The research

This programme aims to improve our understanding of the gender dynamics of institutional change and reform.


Understanding how institutions work is an important priority for all, whether they are academics, politicians or policy-makers. It is particularly important if we want to change institutions or understand why attempts to change and reform institutions have not worked as well as had been hoped.

It is also significant for gender equity. There have been big changes in recent years in the position of women. But many institutions – such as the judiciary, parliaments and governments - are still male-dominated, despite efforts to change this situation.

This research examines some of these efforts to change institutions and try to explain their outcomes. To do this, it looks at the formal changes in rules and structures and the informal norms and practices that may have an impact (both positively and negatively) on attempts to change institutions.

It looks specifically at:

  • Institutional displacement: The creation of new institutions (often at the same time as old ones are swept away).
  • Institutional layering: Cases where new institutions have been added on to existing ones – so that new and old institutions co-exist together, for example, new state agencies.
  • Institutional conversion: Cases where actors attempt to reform institutions from the inside using the existing rules and norms so that existing institutions act in different ways.

The research aims to improve our understanding of processes of institutional design and reform and to be of use to academics and those involved in creating and changing institutions.

Methodology and approach

The project investigates empirically five examples of different forms of institutional creation, continuity and change using an approach informed by New Institutionalist and gender scholarship (including feminist institutionalist work).

The five have been chosen to provide contrasting cases in different institutional arenas and at different levels, including single case and cross-national comparison. The research uses a range of methods including quantitative statistical analysis, semi-structured elite interviews with key informants, participant observation, and the analysis of primary and secondary literature.

Work packages

The creation of new institutions: post-conflict settlements

The project

We examined the creation of new institutions (institutional displacement) at a time of rupture. A horizontal comparison looked at how national-level post-conflict institution building in the constitutional/legal arena is gendered. Also how gender concerns can be incorporated into settlements, helping to ensure their equity and sustainability.

The research assessed how critical actors can get gender concerns included. By exploring how existing norms, rules and practices - both formal and informal - constrain actors. Also, examining the broader institutional context and processes in which post-conflict settlements are negotiated and designed.

Using a quantitative overview of post-conflict settlements, the research analysed South Africa, Bosnia, and Northern Ireland. Each with varying levels of involvement by women actors and different gender outcomes. A comparative analysis explored the circumstances that help women’s involvement and determine different outcomes. The cases share characteristics eg they were high profile settlements reached at a similar time. In Northern Ireland and South Africa, women actors were involved in the negotiations with positive outcomes in gender terms. Bosnia had no women's involvement in the negotiations and gender issues did not figure in the institutional settlements.

The project compared the context, the conflict and peace processes and the constitutional outcomes in all cases. It has analysed the negotiations and the institutional processes where women actors had an impact on outcomes. The quantitative part has built on innovative work undertaken by the Institute of Transitional Justice, University of Ulster. Qualitative methods were used to gather primary and secondary data for the three in-depth case studies (secondary literature, documentary sources and interviews in the UK and other case study countries).

Duration: September 2012 to 2014

Key people

Principle investigator: Georgina Waylen.

Research Associate: Laura McLeod.

Key publications


The creation of new institutions at multiple levels

The project

We examined cases of institutional displacement in the constitutional/legal area at subnational, national and international levels. Two external experts were team members in this collaborative project.

The Scottish parliament - a new institution created as part of a larger process of devolution - provided the subnational case (Prof Fiona Mackay, Edinburgh University).
The new constitutional court in South Africa - a key part of the transition to a constitutional democracy - provided the national level institution (undertaken by Rachel Johnson).
The International Criminal Court in The Hague was the new institutional form at the international level (Prof Louise Chappell, University of New South Wales).

This project examined the extent to which 'new' institutions are 'new' in their rules, norms and practices. Also, how they remain embedded in pre-existing institutional forms and practices ('nested newness'). It explored the proposition that new institutions offer more opportunities for the creation of more 'gender-friendly' institutions if certain other conditions are fulfilled.
We looked for differences and similarities between the cases as determining the key factors. The role of key actors and their interaction with institutional structures was an important part of the research. The data collected is qualitative, using archival, documentary and interview sources.

Duration: November 2012 to October 2014.

Key people

  • Prof Georgina Waylen.
  • Prof Louise Chappell (external team member, University of New South Wales).
  • Prof Fiona Mackay (external team member, University of Edinburgh).
  • Research associate: Dr Rachel Johnson.

Key publications


How can the experiences of women negotiators help us to achieve equity in times of change? - Laura McLeod and Rachel Johnson.

The creation of new institutions through layering

The project

This work package has examined the creation of new institutions that have been layered on top of existing institutions in two separate research projects.

In the first project, team members, Professor Francesca Gains (University of Manchester) and Professor Vivien Gains (University of Birmingham) investigated Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs), a new institution that was layered on to existing local police structures in England. Their creation was part of the Conservative party’s election manifesto in 2010 and the first ones were elected in 2012. PCCs were new governance structures intended to increase participation, accountability and democracy. This research has investigated the role that gender plays in PCCs. It has examined how entrenched norms, rules and procedures have played out in this new institution and its policy outputs. The research has asked whether informal norms have changed to match changes in formal structures.

In the second project, UIC PhD student, Leah Culhane, has examined the introduction of electoral gender quotas as a new layered institution that was used for the first time in the Republic of Ireland in 2016. Leah Culhane has explored how far the quotas have disrupted existing patterns of male dominance that has long been reinforced by informal norms and practices at the local level, particularly surrounding notions of ‘localism’. These projects used a range of qualitative techniques such as participant observation and in-depth ethnographic work together with quantitative analysis.

Duration: October 2013 to September 2016.

Key people

  • Prof Francesca Gains.
  • Prof Vivien Lowndes (University of Birmingham).
  • PhD student Leah Culhane.

Key publications


Institutional conversion in the executive: Chile under Bachelet

The project

We investigated institutional conversion in the executive arena by examining the unusual case of a female-headed core executive. Chile's first woman president was elected in 2010 with an explicit gender agenda.

Preliminary research indicated that she could not create new institutions to help her achieve her aims, but used a strategy of conversion to attempt a change in her first presidency. We investigated the strategies, the use of pre-existing mechanisms like presidential decrees, constitutional tribunals and urgencies by which institutional change was both attempted and was blocked by opponents in her first presidency. It examined efforts to introduce change in several policy areas including welfare and reproductive rights. As well as changes to existing institutions such as strengthening the women's agency SERNAM and the Council of ministers for Equality of Opportunity.

The project considered the significance of the broader institutional context such as the strength of the Chilean core executive and emphasis on consensus within the political system since the transition to democracy. Finally, we assessed how far any changes outlasted the subsequent election of a right-wing president in 2010 and compared Bachelet’s first with her second administration elected in 2014. The methods employed to gather data were primarily qualitative, such as in-depth interviewing.

Duration: January 2015 to December 2016.

Key people

  • Principal investigator: 

    Georgina Waylen.
  • Research associate: 

    Carmen Sepulveda.

Key publications

Informal institutions in institutional creation, continuity and change

The project

The research in this work package had two elements.

First, the work package itself investigated informal institutions in the legislative arena. It examined the operation of two key informal institutions – disruption and expenses – in the South African and UK parliaments. Both institutions are impregnated with unwritten norms and conventions that are the subject of contestation. Both parliaments have also been subject to recent expenses scandals. The project assessed how far these expenses regimes can be understood as informal institutions and whether MPs participated in gendered ways, for example, whether male and female MPs had different expenses claims. The research has examined the outcomes of the expenses scandal in the UK and the attempts to reform/change and formalise any informal institutions. Disruption also occurs in both parliaments but takes very different forms according to the norms of each parliament. The project investigated how these different forms of disruption are gendered and how far they have changed since the transition in South Africa and the influx of new women MPs in the UK in 1997.

Second, the research undertaken in all the other Work Packages has also played a central role by feeding into and informing the UIC work on informal institutions, as the informal became a central theme in all the UIC research. Research conducted in WP5 was both qualitative, using participant observation within the chambers, documents and in-depth interviews as well as quantitative, analysing expenses claims.

Duration: 2 years.

Key people

  • Prof Georgina Waylen.
  • Prof Francesca Gains.
  • Research Associate: Faith Armitage.

Key publications

Theory building

The project

A key component of the UIC research has been the theory-building element which ran throughout the programme and came together in this WP.

Its work informed the establishment and development of the empirical projects in years 1-4 and the data gathered from these empirically-based projects have contributed to the development of an overarching analytical framework.

Informed by a feminist institutionalist approach, this work package, therefore, has brought together the findings of the empirically-based projects to consider the significance of changes and challenges to formal and informal rules, norms and practices resulted in different forms of gender institutional change. It has assessed the range of distributional consequences and the implications for strategies that aim to achieve positive gender change in a range of institutional contexts not just gender-specific institutions.

This project did not involve any primary research and Georgina Waylen, took the lead, with contributions from other team members. This work package has also contributed to the further development of feminist institutionalism.

Duration: June 2012 to May 2017.

Key person

  • Principal investigator: Georgina Waylen.

Key publications