Sustainability: How do we give sense and meaning to it?

By Lorena Pajares. Consultant and team member of the SUPERA project at the UCM.

Sustainability can be a useless word, according to Jane Barry and Jelena Đorđević (2007), because it is too vague. They argue that it makes some people feel strong but can as well make others feel uneasy. We need to give sense to it, make it meaningful for our institution and us, and be a crucial aspect for a fundamental transformation of our organisations’ gendered patterns and power relations.

To reflect on the importance of having a sustainable strategy for gender mainstreaming and the role of communication in making both concepts -sustainability and gender mainstreaming- meaningful for our institutions, the TARGET Consortium held a training session within its 5th Capacity Building Workshop (19th February 2021). It was a 3 hours workshop mainly devoted to participatory reflection and co-creation in group work.

At this stage of the project, all partners have their GEPs approved and in motion, so it seemed perfect timing to stop, look at the way still in front of them but also to the one behind, and from there, remind the key aspects that we should take into account to strive for sustainability. So the first question was: Are we actually including these aspects while implementing our activities and planning our next steps?

We started by revisiting the key recommendations that the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) provides in its Gender Mainstreaming Toolkit for Institutional Transformation regarding sustainability. Then, we followed some added ‘tips’ gathered from the lessons learnt by other sister projects, so we could be sure that we were all aligned and on the same page before moving to the next question, which involved widening the meaning of sustainability. Here is where Barry and Đorđević helped us deepen on how we need to think about the sustainability of the process and the sustainability of the activism and the people leading that process.

To be able to give sense to that specific idea (sustainability of the activism), we went through two more reflections very much related: The first one by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, stating how talking about gender can easily trigger resistances (not in vain Gender Mainstreaming aims at changing the status quo), and the second one by Mieke Verloo about our “everyday feminist practices”, which led to the question of how are we helping to deal with resistances and to shape, connect and sustain these everyday feminist practices that will also be key for the sustainability of our process. More specifically, how do we use communication for it? Beyond informing and raising awareness: Communication as a key tool for mobilising, engaging and sustaining activism. 

With all these fundamental ideas and questions in mind, we went directly to the breakout rooms to work in groups in a two-steps participatory dynamic: First, to quickly elaborate a map of stakeholders with the key actors for sustainability, taking into account each institution’s next steps, and second, to think about what each one should know about the process, when, and especially, what for. This last question enables taking into account intangible aspects related to sustainability that go much further than just being informed or raising awareness, like fostering engagement, mobilising, negotiating or promoting activism.

Having discussed and reflected on this, we could more easily move into the next topic, focused on how to do it. How do we communicate our gender goals, activities and policies to secure their sustainability better once the project is over? To answer this, we followed the steps described in the Handbook developed by the European Network of Equality Bodies (Equinet) on ‘Framing Equality’ (2018). They involve three main activities:

  • getting an agreement that there is a problem (and what it is);
  • reaching a consensus around a solution;
  • inspiring support or action.

The importance of framing, or how we describe reality, will determine its political solution. As Mieke Verloo explains, framing refers to the representation of reality. It is a highly political exercise because it will condition our priority setting, as simple as it might seem. Thus, we raised the following question: How have we been communicating and framing our GEPs, and how did it work so far? Have we contributed to creating feminist frames and sustain feminist practices? The heart of the matter is that activated frames (by often using them) would at some point become common sense, and this transformation is part of our structural change goals and would impact the organisational culture, gaining few steps towards sustainability. 

To feed this reflection, and before going again into the breakout rooms, we put it in dialogue with two insightful contributions: One by Carol Bacchi and Susan Goodwin (2016), who explain that how we understand (and therefore frame) problems of inequality can also help revealing why academia sustains inequalities, and the second one by Stina Powell (2018), who points out how the discourse of gender equality still fails to address critical issues like power, privilege, or meritocracy. It is there where it all lies at the end (also communication): power relations.

With these ideas in mind, and after briefly going through some practical tips regarding internal and external communication based on EIGE’s recommendations, we devoted the last part of the workshop to discuss the main elements of a communication strategy in groups. We used a template for that, based on the ‘Design for wiser action’ methodology. The template included all the aspects mentioned throughout the session: the ‘whos’, ‘whats’ and ‘whens’, but also the more political and intangible aspects, like the what for, resistances, underlying needs or key framing concepts, which are what relate to the core norms and values of the organisational culture and hence entail a more meaningful step towards sustainability. Of course, the task was huge, and we did not have the time to complete it, but even if it was only for the high-level quality of the discussions and interactions among the partners, it was worth it. I am grateful for having been able to be part of it for that short while.


Bacchi, Carol and Goodwin, Susan (2016). Poststructural Policy Analysis, a Guide to Practice. New York: Palgrave.

Barry, Jane and Đorđević, Jelena (2007). What’s the Point of Revolution If We Can’t Dance? Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights.

Equinet & PIRC (2018). Framing Equality. Communication Handbook for Equality Bodies.

Powell, Stina (2018). Gender Equality in Academia: Intentions and Consequences. International Journal of Diversity in Organisations 1(18) DOI: 10.18848/1447-9532/CGP/v18i01/19-35

Verloo, Mieke (2017). To which subversive everyday practices does feminism inspire you? A personal note. Femina Politika 1|2017.