Pushing forward gender equality on the EU agenda

This is a story about how a gender equality activist successfully influenced an internal process of the EU institutions. At the core of this impact story is a simple idea, brought to success through thorough knowledge of the system, careful planning, targeted networking, and the choosing of cause over self-recognition.



Anna-Kaisa Itkonen is an expert in European politics and climate action, as well as a gender equality activist. In 2017, she co-founded WeCan, an informal network enabling and empowering women in the EU. In 2018, WeCan launched a pledge for action across the EU institutions and EU members states, making an economic and societal progress case for gender equality in decision-making.


Once this pledge was made, Anna-Kaisa and her co-activists questioned: how can we follow up this pledge with concrete action? This is the story of how they did just that.

What happened?


Anna-Kaisa and her colleagues noticed that while gender equality was widely discussed in EU debates ahead of the elections, there was little funding dedicated to Brussels focused advocacy that would really push gender-equality agenda forward.

Consequently, the issue was underserved compared to multiple competing topics and agendas.


Anna-Kaisa decided to translate the broad issue of gender equality into a specific and focused goal: to get questions on gender equality into the confirmation hearings of the EU Commissioners-designate. In other words, she endeavoured to make gender equality a topic that the nominees for the 2019-2024 College of Commissioners had to answer to, in front of the Members of the European Parliament, who have the final vote of approval over the nominated candidates.


    1. Create a clear goal based on concrete action
    2. Know the system
    3. Leverage your network, but nurture it first
    4. Think outside the box
    5. Make it happen: aim for action, not self-recognition


How did this campaign become a success? Read on to hear our analysis of this impact story.

1. Create a clear goal based on concrete action.


This change-making project focused on a concrete and specific action.


Gender equality is a broad and layered topic. There are many aspects to it, and the EU is a large and multi-institutional body active in several policy areas. In order to make an impact, this campaign created a precise, clear and actionable goal.


The focused plan – that involved a singular event, within one EU institution – meant that the effort was concentrated into a precise point of impact. This increased the chances of success, and thus ultimately gave greater promise of positive change. And as we will see, the focused plan allowed the broad nature of gender equality to be noticed and embraced, not ignored.


But how do you find that simple idea, and how do you curate a plan that will take your idea to action? This story tells of a sure place to start: have a deep understanding of the system you are trying to influence.

2. Know the system


Anna-Kaisa knew and thoroughly understood the systems she was working with. This was already essential to establish a focused goal and a concentrated plan. Why choose to specifically target the hearings of the EU Commissioners-designate? Because this would be a point of high and achievable impact. 


What knowledge led Anna-Kaisa to this? 


First, she had an understanding of the EU processes: the appointments to the highly influential jobs of EU Commissioners were selected because they are carried out in public hearings – and not all influential positions within the EU are. 


Having an understanding of the system therefore enabled a solid plan. Once the goals were specifically identified, Anna-Kaisa determined key questions that needed answers before action. These were:


  • What is the timeline of the process – when is the best time to act?
  • Who prepares the hearings?
  • Who decides which questions will be asked at the hearings?


During the hearings of the EU Commissioners-designate, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) challenge the nominees with questions on certain topics. Anna-Kaisa knew that these are prepared for the MEPs by the Secretariats of their political groups as well as the various committees of the European Parliament – and this was the door she decided to wield the influence through.


Crucially, it was decided not to target Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) directly. Why? Because the period of nominating the EU Commissioner’s appointments and preparing the Parliamentary hearings coincide with the elections to the European Parliament, meaning MEPs are very busy campaigning, and their capacity to respond to and follow-up requests is very low at this time. (Understanding the system means not only knowing where to target action but also where not to – and thus save energy and time).


Finding answers to the preparatory questions supported the activists behind this campaign in developing a plan with the most impactful timing. To do this, they needed inside knowledge, which guided them in making productive and fruitful connections. This takes us to Point 3: appreciate your network.

3. Leverage your network, but nurture it first.


The answers to these questions would come from the inside. Anna-Kaisa’s campaign team, therefore, reached out to people they’ve known within their professional networks. They met for coffee with as many people as possible who could help them further. This included EU civil servants working in the Secretariats of parliamentary groups of the European Parliament.


In addition to sourcing answers to the preparatory questions, a well-established network was crucial, if not necessary, to push the success of this plan past the finish line. Whilst finding the right information is a start, how were the questions on gender-equality going to make their way into the final hearings? 

Anna-Kaisa maintained contact with her network within the Parliamentary groups throughout the process. Her contacts eventually agreed to look at and consider a list of questions that the team had put together. 


It was decided to propose 10-15 questions. But what were these to be? Also here, networking turned out to be the key, but more on this in point 4.


What is the secret of leveraging your network for successful change-making?


Part of this achievement was the relationships that Anna-Kaisa had built over the years. But is simply knowing the contact number of an influential someone going to get you success? No. What becomes clear through this story, is that building a network does not only mean gathering quantity of contacts in strategic places but must be founded on authentic connections that have been nurtured over time. 


This cannot be achieved by simply ringing up someone only when you need something. This takes regular meetings, in which people exchange information and genuinely support each other. It also helps if the ask you make is for the greater good, rather than a personal benefit – which we will discuss in point 5.


4. Provide high-quality input and think outside the box


Anna-Kaisa and the group behind this campaign knew that the questions they would propose needed to be of particular relevance to stand the greatest chance of making it to final selection. This is how they made this happen.

Each EU Commissioner leads on a specific EU policy portfolio, for example, climate, energy, transport, internal market, migration etc., (find a full list here). Gender equality, on immediate delegation, is incorporated in Directorate-General for Justice. However, Anna-Kaisa and this campaign team did not want to feed exclusively into this box, because gender equality is a horizontal policy issue. Instead, they aimed for questions that linked gender equality specifically to various policy areas of the EU Commission.


How was this step achieved?


This again came through a network of contacts: Anna-Kaisa contacted experts of various fields, such as agriculture, trade and energy, to discuss gender equality within their area of expertise. In this way, a broad range of unexpected and innovative questions was gathered, to form the list of questions that were finally put forward as proposals for the Commissioners-designate hearings.

5. Making it happen: aim for action, not self-recognition

Ultimately, the success of this campaign came down to putting the cause before self-recognition. What did this look like? 


Before and during EU elective periods, campaigning, lobbying and voices asking for change are at their height. Many of these take the form of open communications, such as press releases, social media campaigns, open letters etc. Instead of directing efforts towards this, the strength of this campaign came by working the cogs of the system behind the scenes, away from public view.


Anna-Kaisa leveraged her position, expertise and network towards clear and definitive action. Rather than raising noise and publicity, the team behind this campaign remained an anonymous force behind the process – at least until now, because we could not forgo shedding some light on this impressive change-making story and letting those who wish to change the world learn from it.

The goal was for change, not for recognition, and by building a strong and productive network, based on a thorough understanding of the system, and by working with quiet but strong motivation – the goal was achieved.

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Interview with Anna-Kaisa Itkonen

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