Mainstreaming equality implies that equal opportunities principles, strategies and practices should be integrated into all aspects of the work of government and public bodies. The strategy is supported by the United Nations, the Commonwealth governments, the Council of Europe and many governments world-wide. Mainstreaming also has implications for participative democracy, since it implies that wide consultation of individuals and groups should take place before legislation is passed to ensure that it is 'equality proofed' (Council of Europe, 1998; Rees, 1998; Mackay and Bilton, 2000). Mainstreaming has been promoted particularly strongly by devolved governments and within Europe (Mackay and Bilton, 2001, Rees, 2001). Following the European Employment Directive, which outlaws discrimination in relation to gender, race, disability, sexual orientation, age and religion, the UK government has announced its intention to move towards a mainstreaming approach, replacing the existing equality commissions with a new single equalities body.
The justification for this move is that:
- Individual identity is complex, not unitary. Therefore, if an individual has experienced discrimination in relation to employment or some other aspect of their life, it may be difficult to know whether the unequal treatment has arisen as a result of their gender, disability, race etc.
- The principles which underpin equality in relation to all aspects of identity are fundamentally the same.
Although governments and some political groups are in favour of mainstreaming, a number of questions have been raised about its practicality and legitimacy. These include the following:
- There is a lack of clarity about the concept of mainstreaming and what it might entail, with some proponents defining it as a strategy whereby a concern with equality and identity permeates all aspect of policy-making and legislation, whilst others see it primarily in terms of the universal principles which should be applied to all aspects of equality policy (Rees, 1998; Woodward, 2001).
- A generic approach to equality may be theoretically flawed, since it is not clear that all equality groups face similar social, political and economic barriers. For example, the obstacles to full political participation encountered by women, black and disabled people may be quite different (Witcher, 2003).
- Even within particular equality fields (e.g. gender, disability, race), there are ongoing debates as to whether discrimination and inequality occur as a result of economic injustice or lack of political recognition (Young, 1990; Phillips, 1997). Mainstreaming equality policies may gloss over these very important debates both within and between a range of equality domains.
- A generic approach to a range of equality issues may reduce the political power of new social movements such as the disability movement, which has developed relatively recently and is still in the process of carving out its political terrain (Riddell and Watson, 2003). People are much less likely to mobilise round generic equalities than a specific aspect of identity such as gender, sexual orientation or disability.
- The single equalities body in the UK, which is the future vehicle for the delivery of the mainstreaming agenda, takes no account of social class, which in many fields such as education, health and employment is the social variable most strongly associated with unequal outcomes and life chances. There are concerns that the focus may be on ensuring that public bodies comply with statutory requirements, instead of addressing material outcomes.
- Existing equality legislation differs in significant ways, for example, the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) requires an individual to demonstrate that they are disabled under the terms of the Act, whereas sex and race equality do not have a similar requirement. Furthermore, the DDA, unlike sex and race discrimination legislation, permits discrimination on certain grounds. It is not evident that generic equality legislation will be feasible or effective.
- There is ongoing discussion about how the impact of equalities policies should be assessed. The process of social audit is criticised by some as overly managerialist, and there are disagreements about what categories and performance indicators should be used.