These days there’s a lot of confusion around what gender equality really means. Will we have reached gender equality when half of all CEOs are women? Or will we have reached gender equality when women and men are exactly the same except for their reproductive organs?
Unfortunately both of these criteria seem to be prevalent when judging whether the sexes are equal or not, and policy makers – at least in Sweden and many other countries – tend to think that the sexes will remain unequal until half the CEOs are women and both sexes behave in the exact same way.
Since we haven’t reached that point, affirmative action for women is seen as more or less acceptable. However, these “sameness criteria” have nothing to do with authentic gender equality, and instead introduce an element of confusion when discussing this subject.
Assuming that equality means sameness is inherently problematic since if you want men and women to make exactly the same career choices, family choices and lifestyles choices, then you are basically trying to fit individuals into your own preconceived notion of reality.
A Better Definition
Equality between the sexes simply means that men and women have equal rights, responsibilities and opportunities. According to this definition we need to remove all legal discrimination as well as break down stereotypes that prevent people from leading the lives that they want. Everyone should have equal access to education, the labor market, government grants, and so on. If you believe in this definition of equality, then all kinds of affirmative action are rejected, since affirmative action is a form of discrimination.
However, achieving this kind of gender equality need not mean that men and women become the same!
Men and women may very well continue to make different choices when it comes to work, family and hobbies – while still being perfectly equal. In fact, it is irrelevant to gender equality whether men and women make the same choices, as long as each man and each woman is truly free to choose whatever path seems right to him or her.
By dropping the criterion of sameness, gender equality becomes much more achievable, and does not limit individual freedom. Gender equality needs to be about giving women and men more choices, not imposing new stereotypes of how each sex should behave. And claiming that men and women can and should become completely similar is nothing but another kind of stereotype.
My Personal Opinion
We all know that men and women make different lifestyle choices, and this is generally seen as a sign of cultural programming and gender stereotypes having their way with individuals who are out of touch with their true desires.
I agree that cultural programming influences the choices of men and women in a very real way, however, I disagree with the assertion that all gender differences are culturally constructed. Research has shown that biological differences between the sexes exist, and in my opinion it would be naive to assume that men and women would start making exactly the same choices, even in a society that is completely open minded.
But you know what? I don’t even care if you agree with me on the biological differences between the sexes. As long as you defend the notion that equality means equal opportunities, rights and responsibilities – while rejecting affirmative action and other forms of discrimination – then we are basically working towards the same goal.
However, I will say this: I cannot help but find it offensive that many branches of feminism claim that all gender differences are culturally constructed. By saying this they basically claim that most people are out of touch with what they really want out of life, and that people allow themselves to be shepherded in whatever direction that stereotypes dictate.
Do you personally feel like your own life is 100 percent controlled by stereotypes and cultural structures, or are you able to make choices that go against that which is expected of you?