As a graduate student searching for a job in the humanitarian sector, it has been suggested to me that employers look for key words in cover letters and on CVs - words that imply that the applicant is well aware of the current discourses and UN-speak of the international crowd.

One of these phrases is 'gender mainstreaming'. Whether under the label of terms such as 'gender mainstreaming', 'gender sensitive', or 'gender awareness', most international organizations today are obliged to incorporate gender into their policies, trainings, and programs, not only because of treaty or institutional requirements, but because of a relatively new ideal that incorporating gender, at least on a basic level, is important.

Gender specialists are increasingly being employed in UN departments, major NGOs and on peacekeeping missions: policies and reports must be assessed and deemed gender sensitive, and employees in many of these major organizations and on many missions are often required to attend gender training.  On the surface, it seems we are doing fairly well.

Gender mainstreaming can mean a plethora of different things - from simply stating in a concept note that a program will be gender sensitive to actually providing that all data be sex and age disaggregated and requiring approval and feedback from gender specialists that all programs are indeed gender sensitive.

There is a range of approaches, yet most seem to fall below the threshold that would actually push change. My observations - which I would gladly like to see refuted – from talking with a few gender specialists and academics working on gender issues at a global level, are that most gender specialists have had little or no education on gender and its implications for peace and development. How many of these specialists have read Judith Butler or Chandra Mohanty? How many of these specialists actually know what gender is, or intersectionality or SADD? How many of these specialists think of structure and power when discussing gender? And how many of these specialists are feminists - male or female?

For an issue so marginalized as gender, a person appointed or employed as a gender specialist must own the issue in order to have any impact on policy. Being a well read feminist is a starting point for making one own the issue. To avoid misinterpretation, it should be stressed that this scary identifier does not mean that the gender specialist would only advocate for women’s issues (if you believe that, then you should read a bit of feminist theory), but it does mean that women will be taken into account much more, and as a structurally unequal and marginalized group (yes, this is essentializing), then this is not a bad thing. When men are taken as the universal group, disaggregating the sexes will show inequalities, which often harm the women but which also harm the men and everyone in between the two.

Being the gender specialist in any department is not an easy task, if done well. Whether male or female, feminist or not, you will probably receive rolling eyes, yawns and lack of interest when bringing up gender issues and conducting gender training. Many people may see gender training as training on how to be politically correct and sensitive to a disadvantaged group without realizing how relevant and influential gender relations are to all types of work.

Gender mainstreaming may be required of many organizations but this does not mean that employees will become gender sensitive and develop an interest in the issue and its importance. This is why the gender specialist is so important. Gender issues are real. They perpetrate discrimination and inequality in various harmful ways throughout the world. Gender insensitivity harms women and men, boys and girls.

We have come very far in the pervasiveness of the phrase gender mainstreaming. Let’s not stop at this. Now that gender mainstreaming is on the agenda, it must be discussed, developed, researched and implemented. And it is up to the gender specialist to lead the way. But more importantly, it is up to the employer to hire a gender specialist who is well-versed in the issues and who has a stated personal interest in being the advocate for gender issues.

Just because a key phrase appears in a cover letter does not mean that an applicant is well-versed in that issue - just as putting gender sensitivity on the agenda does not mean that it will be followed through. They may however, be starting points for good gender specialists and truly gender sensitive policy.