Global visions of environmental change consider gender equality to be a foundation of sustainable social-ecological systems. Similarly, social-ecological systems frameworks position gender equality as both a precursor to, and a product of, system sustainability. Yet, the degree to which gender equality is being advanced through social-ecological systems change is uncertain.

The authors use the case of small-scale fisheries in the Pacific Islands region to explore the proposition that different social-ecological narratives: (1) ecological, (2) social-ecological, and (3) social, shape the gender equality priorities, intentions and impacts of implementing organizations. They conducted interviews with regional and national fisheries experts (n = 71) and analyzed gender commitments made within policies (n = 29) that influence small-scale fisheries.

The authors developed a ‘Tinker-Tailor-Transform’ gender assessment typology. They find that implementing organizations aligned with the social-ecological and social narratives considered social (i.e., human-centric) goals to be equally or more important than ecological (i.e., eco-centric) goals. Yet in action, gender equality was pursued instrumentally to achieve ecological goals and/or shallow project performance targets.

These results highlight that although commitments to gender equality were common, when operationalized commitments become diluted and reoriented. Across all three narratives, organizations mostly ‘Tinkered’ with gender equality in impact, for example, including more women in spaces that otherwise tended to be dominated by men. Impacts predominately focused on the individual (i.e., changing women) rather than driving communal-to-societal level change.

The authors discuss three interrelated opportunities for organizations in applying the ‘Tinker-Tailor-Transform’ assessment typology, including its utility to assist organizations to orient toward intrinsic goals; challenge or reconfigure system attributes that perpetuate gender inequalities; and consciously interrogate discursive positions and beliefs to unsettle habituated policies, initiatives and theories of change.