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Infusing Equity into Public Budgets: The Gender Perspective

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By John R. Bartle and Marilyn Marks Rubin
March 15, 2021

On his first day in office, President Biden issued Executive Order 13985, calling for the federal government to, “Allocate resources to address the historic failure to invest sufficiently, justly and equally in underserved communities, as well as individuals from those communities.” It also called for the Director of OMB to, “Identify opportunities to promote equity in the budget that the President submits to the Congress.” Never before had the United States federal government explicitly identified the budget as a tool to promote equity. This is not surprising. While equity has become a mainstay in the study of public administration, it has not generally been applied in the United States to budgeting, making us distinct from many other nations; we can learn from their experiences.

The International Movement for Gender Equity in Budgeting

In 1984, the movement to integrate a gender perspective into government budgets emerged when Australia incorporated a gender perspective into its budgeting process. Australia’s actions focused international attention on the potential to use budget tools to address gender inequities, initiatives often referred to as gender-responsive budgeting (GRB). GRB does not mean that governments create a separate budget for women and men, but rather that they explicitly consider differential gender impacts when designing, implementing, monitoring and evaluating budget policies.

The evolution of GRB can be traced back to the 1979 UN adoption of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). CEDAW defined gender discrimination and set an agenda for action to end it. In 1995, the platform for action adopted by the UN’s fourth World Conference on Women called on governments to, “Incorporate a gender perspective into. . . .all budgetary processes to …support gender equality.” Since 1995, more than 80 countries have incorporated a gender perspective into their budget processes.

Implementation of GRB   

GRB initiatives have been integrated into the four phases of the government budget cycle: formulation, approval, execution and audit/evaluation. In budget formulation, a gender perspective has been incorporated, for example, into gender impact assessments that ask the question: “Does a law, policy or program reduce, maintain or increase gender inequities?” In the approval phase of the cycle, a gender perspective has been integrated by using guidelines in allocating discretionary resources. In the implementation phase, spending guidelines regarding gender have been established where managers have discretion, such as for grant disbursement. In audit and evaluation, tools such as gender compliance audits have been used.

Across the world, there have been both successes and failures in implementing GRB. Why has it worked in some countries and not in others? We have identified five factors that explain success in implementing GRB:

  • Key decisionmakers in government must acknowledge gender inequities and see budget policy as a tool to promote equality.
  • There needs to be a legal basis for gender equality, such as placing gender equity imperatives in constitutions.
  • The Ministry of Finance has to be a source of institutional support, often providing line ministries with training, guidelines and expertise to perform the necessary gender analysis.
  • Gender-disaggregated data need to be available.
  • Civil society organizational support has often been an important factor.

When GRB initiatives fail to take hold, it is generally due to their lack of conformance with one or more of these factors. San Francisco is a case in point. The city had a GRB initiative for a time, but it never became an integral part of its administrative routines. The failure of the San Francisco initiative to endure is explained by its lack of conformance with at least three of the factors discussed above: (1) the lack of continuing support of government decisionmakers, (2) the lack of continuing support of civil society organizations and (3) the lack of availability of gender disaggregated data.

Realizing the Potential

While gender is just one dimension of equity, the success of GRB initiatives in many countries shows how governments can use budgets to meet equity objectives. Recently, Chris Fabian of ResourceX wrote about racial equity in budgeting in the United States, saying that,  “Local governments have the potential to make a substantial and lasting impact in creating equity for all the people in their communities. One of the most powerful levers for change is the budget.”

Until the introduction of GRB, budget reforms have not focused on equity. This omission is striking since for the last 50 years a major movement in public administration has been to  incorporate social equity as a “pillar” along with efficiency, economy and effectiveness—the bedrocks of government budgeting. Like these pillars, social equity is a means; unlike them, it is also an end.

As acknowledged by the OECD, it is time for countries to recognize that budget-making is, “A value-laden process that embodies—and potentially influences—long-standing societal choices about how resources are deployed.” It is also time for governments to see 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 equity will shine a light on inequitable social and economic policies and make government fairer and more responsive.


Authors: John R. Bartle is dean of the college of public affairs and community service at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. His research is focused on financial policy and management, budgeting, and transportation in state and local government.

Marilyn Marks Rubin is distinguished research fellow at the Rutgers -Newark School of Public Affairs and Administration (SPAA). Her research is focused on fiscal policy and management in state and local governments and on social equity.

This article was written under the auspices of the Government Finance Research Center at the University of Illinois, Chicago

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