Post No.: 0661
Gender equality signifies equal respect, rights and opportunities for everyone regardless of their gender identity – whether female, male, gender fluid, agender or whatever. Historically and presently when we talk about gender equality however, we chiefly mean crusading for women to have equality with men.
Sex refers to an individual’s biological characteristics; specifically their reproductive anatomy. Gender is more complex since it’s an identity-based social/cultural construct that represents how someone feels. The link between sex and gender is close yet they’re distinct constructs. For the vast majority of people, their assigned sex at birth and gender correlate (cisgender).
But for others, there’s heaps of pressure for their sex and gender to align. And even when they do, there are particular expectations regulating how people ‘ought to’ behave to meet gender expectations (e.g. women should dress, speak and behave like women, and men should dress, speak and behave like men) – otherwise they’ll be treated as abnormal and ostracised.
Sex is traditionally considered binary and we see this in everyday life, like on public toilet and changing room signs. Most children are identified at birth as either female or male, and then socialised or raised with that identification vis-à-vis how they’re dressed, the toys and activities they’re given to play, and the way in which they’re spoken to. This helps to perpetuate the gender binary, and discourages non-conforming behaviours. This is in some ways detrimental to both women and men (e.g. women should ‘know their place’, men shouldn’t cry but suffer silently).
Actually, even sex is complex because there are cases where the anatomical, chromosomal and/or hormonal characteristics are such that an individual is described as intersex because they don’t fix neatly into either the female or male sex category. There’s pressure for people to fit themselves into these binary boxes but – regardless of a person’s assigned sex at birth – non-binary, queer, gender fluid and other nuanced sex or gender identities are increasingly becoming more openly embraced; although not evenly across all cultures globally.
Some may even switch their gender identities within their lifetimes. Some may wish to transition their gender (transgender), and sometimes through permanent bodily change (transsexuals). Regarding the latter, their sexed body is altered as much as possible to conform to the gender with which they identify. This therefore suggests there’s a deep-seated need for many to have their gender expression be congruent with their sexed body (e.g. ‘I want to be a female in a female body’ rather than ‘I might have a male body but that doesn’t matter because self-identifying myself as a female is sufficient’). This reminds us that, although gender isn’t the same as sex, it’s very difficult to disentangle it from its associations with sex. And this link is important because many of the problems with gender inequality are in fact about sex inequality.
There are many competing feminist perspectives today despite them all sharing the fluffy ambition to tackle gender inequality. There have been a few so-called ‘waves of feminism’ so far in history – from the suffrage movement between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s, the resurgence in the 1990s, and the empowerment of women in the 2010s to today. Issues that remain to be tackled include sexism, discrimination, sexual harassment, stereotypes portrayed in the media, dissimilar access to education, support for menstruation and menopause, the sharing of domestic work, welfare policies, pay inequality, unequal representation in politics and senior roles in business, and more.
These problems are experienced in different ways in different countries. Some less-economically-developed countries need to prioritise resolving fundamental human rights issues, like the right to education for girls, before anything else like smashing ‘glass ceilings’. In certain cultures or religions, there are practices like female genital mutilation (FGM), non-therapeutic male circumcision, ‘chained wives’ and/or forced marriages (which shouldn’t be confused with arranged marriages). So-called ‘honour killings’ can occur if a girl refuses a forced marriage because it’s considered to bring shame to the family. How far should we respect long-standing local customs, traditions or religious beliefs if they oppose gender equality? And should our moral views be global and absolute or should they depend on the context? Regardless – where cultural practices strongly reject aspects of gender equality, it may pose risks to the personal safety of those who seek change. People can therefore stand up for themselves but it might cost them dearly, hence it’s not as easy as just telling and expecting discriminated individuals to stand up for themselves.
‘Liberal feminism’ broadly focuses on the equality of opportunity for all individuals (e.g. the right to vote and work), such as by removing barriers to participation (e.g. by providing childcare support to enable women to work). ‘Radical feminism’ meanwhile challenges the oppressive ‘patriarchy’ and structural male privilege – our social norms and institutions need to change because just giving equal rights won’t change gendered practices.
‘Othering’ is when some individuals or subgroups are defined and labelled as not fitting in within the expected norms of a group, which won’t only lead to them being discriminated against on a daily basis (e.g. female soldiers) but being treated differently in the eyes of the law (e.g. homosexuality is still outlawed in some countries). If one only sees certain genders in certain roles, positions or professions, it discourages other genders from entering those roles, positions or professions because they’ll be isolated and considered an ‘outsider’. This thus reinforces existing gender stereotypes.
Direct discrimination is something like not recruiting a woman because she is of childbearing age and may require time off work to start a family. Indirect discrimination is something like insisting that all employees shall work full-time despite no specific need for full-time contracts, as this would disproportionately discriminate against women because they’re more likely to need part-time roles to meet their domestic childcare responsibilities. Opportunity inequalities can therefore arise even if we treat everybody in exactly the same ways because different individuals have different needs. (It’s like arguing that’s it’s equally fair to give everybody solid foods, including babies!)
Thus achieving equality may not be as straightforward as simply allowing all genders (and ethnicities, etc.) to apply for job positions with equal opportunity. This is because of the barriers facing women (more than men) such as their commitments at home, which means that equality at work won’t be achieved unless there’s a commensurate shift in the roles played by mothers and fathers at home. Consequently, gender equity refers to the fairness of treatment according to the needs of each gender, which may mean differential treatment in order to achieve equality. This is the distinction between equality and equity. Equality can be viewed as the end goal, and equitable treatment as the means to achieve this. Meow.
Gender stereotypes are both descriptive (the preconceptions of how the genders supposedly behave) and prescriptive (the expectations of how each gender ought to behave). And if people behave in counter-stereotypical ways, they can face different kinds of unfavourable stereotyping and treatment.
Women are considered emotional and indecisive, and ‘men can’t multitask’. We expect leaders to be ‘masculine’ yet women should be ‘feminine’, and men to not show their feelings otherwise they’ll be pilloried as ‘soft’. Stereotypes don’t just create external but also internal barriers – others don’t expect us to deviate from these norms, and we don’t expect ourselves to either. Women as well as men can be complicit in perpetuating sexist expectations – many women still expect men to be the protector, provider, to not cry, they objectify men’s bodies, behave like gold-diggers and believe in ‘ladies first’, or expect other women to marry and have kids before they reach a certain age. Even the most feminist or equality-minded individual might slip into using gendered stereotypes occasionally because we’ve been raised and are surrounded by them (e.g. through our humour, which can also make us take the discrimination too lightly rather than seriously too). A derogatory stereotype is that all men can’t help but want to sleep with every woman they can; yet if a man is asexual, he’ll be mocked for not fitting that stereotype(!) Post No.: 0067 expressed how gender stereotypes are dumb!
‘Objectification’ is the act of reducing someone to a ‘thing’ that can be owned by others and instrumentally used, with the loss of their personhood and denial of their autonomy, agency and feelings. It usually means reducing someone to their body (parts) or appearance. A woman’s appearance is usually judged more than a man’s, leading to more women feeling aesthetically self-conscious. The ‘male gaze’ refers to how women in cinema are typically represented in ways that satisfy heterosexual male desires, which demonstrates an asymmetry of power. If women are reduced to their appearance then it’s maybe unsurprising that their opinions and intellect aren’t as highly valued, and all that means for their power. They need to work harder to be heard and heeded.
Sexual harassment can be defined as any kind of unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature. Reasons why victims may not report sexual harassment include the lack of specific legislation in some countries to support them, an organisational culture where unwanted sexual behaviour is considered normal and acceptable (or it’s rationalised as ‘just office jokes and banter’), not knowing who to report to, thinking that it’d cause more trouble than it’s worth, the lack of assistance and the fear of further victimisation or isolation from their colleagues, or the fear of backlash from the perpetrator (who could also be their boss – sexual harassment often occurs where there’s a power imbalance and a pressure to accept or even appear to enjoy the behaviour in order to retain one’s career position or achieve progression). It can occur online too, by being sent sexually-explicit materials and demeaning messages. One complication is that there’s a subjective element to low-level forms of sexual banter – what’s degrading, humiliating or intimidating to one person may be flirtatious to another, depending on who said/did it and in what context.
When it comes to fighting for gender equality – activism, charities, social media campaigns and education will continue to play their part, as they have in securing equal voting rights, providing contraception, bringing systemic harassment in industries to light or mobilising mass movements, and opening the horizons of what children believe they can grow up to become, for example.
Men should stand in solidarity with women in seeking a gender-equal world. (Equality benefits men too – when the chores and childcare are shared, women feel more in the mood for sex!) Well there’s discrimination against all genders in different ways so all genders must act to support all genders. More equal countries score higher in happiness indexes.
Individuals, couples and families must adapt. Systems and structures that reinforce gender inequality must change. The media must be mindful of what it portrays. Organisational and workplace action can mobilise resources and implement sanctions for inappropriate behaviours. Governments and schools can give clear indications as to what’s acceptable through legislation and policy. Policymakers, lawmakers, employers, employees, teachers, parents, religious leaders… all must be involved rather than think that gender inequality is no longer an issue, or exists but is inevitable.
Employee-led initiatives and trade unions can help empower the disadvantaged. Quotas can be fair to promote de facto equality for discriminated groups; but some might believe that someone only got a job for being female (or an ethnic minority member, etc.) rather than on merit. Gender-pay-gap reporting is supposed to expose the pay inequalities within organisations; although this has yet led to widespread pay convergences. Unconscious bias training cannot just be a one-off exercise and must be supported by appropriate organisational policies and practices. Better than diversity training workshops is for organisations to redesign their processes to prevent biased choices in the first place (e.g. by assessing anonymised job applications).
Meow. Basically – much progress has been made, many things are happening, but more still needs to be done!