Gender Equity in Budgeting

September 28, 2020

By John R. Bartle, University of Nebraska at Omaha and Marilyn Marks Rubin, Rutgers University – Newark

Recently in this space, Chris Fabian wrote a compelling piece about racial equity in budgeting, describing its emergence in some US cities. Another dimension of equity in budgeting relates to gender. Since 1984, an international movement to integrate a gender perspective into the budget decision-making process has emerged in more than 80 countries.

While this initiative, often referred to as gender-responsive budgeting (GRB), has been successful in many places, it has failed to take hold in the US. Only San Francisco and Fulton County, Georgia, attempted it, and neither was successful. Adopting GRB does not mean that governments create a separate budget for women and men. It means that governments explicitly consider potential gender impacts when designing, implementing, monitoring, and evaluating budget policies.

The evolution of GRB can be traced back to the United Nation’s unanimous adoption of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1979. CEDAW defined what constitutes gender discrimination and set an agenda for action to end it. In 1995, the UN’s fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, identified the equal treatment of women and men in government budgets as central to the achievement of gender parity. The platform for action called on governments to “incorporate a gender perspective into the design, development, adoption and execution of all budgetary processes in order to promote equitable, effective and appropriate resource allocation to support gender equality.”

1n 1984, Australia became the first country to implement a GRB initiative. The Australian experience focused international attention on the potential to use budget tools to address gender inequities. In the next decade, initiatives were implemented in South Africa and the Philippines, and in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, many more countries incorporated a gender perspective into their budgets. Most GRB initiatives have focused on the expenditure side of the budget rather than revenues.

The government budget cycle includes four phases: formulation, approval, execution, and audit/evaluation. Each of these phases provide the potential for integrating a gender perspective into the decision-making process. In budget formulation, a gender perspective can be incorporated with specific priorities for budget allocations, gender impact assessments, and engendered budget call circulars. In the second phase of the cycle, when the budget is approved by the government’s legislative body, a gender perspective can be integrated by use of gender guidelines in allocating discretionary resources, or incorporated into fiscal notes that assess the budgetary impact of legislation.

In the implementation phase, spending guidelines regarding gender can be established where managers have discretion, such as for procurement, outsourcing, and grant disbursement. In the final phase of the budget cycle, audit and evaluation, tools such as engendered public spending reviews, gender compliance audits, and gender performance audits can be used.

Incorporating a gender focus into budgeting is possible. Why has it worked in some countries and not in others? In examining the experiences of countries all over the world with GRB I have identified five factors that seem to explain the degree of success in implementing GRB:

  • First, key decision-makers in government must acknowledge gender inequities and see budget policy as a tool to promote equal treatment of women and men.
  • Second, there needs to be a legal basis for gender equality. Some countries have gone as far as have gender budgeting in their constitutions or gender equality imperatives in their constitutions.
  • Third, the Ministry of Finance or its equivalent is a crucial source of institutional support, often providing line ministries with training, guidelines, and expertise to perform the necessary gender analysis.
  • Fourth, gender-disaggregated data needs to be available for budget analysts.
  • Fifth, in some cases civil society organizational support has been an important factor in facilitating the implementation of GRB. In the early initiatives in Australia and South Africa, civil society organizations were critical to their adoption.

As Fabian points out, it is rare for budgets to explicitly focus on equity, even though they are the most important policy statements of government. While gender is only one dimension of equity, the implementation of GRB initiatives in many countries shows how governments can use budgets to meet equity objectives. It is time to recognize that budgets are “a value-laden process that embodies – and potentially influences – long-standing societal choices about how resources are deployed”.

It is also time for governments in the United States to think of the budget process as something more than a means to allocate resources, control agency operations, and manage service delivery. Opening the core routines of budgeting to include racial and gender equity will make government more responsive and shine a light on inequitable social and economic conditions.