Umeå University gender mainstreaming strategy plan 2022 – 2025; a What’s – the – Problem – Represented – to – be (WPR) analysis.

The socio – political and historical context.

The gender mainstreaming plan has been created as the answer to Swedish government’s assignment to Umea University for continuing its work on gender equality. This assignment is part of the Gender Mainstreaming in Academia (GMA) program, which started in 2016 and has been extended to 2021, providing financial aid to higher education institutions in order to plan and implement their strategies for the years 2022 – 2025 (Swedish Gender Equality Agency, 2021). This gender mainstreaming strategy document is structured based on the six Sweden’s gender equality policy sub goals: equal division of power and influence, economic gender equality, equal education, equal distribution of unpaid housework and provision of care, equal health and the need for men’s violence against women to stop.

Gender equality and associated policies have been a significant issue in Sweden for several decades, starting from the late 1960s, when the political involvement of women until the 1980s had a significant impact on the political system, leading to new topics and issues in public and political agendas due to the influence of the feminist movement (Borchorst, 2009). Ronnblom (2008) states that, since the late 1980s, gender issues have received growing attention in regional policy, and discussions about ‘women’, ‘gender equality’, and ‘gender mainstreaming’ have become important subjects. Since the early 1990s, Swedish gender policies were directed to include a gender equality perspective. In 2006, the Swedish government agreed on a number of gender equality objectives outlined in a bill called “The Power to Shape Society and Your Own Life: Towards New Gender Equality Policy Objectives” (2005/06:155). These objectives were widely accepted among politicians. Later in November 2016, a document titled “Power, Aims and Authority – Feminist Policy for a Gender-Equal Future” (2016/17:10) was presented to the national parliament, which outlined the future direction of gender equality policy in Sweden (Gender Equality in Sweden, n.d.). Numhauser-Henning (2015) mentions that the basic aims of government’s gender policies is a focus on sameness, i.e. providing the same possibilities for men and women for decision – making, education, reproductive responsibilities and physical integrity. This seems to be also the case in the new document of 2016, in which two sub goals (education and health) were added. In 2018, a new Swedish Gender Equality Agency was established in Gothenburg, enhancing the gender equality operations.

The WPR approach.

Carol Bacchi’s “What’s the Problem Represented to be” approach suggests a different, post – structuralist way of thinking about and analyzing policies. Bacchi argues that the social problems addressed in different policy documents do not exist outside the very policy itself. This means that policymakers actively constitute rather than just react to the given ‘problem’. “Problem representations are elaborated in discourse” (Bacchi, 2009b, p. 35), with discourses to be social constructed knowledges that open up or close down ways of thinking and acting about specific social subjects and objects. Hence, the way in which ‘problems’ are discursively produced and reproduced in policies affects the collective social consciousness around them in the specificities of space and time. So, how identities and patterns of social organization are constituted and filled with meaning matters (Bacchi & Eveline, 2010). For example, the frameworks within which gender (in-)equality is spoken about socially, are the terms of reference established for understanding gendered subjects and their social relations and interactions. Outside these terms of reference (outside these constituted knowledges), it seems like the social problems represented to be do not exist ‘in reality’ and can be characterized as powerful fictions, due to their ‘truthful’ validity. So, Bacchi (2009b) states that discourses have the power to “accomplish things” (p. 35), frequently through the perception of their veracity.

In short, a WPR approach is based on the idea that all policy-making activities raise questions and involve implicit knowledges and understandings of the represented issues, that are often challenging to be unveiled. In contrast to most policy analyses that prioritize the state as the primary site of study, a WPR approach takes a broader perspective in understanding how governance works. This type of analysis acknowledges the state’s significance, but also recognizes the involvement of multiple actors in the management of societal relations. As a result, a WPR approach is notably distinct from other policy analyses. (Bacchi, 2009a). It focuses on how problem representations reinforce or challenge unequal power dynamics counteracting the notion that any truth is equal to any other truth from a relativist perspective. In order to achieve this goal, Bacchi has formed a six – questions guide, so as to create a different head-start around policy analysis. By actively questioning and scrutinizing the way the problem is represented and identifying the underling assumptions, a broader framework on how this representation has come about can be explored. Moreover, by questioning what is left unchallenged in the representation and the effects it produces, ideas on what could challenge and replace this representation can be formulated (Bacchi & Eveline, 2010).

The analysis of the gender mainstreaming strategy plan.

  • WPR Q1: What’s the problem represented to be in Umea University gender mainstreaming plan?

The document in question explicitly states that its aim is to enhance gender equality across the various departments of Umea University, which means that gender equality is an ongoing phenomenon that exists throughout time. Several times in the document, it is mentioned that a “specialized knowledge” of the situation and an awareness regarding the factors leading to inequality would be the “key to successful change management. . . . If the management and staff are aware of what creates unequal power relationships, adequate measures can be put in place to counteract gender inequality” (FS 1.1-1464-22, p. 1). This awareness is one of the goals mentioned at the end of the document. Thus, this document constructs gender inequality as a problem of awareness and lack of specialized knowledge, which, once being acquired, can lead to adequate measures for gender equality. On a deeper analysis, this concludes to an a priori existence of unequal power relations between men and women, that exists outside its actors, victims and bystanders, as if a natural phenomenon without place and time specifities. This looks like gender inequality is something natural, outside of the specific ways of organizing the social reality, so, “through increased knowledge everybody – organisations, groups, men and women – should gain something” (Ronnblom, 2008, p. 126). No – one looses and no – one has immediate responsibility for the current situation because of the non – existent and/or limited awareness. If we “know what we want to achieve” that is “more gender equality” (Ronnblom, 2008, p. 115).

  • WPR Q2: What underlying beliefs or biases are present in the problem descriptions mentioned above?

By implying that gender inequality between men and women is naturalized, it is assumed that the established unequal power dynamics are ahistorical and people are naturally given their gender. The gender identities are regarded to be given, rather than constructed and socially performed, and thus are viewed as monolithic and universal. Honkanen (2008) says that in order to create an equality problem, there have to be a question of sexual difference. This sexual difference between men and women is constructed as natural and thus, it needs to be discovered by the policymakers. Post-structuralist and queer theory supports that the concept of gender, which, in this case, viewed as a natural difference between men and women, is only understandable within a discourse that is governed by heteronormativity. This discourse defines gender as two distinct and fixed universal categories, and enforces strict coherence between an individual’s sex, gender, and sexual desire (Stormhøj, 2003). Heteronormativity is characterized by oppressiveness due to the “familiarism, paternalism and patriarchal power relations” (Stormhøj, 2003, p. 50) it reinforces.

  • WPR Q3: What has led to this representation of the issue?

In the Nordic countries and in particular in Sweden gender equality translates to gender neutrality (Carlsson Wetterberg & Melby, 2008). Carlsson et al. (2008) have stressed the importance of historical and geographical contexualization of gender equality, focusing on the established assumptions of dependency; usually asking the question whether women had a male provider or not, implying a natural relation of dependency between men and women. At the beginning of 20th century, the norm entailed an “heterosexual male provider/female housewife family” (p. 56), which later was overruled by a class-related concept of gender equality based on sameness. According to Esping – Andersen’s (2000) welfare state typology, Sweden is associated with a social – democratic welfare state type, which is characterized by a high degree of decommodification (reducing people’s reliance on the market for their livelihoods) and a relatively high level of universalism in the provision of social benefits. In the social democratic welfare state model, the family is viewed as a private sphere, and the state is expected to intervene to support individuals in their roles as parents and caregivers, implying a natural formation of an heterosexual family, which reinforces heteronormativity in the welfare system.. This type of state provides equal services to both men and women in the family that are gender neutral. Since the existing welfare system has many heteronormative characteristics, it organizes and reproduces the social reality as such, assuming fixed the categories of men and women and thus, its relationship. Its role is to even out this unequal relation by providing equilibrating measures based on an heteronormative sameness.

  • WPR Q4: What has been left unchallenged? Where are the gaps in discussion? Is it possible to re-conceptualize the “problem” in a different way?

What has been left unchallenged are the structural and institutional contributions to the construction of a(n) (unequal) gender reality. Instead of assuming that gendered bodies are naturally ascribed gendered characteristics and differences, resulting to an uneven power dynamic, what could be done is viewing gender as a performative action. By raising awareness of the situation as if its actors are passive and not actively involved in it, it is assumed that gender identities are a priori ascribed. In addition, potential intersections of gender, national identity and ethnicity had not been articulated within the university’s strategy plan but rather they are silenced. This silence is at the core of the feminist critique towards policies, suggesting that particular blind spots remain invisible, even when policymakers’ spectacles are gendered (Landen & Olofsdotter, 2016). Since, this policy document tries implicitly to naturalize gender identities, a power analysis is relevant to be considered. Stormhoj (2003) argues that gender (and consequently gender identity and sexuality) are constructed categories of knowledge, having emerged as a result of specific historical, social and cultural conditions, so they should not be taken as monolithic and universal. Through a non – essentialist approach, “sex, gender and sexual desire are not essential entities, but rather constructions, having been installed in the subjects through discourses” (Stormhoj, 2002, p. 41).


Gender analysis strategies should not be viewed as fixed and unchanging, but rather as constantly evolving and subject to political pressures. The goal is to use a flexible, evolving approach to gender analysis in order to continually strive for greater gender justice; such an approach is Bacchi’s ‘What’s the Problem Represented to be’, which can be applied to a wide range of situations or contexts. In a time where the focus on problem-solving is dominant, the WPR approach provides a necessary alternative to the idea that problems are predetermined and agreed upon in policy development. It prompts us to consider that the idea of a “problem” and its associated “solution” are not neutral concepts, but rather carry significant implications. The WPR approach suggests questioning what is meant by “the problem” as a critical practice.

In this essay, Umea University’s strategy plan is discussed, which aims to promote gender equality across various departments of the university. However, the document constructs gender inequality as a problem of awareness and lack of specialized knowledge. This view implies that gender inequality is natural and fixed, outside of the specific ways of organizing the social reality, and that there is no immediate responsibility for the current situation. The underlying beliefs or biases present in this problem description suggest that gender identities are regarded to be given, rather than constructed and socially performed. The need for contextualization of gender equality is highlighted, focusing on the established assumptions of dependency and the importance of challenging the structural and institutional contributions to the construction of a(n) (unequal) gender reality. Finally, it is suggested a re-conceptualizing gender as a performative action and highlighting the intersections of gender, national identity, and ethnicity, which have been left unchallenged.

Reference list.

Bacchi, C. (2009a). Introducing a “what’s the problem represented to be?” approach to policy analysis. In Analysing Policy: What’s the problem represented to be? (pp. 1–24). Pearson.

Bacchi, C. (2009b). Rethinking policy analysis. In Analysing Policy: What’s the Problem Represented to Be? (pp. 25–53). Pearson.

Bacchi, C., & Eveline, J. (2010). Approaches to gender mainstreaming: What’s the problem represented to be? In Mainstreaming Politics: Gendering Practices and Feminist Theory (pp. 111–138). The University of Adelaide Press.

Borchorst, A. (2009). Scandinavian Gender Equality: Competing Discourses and Paradoxes. Department of History, International and Social Studies, Aalborg University, 69, 63–75.

Esping-Andersen, G. (2000). The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. In C. Pierson & F. G. Castles (Eds.), The Welfare State Reader (pp. 136–150). Polity Press.

Gender equality in Sweden. (n.d.). Swedish Gender Equality Agency.

Gender mainstreaming strategy 2022 – 2025 (FS 1.1-1464-22). (2022). Umea University.

Honkanen, K. (2008). Equality Politics Out of the Subaltern. In E. Magnusson, M. Ronnblom, & H. Silius (Eds.), Critical Studies of Gender Equalities. Nordic Dislocations, Dilemmas and Contradictions (pp. 204–219). Makadam publishers.

Landen, A. S., & Olofsdotter, G. (2016). ‘What should we do instead?’ Gender-equality projects and feminist critique. In L. Martinsson, G. Griffin, & K. Giritli Nygren (Eds.), Challenging the myth of gender equality in Sweden (pp. 163–186). Policy Press.

Numhauser-Henning, A. (2015). The Policy on Gender Equality in Sweden. In European Parliament (PE 510.011). European Union.

Policy objectives and a new government agency – effective governance of Swedish gender equality policy (SOU 2015:86). (2015). Ministry of Health and Social Affairs.

Ronnblom, M. (2008). De-politicising Gender? Constructions of Gender Equality in Swedish Regional Policy. In E. Magnusson, M. Ronnblom, & H. Silius (Eds.), Critical Studies of Gender Equalities, Nordic Dislocations, Dilemmas and Contradictions (pp. 112–143). Makadam publishers.

Stormhøj, C. 2003). Queering the family: critical reflections on state-regulated heteronormativity in the scandinavian countries. Lambda Nordica: Tidskrift om homosexualitet, (1-2), 38-56.

Swedish Gender Equality Agency. (2021). Government agencies and higher education institutions. Retrieved February 7, 2023, from

By Φαίδρα Γατσαρούλη

My name is Faidra Gatsarouli. I am a psychology graduate from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and a master’s student in Human Rights and Migration Studies and in Gender, Justice and Society in the University of Macedonia and Umea University, respectively. I'm particularly interested in research on feminist and gender studies, women’s rights and the LGBTQ+ community, the intersectional migration and refugee experience and the psychological well-being of the nontraditional family structure. Besides my academic aspirations, I really love art, photography. solo travelling and reading contemporary fiction.

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