates different forms of institutional change and develops some key themes for each one that might enable us to better understand, not only how each is gendered, but also how far each form might be used by change actors as a gender equity strategy.


  • Governance/Political Change
  • Political Institutions


Struggles over institutional change are fundamental to politics both as it is practiced and as it is analyzed.1 Many institutional scholars—historical institutionalists in particular—have recognized for some time that our understanding of institutional change needs to be improved (Mahoney & Thelen, 2010). This chapter takes this premise as its starting point and develops it by arguing that we not only need to understand institutional change better but we also need to improve our understanding of how that change is gendered. In addition to adding a hitherto missing dimension to institutional analyses, this would also make an important contribution not only to gender and politics scholarship more generally but also to the emerging area of feminist institutionalism (FI) in particular. As changing institutions are a key priority for anyone wanting to promote gender equality, it would enhance our understanding of how institutional change, and the often-associated processes of institutional design, can be made more gender friendly—a question that has long preoccupied both feminist scholars and activists.

To date, despite the emergence of a feminist institutionalism, neither the gender and politics nor the institutionalist scholarship have given us adequate tools to understand the gender dynamics of institutional change, and so gaps remain in gendered analysis of institutions. Since the 1980s new institutionalism in all its varieties—rational choice (RCI), sociological (SI), historical (HI) and more recently discursive institutionalism (DI)—has dominated recent approaches used to understand institutions (now generally understood to be rules, norms, and practices) in many social science disciplines (Hall & Taylor, 1996; Schmidt, 2008). New institutionalism rekindled a concern for institutions that had dwindled after the behavioral revolution displaced the “old institutionalism” with its emphasis on formal institutional structures. As in 21st century, interest in improving our understanding of institutional creation, continuity, and change has increased—but how institutional change occurs is still not fully understood, and the mechanisms of change are still disputed, even within the different strands of new institutionalism not to mention between them (Clemens & Cook, 1999; Campbell, 2010).

Despite this proliferation in institutional analysis, one area that all variants of new institutionalism has not addressed is how institutions and institutional change is gendered, even though the importance of gender has been recognized in many other subfields of social science. And although many now pay more attention to the effects of informal rules and norms, mainstream institutional scholars have largely neglected the gendered dimensions of institutional dynamics. As a result, most new institutionalist research is still gender blind. It rarely considers issues of gender—and even if it does, the research fails to use a constructionist understanding of gender as reflecting multiple constitutive social processes and intersecting dynamics of power and difference that include dimensions such as class, race, and sexuality (Scott, 1986; Crenshaw, 1991; Hawkesworth, 1997; Connell, 2002; Mohanty, 2003).

This chapter brings together some key elements from recent institutional analysis (and in particular from the work of HI scholars such as James Mahoney, Wolfgang Streeck, and Kathleen Thelen) and from recent gender and politics scholarship (and FI work in particular), to form an analytical framework that can be used to examine different instances of institutional change. To demonstrate the importance of improving our understanding of how institutional change and the different processes associated with institutional change are gendered, this entry starts by examining the development of gendered analyses of institutions. The article then looks at institutional analyses more generally, showing how they have evolved, but also highlights some of the deficiencies that remain despite their greater sophistication. The second half of the article outlines an FI approach that synthesizes some key ideas from HI but with more emphasis on informal institutions than many HI scholars, together with key insights from gender and politics scholarship. This approach delineates some different forms of institutional change and outlines some key themes for each one that enhance our understanding of how each is gendered and how far each may be used by change actors as part of a gender equity strategy.

The State of the Art

Gender Scholarship: Understanding Institutions and Institutional Change

Increasingly categorized as constituting a feminist institutionalism (FI), a new body of scholarship that can further our understanding of the gender dynamics of institutional change outside of gender-specific institutions has been emerging over the last few years (Mackay, Kenny, & Chappell, 2010; Krook & Mackay, 2011). But inevitably this new FI scholarship draws substantially on the existing gender and politics scholarship, even though most of this work has rarely seen itself as using institutionalist approaches. Indeed, without this vast array of already-existing gender scholarship, FI could not have developed. Gender and politics scholars have long demonstrated how gender is deeply implicated in institutions, both nominally through gender capture (prominently the capture of institutions by men), and substantively, through mechanisms that result in gender bias that itself emerges from social norms based on accepted ideas about masculinity and femininity (Chappell & Waylen, 2013). According to Chappell and Waylen (2013, p. 602) recognizing “the institutional dominance of particular forms of masculinity has taken us from seeing gender operating only at an individual level, to viewing it as a regime.”

Although much of the early gender and politics work looked primarily at the actions of women actors and women’s movements in challenging gender inequality, it soon moved toward considering the interaction of different women actors with the wider political opportunity structure and a range of institutional structures (Celis, Kantola, Waylen, & Weldon, 2013). As a result, gender scholars often incorporated formal institutions, as well as informal practices and norms, in their explanations of the interactions between social movements, political parties, and the state (e.g., Banaszak, Beckwith, & Rucht, 2003; Lovenduski, 2005; Outshoorn & Kantola, 2007). Feminists exposed the gendered nature of public and political institutions and how they help to reflect, reinforce, and constitute unequal and intersecting (gendered) power relations in wider society (Randall, 1988; Acker, 1992). Hugely important work was conducted on different formal institutions in four key state arenas: the bureaucratic, constitutional/legal, and legislative and executive. For example, it examined electoral institutions (such as “first past the post” and proportional representation systems), and welfare states (Ferguson, 1984; Lovenduski & Norris, 1993; Orloff, 2009). And in the 21st century the emphasis has also broadened, ensuring that scholars undertake intersectional analyses, examining for example how gender intersects with other dimensions such as class, race, and sexuality (Collins & Chepp, 2013).

The question of change—how change can be achieved and how institutions and policies can be made more gender friendly—has of course also been central to a feminist political science (FPS) as well as gender scholarship in other disciplines. Gender scholars and equity entrepreneurs have been involved in institutional (re)design, seeking to create gender-aware and more gender-just institutions: opening up institutions to wider inclusion and participation; seeking to insert new actors, rules, norms, and practices; and attempting to recalibrate patterns of power (Mackay, Kenny, & Chappell, 2010). Gender scholars and entrepreneurs have, for example, investigated and advocated for state feminism and gender mainstreaming as well as policy interventions around issues such as domestic violence and reproductive rights (Stetson & Mazur, 1995; Weldon, 2002). However, like institutionalist frameworks, the gender scholarship has often found understanding institutional creation, continuity, and change problematic, particularly reconciling structure with agency. It has sometimes put too much emphasis on women’s agency and not enough on the structural constraints that can have negative effects on outcomes. As a result, understanding why institutional change, such as the establishment of women’s policy agencies (WPAs), has not had the transformative effects that were hoped for, or has resulted in undesired and unpredicted unintended consequences, has sometimes been hard. Unlike some of the gendered welfare state, sociological, and legal literatures, much gender and politics scholarship has also had too narrow a focus on explicitly gendered policy and institutional change—such as the implementation of equality policies, and the creation of WPAs. Less work has looked at wider institutional processes and how gender, intersecting with other dimensions of power such as race, class and sexuality, shapes those institutions.

This focus on gender-specific institutions and a lack of a wider understanding of institutions and institutional change has sometimes limited its overall explanatory capacity. Therefore, although this scholarship has strengths, there are significant areas that need further development and expansion. Building on this work, it is the area of institutional change that this chapter will now focus on. This article will examine what some other frameworks developed to analyze institutions—and institutional change more broadly—could offer those gender scholars who wish to gender our understanding of institutional change.

Institutional Analysis: Recent Developments in Understanding Institutions and Change

Despite its gender blindness, huge strides have also been made in the development of institutional analysis since scholars such as March and Olsen (1984) pioneered the current debates. There is some overlap between the four main variants of new institutionalism, and some scholars have detected elements of convergence. Yet significant methodological and theoretical differences remain, with important implications for the capacity of each to understand institutional creation, continuity, and change—whether exogenous or endogenous, gradual, or rapid.

However, there is now some consensus about what institutions are, how to define them, and the centrality of rules and norms. Indeed, Mahoney and Thelen (2010, p. 4) claim that “despite many other differences, nearly all definitions of institutions treat them as relatively enduring features of political and social life (rules, norms, and procedures) that structure behaviour and cannot be changed easily or instantaneously.” This view fits with March and Olson’s somewhat fuller definition of an institution as “a relatively enduring collection of rules and organized practices, embedded in structures of meaning and resources that are relatively invariant in the face of turnover of individuals and relatively resilient to the idiosyncratic preferences and expectations of individuals and changing circumstances” (March & Olson, 2006, p. 1).

Rules, norms, and practices are therefore significant for all institutionalists who make an important distinction between formally codified rules and more informally understood conventions and norms (Peters, 1999). Exploring this distinction between formal and informal institutions and their interrelationship has become increasingly important for many institutionalists in recent years (Helmke & Levitsky, 2006; Azari & Smith, 2012; Radnitz, 2011). Helmke and Levistsky (2004, p. 727), pioneers in this field in comparative politics, define institutions as “rules and procedures (both formal and informal) that structure social interaction by constraining and enabling actors’ behaviour.” They see informal institutions as “socially shared rules, usually unwritten, that are created communicated and enforced outside of officially sanctioned channels” in contradistinction to formal institutions that are “rules and procedures, that are created communicated and enforced through channels widely accepted as official.” Since then, others have been analyzing the interaction between the two more systematically, emphasizing, for example, the potential dynamism and adaptiveness of informal institutions as well as their potentially subversive or distorting roles and the possibilities for the creation of new ones (Tsai, 2006, 2016; Grzymala-Busse, 2010).

If we use this understanding of formal and informal rules, norms, and practices, their role in change and conflict and the distribution of power—as well as their role in maintaining stability and integration—becomes centrally important. Any institutional change must mean changes to norms, rules, and practices in all their forms. But because of differences in their approaches and frameworks, the main forms of NI understand change differently. Despite some important analyses of the role of “institutional work,” sociological institutionalism (SI) can find it hard to contemplate change and changes to rules as occurring endogenously. It is likely to be exogenous as a result of new interpretive frames or fields coming from outside. SI’s understanding of institutions and how they function can lead to a focus on cohesiveness, functionalism, and stability—rather than being able to accommodate conflict and change. And for many rational choice institutionalists (RCIs), institutions are often coordinating mechanisms that sustain or are moving toward particular equilibria; thus, significant change must also be exogenous. In contrast, historical institutionalism (HI) has a view of institutions, not as either cultural scripts or coordinating mechanisms but as legacies of historical struggles (Mahoney & Thelen, 2010). HIs have used concepts such as path dependence and critical junctures to help them understand the role of interests and their interaction with structures in the emergence and development of institutions. Institutions and their rules, norms, and practices therefore shape power relations with distributional consequences, disproportionately distributing resources to actors who already have power. And it is these power-distributional implications of institutions that motivate change. But somewhat paradoxically HI until the last decade has been better at understanding continuity and stability and exogenous rather than endogenous change.

However, from 2005 onwards, HI scholars started focusing on institutional change—particularly gradual and endogenous change. This was in response to the critique that HI was not good at understanding change, except to see it as a product of critical junctures and exogenous shocks that enabled actors to come to the fore at that moment and create new institutions (which were then locked into path-dependent trajectories with periods of stability and equilibrium in a punctuated equilibrium model). This work, and particularly some later contributions, is potentially useful for the development of better gender analyses of institutional change (Streeck & Thelen, 2005; Mahoney & Thelen, 2010). HI scholars began to emphasize that not all institutional change came about through exogenous shocks at critical junctures; change was often more gradual, endogenous, and evolutionary. Far-reaching (transformative) change could therefore take place through small incremental adjustments, and “creeping change” can have many transformative effects and is not always solely adaptive (Streeck & Thelen, 2005).

This formulation resulted in a renewed focus on the different mechanisms of institutional change. It brought increased interest in compliance and enforcement—how and why actors obey or do not obey rules—as a fundamental source of change. Within RCI and SI frameworks compliance is a less central issue. But if institutions are seen as self-reinforcing, and distributional issues are put at the center, then compliance becomes an important variable (Mahoney & Thelen, 2010). Challenges and changes to rules, norms, and practices become a central focus of any analysis of change. But these challenges and changes can take a variety of forms. They can include the contestedness of the institutional rules themselves as well as how far there is openness in the interpretation and the implementation of those rules. There is sometimes a great deal of “play” in the interpreted meaning of particular rules and sometimes high levels of discretion in both their interpretation and enforcement. Rules are therefore ambiguous and the subject of political skirmishing as, for example, Sheingate (2010) argued. When circumstances change and new developments confound rules, rule creation or an extension of existing rules to change institutions can occur. HI scholars therefore outlined the ways institutional change of an incremental endogenous variety can happen in “gaps” and “soft” spots between a rule and its interpretation and enforcement as well as more clear-cut and exogenous change (Thelen, 2009).

Building on Streeck and Thelen’s (2005) initial landmark contribution, Mahoney and Thelen (2010) outlined a framework for understanding institutional change that gave more emphasis to different actors and their roles than Streeck and Thelen’s earlier elaboration. They delineated four types of institutional change that evidence different forms of rule change and contestation. The first category is displacement. This involves the removal of old rules and the introduction of new ones. Although often abrupt and not inherently a gradual form of change, displacement can also be slow moving. Normally new institutions are created by actors—termed “insurrectionaries” by Mahoney and Thelen (2010)—who were “losers” under the old system but now face weak veto possibilities as well as low levels of discretion in the enforcement and interpretation of rules. So displacement can involve a significant upheaval as old rules are swept away, for example, after a revolution, military defeat, or a transition to democracy.

The second type of change is layering in which new rules are introduced alongside or on top of existing ones. Layering often happens when institutional challengers lack the capacity to alter the existing rules and as veto players can protect existing institutions; there is also limited discretion in the enforcement and interpretation of the old rules. These “subversives” can disguise the extent of their desire for change by appearing to work within the system. But the new institutions can often have a significant impact on the existing ones they are alongside or on top of and are designed to crowd them out. Changes in U.K. education policy promoted by the recent coalition government (2010–2015) and Education Minister Michael Gove, such as the promotion of academy and free schools alongside existing state-funded schools, could be seen this way. The third form is drift—the effects of existing rules change because of shifts in the environment. If key actors choose not to respond to those shifts, then their lack of response can result in a change to that institution. The change is therefore a result of a failure to adapt and update an institution so that it can maintain the same impact in an altered context. Drift often occurs when veto players have sufficient power to prevent the outright displacement of an institution, but there is often a gap (for example due to neglect) between the rules and their enforcement that facilitates change. Conversion is the final form of change. Existing rules are strategically redeployed as actors actively exploit the inherent ambiguities of institutions. Conversion typically occurs in contexts where change actors (often labeled “opportunists” by Mahoney & Thelen (2015)) lack the capacity to destroy an institution but are able to exploit gaps and spaces in the interpretation and implementation of existing rules to redeploy them in ways not anticipated by their designers. As a result, the institution is converted to new goals, functions, or purposes.

Initially many HI analyses focused primarily on institutional change that occurred through the creation of new institutions, namely the creation of new formal rules either through the (gradual) displacement of old institutions or the layering of new institutions on to old ones. And, as we will see, these are the types of institutional change that have also been most thoroughly researched by FI scholars. But since around 2015, HI scholars have made some modifications to their analyses of change to deal with the problems in the initial formulations of Mahoney, Streeck, and Thelen (Mahoney & Thelen, 2015; Pierson, 2015; Hacker, Pierson, & Thelen, 2015; Capoccia, 2016). These developments also resonate with many of the recent findings of gender scholars and their research agendas.

First, HI scholars have made more explicit how difficult it is to create new institutions and that often institutional change takes place in ways other than the creation of new institutions—often through the relatively neglected formulations of drift or conversion—but can also result in meaningful change (Hacker et al., 2015). In addition, change can also come about in different venues to legislatures such as courts and bureaucracies. Second, the importance of gaps in facilitating change needs more attention—including the gaps between rules and their enactment, the cognitive limits of rule makers, and the limits to social control—that often result in unintended consequences. Third, they argue that more attention needs to be paid to power and particularly to contestation, struggle, and the role of organized interests (Pierson, 2015), as well as the hidden aspects of power such as agenda control, and the control of resources as well as shifts in social coalitions (Capoccia, 2016). Fourth, HIs claim that more attention needs to be paid, not just to change agents and success (as well as veto points), but also to failed attempts and resistance to gradual institutional change through such mechanisms as agenda setting, the use of rhetorical frames, and active attempts to slow down or stop reform (Capoccia, 2016). Finally, and unusually for an HI scholar, Capoccia (2016) talks about the importance of culture and social norms (even mentioning gender in this context) and how the pressure for change can build up in society, eventually leading to changes in formal rules.

Greater emphasis is therefore placed on “hidden change,” at the same time as blurring the boundaries between the different forms of change that can be linked and thus interact. For example, the creation of a new institution may be possible because of some slower endogenous change that has already occurred. However, despite Capoccia’s (2016) plea to give norms and culture more consideration, one important remaining weakness of HI analyses that is particularly important for gender scholars—in addition to its gender blindness—has been their dismissal of the importance of informal institutions and the need to include informal institutions in their analyses (Streeck & Thelen, 2005, p. 10). We can now explore how FI has used institutional analysis to date and identify both the insights and the unresolved problems in HI approaches for scholars attempting to gender our understanding of institutional change.

Towards a Synthesis?

As an initial step toward synthesizing these separate but potentially complementary bodies of scholarship, an emerging body of feminist institutionalist scholarship has explored the potential of institutional approaches for gendered analyses. In keeping with most other institutionalisms, FI sees institutions as gendered rules, norms, and processes that have both formal and informal guises and examines how these shape actors’ strategies and preferences (Mackay, Kenny, & Chappell, 2010). Since 2005, FI work has considered how rules are gendered in ways influenced by institutionalism. Lowndes (2014), for example, has identified three: there are identifiable rules about gender; rules have gendered effects; and the actors who work with rules are gendered. FI has explored the possibilities for each of the main approaches associated with institutionalism (RCI, HI, SI, and DI) to incorporate gender into its analyses. Thus far it appears that in comparison to RCI, with its emphasis on non-gendered individuals as rational utility maximizers, HI (and to some extent SI and DI) as relatively methodologically pluralist, problem driven, and historically focused has more potential to incorporate gender into its frameworks as well as offering some appropriate tools that can be utilized by gender and politics scholars (Driscoll & Krook, 2009; Mackay, Munro, & Waylen, 2009; Waylen, 2009). Much recent constructionist theoretical work on gender shares with HI an emphasis on context dependence and the necessary historicity of concepts and analysis. As previously discussed, HI also focuses on power struggles and distributional questions, even if gender does not usually figure as part of this. In Skocpol (1992), on the development of American social policy, and in Pierson (1996) on European integration, there is some limited evidence that gender concerns, for example, have sometimes been considered by HI scholars. There is also some potential synergy around method. Variants of comparative historical analysis (CHA), often with an emphasis on process tracing and in-depth qualitative (comparative) case study research, are favored by many HI and FI scholars.

Some gender and politics scholars have been utilizing NI for some time (particularly HI) to improve their analyses of large-scale cases of institutional creation, continuity, and change (or have been identified as doing so by others) (Waylen, 2009; Htun, 2003; O’Connor, Orloff, & Shaver, 1999). While not appropriate for every research question, this work demonstrates the potentially significant contribution of HI approaches in improving the answers to some big questions that have preoccupied gender scholars, such as how certain institutions and regimes are gendered, how they came into being, and how change can occur, as well as understanding the relationship between different actors and the institutional context (Waylen, 2009). This in turn can help us to understand how positive gender change—leading to improvements in women’s descriptive and substantive representation—can come about. HI approaches can therefore be useful for gender scholars in explaining how particular institutions and regimes arose, how they are gendered, and why it is often so difficult to change them. But FI also has to consider how these approaches may help in improving our understanding of how and why certain institutions can or cannot be renegotiated, focusing both on the formal and informal variants and the ways in which institutions have gendered rules, norms, practices, and logics (Chappell, 2006). Indeed, although often ignored by HI, many FI scholars have begun to look at informal institutions in their own right—drawing on recent literature that explores systematically how the formal and informal can interact together both to subvert and uphold each other with varying gender outcomes (Mackay, 2014; Chappell & Waylen, 2013; Chappell, 2014; Waylen, 2014a, 2017). The emergence of feminist institutionalism therefore offers an opportunity to improve the explanatory capacity of not only feminist political science but also institutional analysis.

To advance our understanding of the gender dynamics of institutional change—particularly more gradual endogenous change—we need to draw on both this latest institutionally focused gender research and the new HI scholarship to also undertake meso-level and contextually specific analyses. For different forms of change, these analyses should investigate both formal and informal rules, norms, and practices and the ways in which these rules, norms, and practices shape power relations with distributional consequences. Challenges to and the creation and adaption of rules, norms, and practices therefore become a central focus in any attempt to understand gendered institutional change.

The Way Forward

As understanding how institutional change is gendered is such a huge area of investigation that the second half of this article brings together and operationalizes some of these ideas in order to convert them into manageable research areas. As we have seen, two major tasks relevant to our purposes stand out from the institutionalist literature. The first is that gender scholars need to focus on institutions as rules, norms, and practices in both their formal and informal guises (Chappell & Waylen, 2013). Any form of institutional change is going to involve both the formal and informal interacting together in ways that need to be investigated. The role of informal institutions as a key dimension in their own right has, until 2013, not had sufficient attention from those looking at institutional change. But as we have seen, many non-gender scholars interested in understanding institutions have focused much more centrally on informal institutions in the last decade. However although gender scholars have recognized how gendered norms, practices, and discourses can constitute as well as undermine formal institutions (such as candidate selection procedures and bureaucracies) and embody masculinities (and femininities) in particular ways this has only recently started to be done within a feminist institutionalist framework (Connell, 2002; Bjarnegard, 2013; Kenny, 2013). As part of this, attention has also focused on the roles played by informal networks—male and female—both within institutions and linking actors outside those institutions. Bjarnegard (2013), deploying the notion of homosocial capital, has shown how male networks within Thai political parties act to exclude women from political office.

FI scholars have therefore begun to look more explicitly at the “hidden life” of institutions and in particular at the relationship between formal and informal institutions, using some of the ideas put forward by other non-gender institutionalist scholars to ask how they might interact together (Chappell & Waylen, 2013; Chappell, 2014; Waylen, 2017). Interrogating not only how existing informal rules about gender (such norms about appropriate dress and behavior) could undermine sometimes progressive formal rule change, this work has also examined how informal rule change could complete, coordinate, and even initiate formal rule change in ways that feminists might not expect (Waylen, 2014a). For example, in many countries in Europe and the Americas, the introduction of civil partnerships and gay marriage has followed changed informal rules about homosexual relationships. Causality can therefore run both ways and any gender actors wishing to introduce gender positive institutional change need to consider how to change informal as well as formal rules.2 Improving our understanding of the informal and its relationship to the formal therefore remains a big challenge (Waylen, 2017).

The second theme to emerge from the previous discussion is that as institutional change is extremely complex and can take many different forms—gradual and endogenous as well as rapid and exogenous—it is useful to separate the different forms. Cognizant of the dangers of over-rigidly subdividing messy and overlapping phenomena, we can use a loose version of Mahoney and Thelen’s (2010) typology as a heuristic device to develop contextually specific analyses in order to pursue comparative analyses of different types of change—thus enabling us to examine both rapid and often exogenous change such as displacement, as well as more gradual endogenous forms such as layering, conversion, and drift. For each form, we can analyze a range of factors such as the change agents and the mechanisms at their disposal, as well as the rules—their creation, interpretation, and enforcement—in both their formal and informal guises. Central to any study of gendered institutional change is the importance of gaps in rules as a point of contestation. We also need to analyze resistance to change and to do this more broadly than just in terms of veto points, as resistance can be crucially important when considering efforts to promote gender positive change that challenges the status quo.

For each form of change, it is also important distinguish two analytically separate areas of investigation (although in practice they can intersect). First, we need to be aware that all forms of institutional change are gendered and have gendered impacts and implications; second, there are also forms of institutional change that come about through deliberate processes of design aimed to promote gender equality. The literature on institutional design shows us that processes of institutional design and their outcomes are not necessarily those intended by designers; and they are not the result of one designer but of the interaction of actors and a range of factors, often characterized by more messiness than is recognized, namely Goodin’s (1996) “myth of intentional design.”

Therefore, although all forms of change are gendered, not all forms are likely to be used by institutional designers as deliberate strategies to enhance gender equality, and some forms of change appear more likely to be adopted as gender equality strategies than others. In a number of cases where gender equality agents have achieved some modicum of institutional change, sufficient time has passed to allow us to consider the extent to which these different instances of institutional change have themselves been subject to displacement, drift, layering, and conversion as opponents with varying amounts of power attempt to undermine them. These more nuanced analyses should enable to us to see under what circumstances some of kinds of change are more likely to be effectively utilized by gender equality entrepreneurs. We can now briefly analyze how these different forms of change were gendered—both the creation of new institutions, which has already been extensively analyzed by FI scholars and the redirection of existing institutions, which has attracted far less attention to date. We end by offering some preliminary thoughts about the extent to which each might be a feasible gender equality strategy.

The Creation of New Institutions: Displacement

The wholesale replacement of old rules by new ones is difficult to achieve and happens relatively rarely. But it does contain the potential for significant institutional change, often occurring at a time of fundamental rupture—“a critical juncture”—when “usurpers,” who were losers under the old system gain power, for example, through wars, revolutions, or other exogenous shocks. Often the destruction or discrediting of the previous regime means that opponents’ veto power is low, and particularly in a context where there is little discretion in existing rules, the “usurpers” use their newly gained powers to sweep away the old rules and replace them with new ones (this process can also be slow moving but also rapid at times). These processes and their outcomes are gendered, both implicitly or explicitly, in ways that vary according to a range of contextual factors. The replacement of old institutions by new ones can provide the space for significant change in how institutions are gendered in ways that feminists may deem to be either progressive or retrogressive.

Among the examples of institutional change that could be deemed retrogressive in gender terms are those associated with European fascist regimes, epitomized, for example, by Nazi Germany in the 1930s and also Islamic fundamentalist regimes in power after the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and in Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001 (Koonz, 1987; Kandiyoti, 2005; Moghadam, 1999). All these regimes created institutions based on an extremely conservative vision of gender relations. For example, both Islamic fundamentalist regimes imposed their version of Sharia law with rules and practices that embodied a particular gender regime with explicit rules about gender pertaining to appropriate male and female dress—such as male facial hair, and veiling for women—as well as to employment, education, mobility, travel, and political rights. The rules and norms enforced certain versions of masculinity and femininity as well as different roles within public and private spheres for men and women. In both these Islamic fundamentalist and fascist states, progressive gender actors had little power to influence rule-making or to resist or subvert the processes of rule implementation (although the degree to which this could happen did vary). The extent to which institutions were “new” was also complex. Regimes referred back to “tradition,” history, religious law, and convention as justification when establishing “new” rules and procedures.

Conversely, displacement is unlikely to be a widely used gender equality strategy in isolation from broader institutional change, as gender actors are unlikely to have sufficient power in the absence of significant resistance and veto power. However, there are examples of gender equality policies forming part of broader institutional changes. In some contexts, gender actors found space to be involved in processes of rapid institutional change—such as recent cases of post-conflict constitution making and transitions to democracy—and some progressive gender-related changes have resulted. In South Africa, a transition to democracy was negotiated after years of struggle by the excluded non-white majority against the racially exclusionary apartheid regime. Many of the rules that comprised the apartheid institutions were swept away (although limited conversion and drift had already occurred when, despite continuing high levels of state repression, some rules—relating for example to marriage and residence laws—were no longer enforced as rigidly as they had been).

For most of its history, the ANC (African National Congress) had fought on a platform of rights, equality, and justice for all in a multiracial state. Feminists could frame their demands for gender equality in this way, too. Women activists, organizing around gender issues, had been increasingly active within ANC and outside of it since the 1980s, and during the transition an important alliance of women of all races, formed into the Women’s National Coalition (WNC), campaigned effectively to get gender equality enshrined within the new Constitution and Bill of Rights (Hassim, 2005). To this end, and in the face of considerable resistance, an informal network of female academics, activists, and politicians (the “triple alliance”) played a key role within the constitutional negotiations that designed the new South African institutions (Waylen, 2014b).

However, even institutions created in this way often demonstrate “nested newness” as preexisting rules, norms, and practices continue to have a significant impact (Mackay, 2014). And the efforts and considerable successes of gender actors are also frequently subverted by “nested newness.” New institutions are rarely created with a blank slate. “Old” rules, norms, and practices (both formal and informal) remain, and even at times of great rupture, preexisting rules and norms can be re-incorporated into the newly created institutions in new ways. Mackay (2014) has demonstrated how, for the new Scottish Parliament, Westminster often was a default model for the institutional designers, despite the efforts and achievements of feminists and other activists who wanted a new form of politics. Chappell (2014) explored how similar processes also played out in myriad gendered ways in the newly created International Criminal Court. She shows how the gender justice aspects of the ICC’s new victims’ rights system (e.g., related to sexual and gender-based crimes) have come into conflict with the preexisting gender-biased informal rules of international law, undermining the implementation of the new formal rules and the attempts by activists to promote gender justice.

Therefore, although not often a gender equality strategy on its own, under certain circumstances the creation of new institutions can bring some gender-related progressive institutional change as part of these broader changes: for example, as part of a “progressive” agenda that is enhancing citizen’s rights and promoting equality more generally but are often still constrained by preexisting rules and norms.

The Creation of New Institutions: Layering

Layering—the introduction of new rules alongside or on top of existing ones—has been a relatively common way to change institutions. Layering enables those actors who cannot sweep away old institutions to make some potentially far-reaching changes even in the face of strong veto players and resistance. As a result, new governance structures with gendered effects are often created to operate alongside or on top of existing ones. One example of layering worth exploring here, as it is often cited in the institutionalist literature (but without fully considering the gender dimensions) is the introduction of new pension arrangements (Hacker, 2005). As part of efforts to move the balance of pension systems from state-organized defined benefits pay-as-you-go to private sector–dominated defined contributions pensions, new private sector pension schemes have been widely introduced alongside existing pension schemes (often with incentives or compulsion for workers to join them) often with the aim of “crowding out” existing state-run pension schemes (in contexts where their abolition would be politically impossible).

Although often ostensibly gender neutral, these new arrangements have distinctly gendered impacts that can affect men and women very differently. This is due in large part to the different positions of men and women in the labor market over their life cycles—women often undertake lower-paying work (e.g., because of time spent looking after dependents, they are more likely to work part time and often have earlier retirement ages), and on average they earn lower wages than men—which means they generally contribute less to pension schemes (Steinhilber, 2004). Despite being based on a male breadwinner model, state-run defined benefits systems are often relatively more favorable to women, frequently offering standard benefits or entitlements according to need. The move toward more market-based capitalized systems based on equivalence (benefits are a function of what has been paid in) and an assessment of risk (such as projected survival rates) often result in women receiving substantially lower pensions on average than men (if they are entitled to them at all) and lower pensions even than men earning the same salary as themselves (Waylen, 2007b). And auto-enrollment, one of the latest changes to pensions institutions based on a “nudge” (Thaler & Sunstein, 2008) in which, unless individuals opt out, they will automatically be members of a pension scheme, also appears likely to have gendered impacts that have not been fully considered by policymakers. More women, because of their lower earnings and higher levels of part-time work, remain less likely to meet the income threshold at which auto-enrollment takes place and therefore will still receive lower pensions than men. But until the relatively recent concern about the potentially high levels of female pensioner poverty, few academic analyses of pensions considered how pension reform is gendered. And with the exception of Staab’s (2017) analysis of the Chilean pension system, few studies have done this within a gendered institutionalist framework.

The creation of new institutions through layering has also been widely used as a gender change strategy. Gender change actors are frequently in situations in which, even if they do have some capacity to introduce new rules, their power is limited. Quotas in the electoral arena, and gender mainstreaming and women’s policy agencies (WPAs) in the bureaucratic arena, are some of the best-known examples of new institutions designed to promote gender equality layered onto existing institutions (Krook, 2006). A number of factors affect the success of these new institutions. Among them are the effectiveness of their design—sometimes looseness or ambiguity in the rules allows them to be implemented in ways not intended by their designers (e.g., enabling political parties to evade quota laws). Second, the extent to which the new rules impact on the existing institutions that they are on top of or alongside can affect their success. In some cases, the impact of quotas has been increased through diffusion or contagion as other parties fear losing votes or appearing old fashioned. Again, the extent to which preexisting informal rules and norms impact on effective implementation can also be crucial. Culhane (2017) investigated how preexisting informal norms about who constitutes a good (male) candidate impacted on selection and recruitment under the new Irish quota system in the 2016 election. Finally, the emergence of new informal norms—such as a growing unacceptability of low levels of women’s representation—can lead to the more stringent enforcement of formal rules to complete and enhance those institutions. Some aspects of layering as a gender equality strategy have therefore already been explored by FI scholars. We can now turn to two forms of institutional change that have had relatively less attention from scholars, including gender scholars.

Change to Existing Institutions: Drift

Drift is a slow-moving form of change in which the existing rules do not change, although their impact changes because of shifts in the external environment (perhaps in combination with gaps in and neglect of the formal rules), thereby giving institutions new meaning. Changes to the U.S. welfare system are often cited as the classic example of policy drift, as formal rules around welfare were maintained as society changed, undermining those formal rules as they became increasingly out of step with wider changes (Hacker, 2005). Drift also has important gendered impacts. The male breadwinner model underlying many welfare states (not just in the United States) eroded—in part as a consequence of the large increases in female employment that was combined in many contexts with increased numbers of single parent (predominantly female-headed) households. However, many formal rules based on this model remained in place, resulting in contradictory gender outcomes (Esping-Andersen, 2009). Institutionalist scholarship such as Hacker (2005) recognized how changes to the external environment, such as increasing rates of divorce and labor market changes, were highly gendered; however, they do not consider how the institutions themselves are gendered (as our earlier example of pensions systems demonstrated) and that these institutions also contribute to gendered outcomes such as female pensioner poverty.

Drift, in part because of its relatively long horizon and unpredictability, is unlikely to be a frequently adopted gender equality strategy, except perhaps in contexts where the non-enforcement of existing gender unequal rules (e.g., forbidding women from undertaking certain activities such as driving) is the only strategy available to equality actors who do not have the power to change rules in the face of stiff resistance to any change to the formal status quo. Policy drift can also be used by those opposing gender equality strategies—for example allowing institutions like WPAs to “wither on the vine” by not appointing staff or increasing their budgets in line with other state institutions—thereby rendering them powerless through neglect and marginalization in contexts where their abolition is impossible.

Change to Existing Institutions: Conversion

Conversion as a form of institutional change can take place in contexts where the capacity to create new institutions is limited (e.g., due to the strong veto power of vested interests) but where there is also sufficient slack and ambiguity within existing rules to enable actors to redirect an institution to play a different role. Again, this redirection of existing institutions will have gendered impacts that may be positive or negative; and conversion can also be used as gender equality strategy in contexts where gender equality actors do not have the power to create new institutions. If we return to the South African transition to democracy, in addition to the creation of new institutions such as the constitution and a new electoral system, efforts to redirect some already-existing institutions were made, redeploying old rules in new ways not intended by their original creators. After 1994 the South African parliament continued to sit in the preexisting Cape Town legislature after it was deemed to be too expensive to build a new one, and many existing rules and practices were kept (Waylen, 2010). But the institutional symbol of white domination under apartheid was to be changed from a racially exclusive parliament into a “people’s parliament” representing all the population that embodied the “new nation.” So many of the rules and practices that had been imported from the Westminster parliament (on which it had originally been modelled) remained, such as the Mace, Black Rod, Whips, and Speaker. But they were redesigned and re-imagined to represent this new South Africa (incorporating new symbols such as an African drum) (Waylen, 2010). The first Speaker in the new parliament was an Indian woman, a renowned feminist and long-standing ANC activist who wore a sari while presiding over sittings. She provided a visible symbol of the transformation that the Westminster parliament had undergone.

Indeed, one of the biggest transformations that contributed to the appropriation of the institutions was the composition of the MPs (Ross, 2009). Not only were there now large numbers of black African MPs for the first time (some Indian and non-white members had had their own powerless assemblies in apartheid’s later years), but the 1994 elections also brought substantial numbers of women into parliament. Virtually no white women had ever been elected under apartheid (Geisler, 2000). An ANC party quota of 33% (which led to some contagion in other parties) was primarily responsible for a parliament comprising 27% women. As a result, parliament was very different in terms of dress (madiba shirts as well as business suits were now acceptable) and language (there were now 11 official languages—not just English and Afrikaans) but also in terms of the facilities that were needed (e.g., additional women’s toilets). The parliament was also to be more open to the public—with women’s and youth parliaments convening when parliament was in recess. The new women MPs—many of whom had been in the WNC and had worked together during the transition—acted together to ensure that gender legislation (reproductive rights and gender violence) was passed in the first term (Waylen, 2007b). But many women MPs—particularly those from activist and nonprofessional backgrounds—found it an intimidating space despite the attempts to create a “people’s parliament” accessible to all (Britton, 2006). The retention of many complex procedures and practices as well as staff from the apartheid era contributed to this. There was a high attrition rate of women MPs after one term. Therefore, although a more gender equal institution emerged as part of the strategy to convert parliament to new goals, many apartheid-era norms and practices remained.

There are also examples of the use of conversion as a deliberate gender equality strategy in contexts where gender equality actors lack the power to create new institutions. Michele Bachelet was elected to the presidency in Chile in 2006 on a platform that included implementing positive gender change. She attempted to interpret and enact existing rules in new gender positive ways in the face of significant formal and informal constraints and resistance from a powerful conservative opposition that severely constrained her capacity to create new institutions (Waylen, 2016). As Sepulveda (2016) and Staab (2016) have shown, Bachelet and other key actors in her administration used preexisting presidential and ministerial powers to enact gender-friendly policy change without resorting to the legislative arena. This strategy was particularly marked in the battles around the provision of emergency contraception (EC) where the bureaucracy and the Constitutional Tribunal became arenas of contestation. But it was also used in less contested areas such as the increased provision of childcare (Staab, 2016; Sepulveda, 2016). Conversely, we have seen new, sometimes conservative governments, redirect existing WPAs away from gender equality to prioritize family and child welfare in contexts (such as eastern/central Europe) where the abolition of the institution is not considered possible (Waylen, 2007b).


This article has brought developments in feminist institutionalism together with institutionalist analyses (in particular, the recent work of historical institutionalists) to examine institutional change. It argues that synthesizing these approaches can improve our understanding of institutions and processes—rapid or gradual, exogenous or endogenous—of institutional change and how they are gendered. In particular, identifying and disaggregating different forms of change can allow us to develop more nuanced analyses—ones that are alert to different contexts, acknowledge the role of veto players and more generalized resistance, as well as the varying opportunities available to different change actors. It also shows us that not just formal but also informal rules, norms, and practices are a crucial dimension of institutional analysis. Different forms of change therefore can offer a range of outcomes. It now remains for feminist scholars to undertake more detailed empirical research to explore how far delineating different forms of change improves our understanding of the gendering of institutional change and further refining the frameworks and concepts outlined here.

It is hoped that these insights and the findings of any subsequent research will also provide valuable lessons for institutional designers. The aim is to determine which strategies may be appropriate and possible in different contexts. These strategies depend on a range of factors such as the power and capabilities of both change actors and their opponents, as well as the strength of formal and informal preexisting rules. The foregoing analysis has demonstrated the need to ensure that institutions are effectively designed for the particular context they are created in, ensuring for example that, where appropriate, new rules have a degree of slack and ambiguity to ensure that attempts to derail them do not succeed. It is important to be mindful of the fragility of some new institutions such as women’s policy agencies, which can sometimes be relatively easily dismantled (displaced), marginalized and allowed to wither (drift), or else transformed (converted) to prioritize different goals—such as bolstering the family—to the ones their designers originally had in mind.

There are other important dimensions of institutional change that still need investigation. To date, intersectional analyses have not had sufficient prominence. The move toward more general equalities policies (encompassing race, disability, sexuality, etc., as well as gender) is one instance of institutional layering that would benefit from more institutionally focused intersectional analysis. And finally, the fate of some equalities policies and women’s policy agencies during the current austerity demonstrates that understanding institutional change must also encompass not only positive change but also institutional retrenchment. To further these endeavors, this entry has outlined some building blocks for future researchers to focus on in the hopes of enhancing our understanding of the gendering of institutional change.


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  • 1. Much of the research reported here was undertaken as part of a European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant, “Understanding Institutional Change: A Gender Perspective” (Grant Number 295576-UIC).

  • 2. For a more extended discussion of these issues see Waylen (2014a).