Equality Need not Mean Sameness

March 20th, 2009 by Pelle Billing

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?

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26 Responses to “Equality Need not Mean Sameness”

  1. Danny Says:

    …tend to think that the sexes will remain unequal until half the CEOs are women and both sexes behave in the exact same way.
    I think its also worth noting the other side of the coin such people don’t talk about. If we have achieved gender equality when high positions like CEOs and public offices are 50/50 by gender does that assertion extend to EVERY occupation? Military Infantry, school janitors, electricians, cops, sewer workers, oil rig workers, etc. Won’t all of those jobs need to be 50/50 by gender as well?

    Gender equality needs to be about giving women and men more choices, not imposing new stereotypes of how each sex should behave.
    Precisely. Equal opportunity and equal outcome are not the same thing.

  2. Pelle Billing Says:

    Danny, excellent point about the male jobs that aren’t attractive. I’m against affirmative action, but if we have affirmative action for the attractive male jobs, then we should have it for the unattractive male jobs too.

    It’s amazing how feminism only deals with male advantages and female disadvantages, and then proclaims that men are privileged…

  3. MarkD Says:

    “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?”

    Yes to both. I was #4 of 5 brothers (0 sisters) and was always fascinated with girls as strange and somehow “nice” creatures. Understandably, my mother wished some of us had been girls and I responded to that unspoken wish by attempting to be “nicer” than my brothers. She liked that and I got positive feedback for it. One way or another I got the message that girls were better than boys, and to some degree, bought that message.

    My father, meanwhile, was a little worried by some “feminine” mannerisms he observed in me and was extremely happy when I became interested in girls. But neither parent encouraged any interests, vocational or otherwise, that weren’t respectably masculine. I’m not blaming them but any interests which I have shown in beautifying my home, unless under the “artistic direction” of a spouse, were always suspect.

    It was OK to rip out a wall to make one large bedroom out of two, but for me to attend to the interior decoration of that new bedroom was rather suspect. These attitudes were quite in line with those of society in general and I often thought that in some future time I would have had a much wider choice of vocations and hobbies – as well as of wives and girl friends!

    If we look deeper at these dynamics, I think we could see as much “classism” as “sexism” at play here.

  4. unomi Says:

    @Pelle

    It’s amazing how feminism only deals with male advantages and female disadvantages

    No, it’s not. It’s human nature. Look at any other civil rights movement, and you will find that they focus on their disadvantages and not areas of relative advantage. This is why we need more men to speak out about what is wrong with the male gender role, because it is extremely unlikely that anybody else is going to do it for them.

  5. Bj0rnborg Says:

    Unomi:
    But if, as you say, feminism is only interested in female issues, and not male issues, they can never claim to work towards equality. Consequently, governments should disregard the feministic perspective and choose a perspective that accurately describes the situation for ALL its citizens before deciding on actions. Affirmative action would for instance never have been created.

    The problem here is that the female situation, and the male situation, is interdependant. You can never view, ananlyze or change one withouth affecting and/or include the other. Beeing interested in female issues, feminism have spent alot of time describing (slander) masculinity for instance, because its the mirror they use to judge their own situation.

    The only way to truly achieve equality is thus to have a school of thought, a movement, that gives both the male and the female perspective equal weight. As has been discussed elsewhere, the first step towards this is either to scrap feminism alltogether and start up a genderliberationmovement, or to change feminism to include the male perspective and removing the gynocentricity that plagues feministic theories today.

    I understand that giving up this power of prerogative is hurtful to feminists. They are used to the von oben perspective, beeing hegemoneous, beeing able to dictate the agenda and hog governmental resources. Nonetheless, if they are honest in their will to create a better, truly equal society, this is what they will have to do. So far, precious few seems willing to even discuss problems with feminism, wich leads to an ever increasing feeling that feminism gave up on equality long ago, and are now busy with female empowerment solely. In other words, female chauvunism.

  6. unomi Says:

    Consequently, governments should disregard the feministic perspective and choose a perspective that accurately describes the situation for ALL its citizens before deciding on actions.

    Governments should take into account a variety of perspectives, including different types of feminism, before deciding on a course of action. There will never be a one-size-fits-all view on gender, that is not how a democracy works.

  7. Pelle Billing Says:

    Unomi,

    Yes, governments should take into account a variety of perspectives, but different kinds of feminism do not qualify as a variety of perspectives in the gender field!

    Feminists love to smugly state that feminism is the radical notion that women and men are equal, however, once you start pushing them and demonstrate how feminism ignores men or even preoccupies itself with male-bashing they suddenly change their definition and claim that feminism is women’s studies and women’s liberation, and therefore do not need to bother about men.

    I agree with feminisms own admission that feminism is gynocentric, it is obvious to the point that stating something else is ludicrous; but I doubt that feminism would get all the government grants it does if that definition was stated when applying for grants. Whenever advising the government or getting lots of money from the government feminism pretends to be the movement that’s fighting for gender equality, and not supporting feminism will mean that you’re not supporting gender equality. Now what kind of politician will want to be the person who’s opposing gender equality?

    This is why the emerging gender liberation movement has three important tasks:
    1. Giving the missing perpective of men (i.e. the horrors of the male gender role that haven’t been discussed in society)
    2. Exposing feminism for what it is: women’s liberation (IOW more or less half of the gender issues)
    3. Creating a movement that cares about the situation of both sexes, and that realizes that gender equality will never come about without making it possible for both sexes to evolve and giving both sexes more choices.

  8. Pelle Billing Says:

    Mark,

    Thank you for your real life example. It’s a shame that men with “feminine” interests are viewed with scepticism; that is a testament to how narrow the male gender role is. It’s much easier for a young girl to be interested in “masculine” hobbies, ask any tomboy.

  9. unomi Says:

    policy makers [...] tend to think that the sexes will remain unequal until [...] both sexes behave in the exact same way.

    Really? I don’t think I have ever heard anyone say that.

    Also, I think that if mainstream politicians were that serious about getting rid of gender stereotypes, the people trying to transcend them would not face violence and, sometimes, pay with their lives.

  10. Bj0rnborg Says:

    Really? I don’t think I have ever heard anyone say that.

    Have you never heard feminists talk about the wage gap for instance? Or parental insurances?

    Governments should take into account a variety of perspectives, including different types of feminism, before deciding on a course of action. There will never be a one-size-fits-all view on gender, that is not how a democracy works.

    Considering less than 20% of the swedish population holds a feministic view (and most of those are note radicalfeminists), in a democratic society like sweden having state-feminism is undemocratic. I agree. Ofcourse government should take into account diffrent perspectives, so its totally flabbergasting that so many western governments have legalized affirmative action. Or unequal treatment based on gender (based on femenistic theories of patriarchy), such as giving females higher grants in a number of diffrent situations.

  11. Danny Says:

    Unomi:
    This is why we need more men to speak out about what is wrong with the male gender role, because it is extremely unlikely that anybody else is going to do it for them.

    I can appreciate this message. Because I find very aggrevating (and somewhat hypocritical) when feminists will on one hand declare that feminism is about women first but will then say that men should embrace feminism because it will solve their issues (after women’s issues of course).

    I’m all for men speaking up for themselves I guess the feminists that want men to embrace feminism want them to do so so that they will suddenly realize that their own issues don’t matter and put their energy into the “real issues”.

    So while I don’t always agree with you Unomi I’m glad to see that you aren’t trying to “set men right” by telling us we should embrace feminism in hopes of resolving our issues.

  12. Jim Says:

    “No, it’s not. It’s human nature. Look at any other civil rights movement, and you will find that they focus on their disadvantages and not areas of relative advantage. This is why we need more men to speak out about what is wrong with the male gender role, because it is extremely unlikely that anybody else is going to do it for them.”

    This is a keeper, unomi. I agree 100% that is has to be men making these criticisms, because women simply don’t have and can’t have any credibility when it comes to this issue. I also don’t see how feminism, even male feminsts, can have anything of value to say on matters of masculinities, any more than a feminsts should listen to an MRA on feminities – neither approach has the conceptual tools to deal with these questions.

  13. Danny Says:

    Jim:
    …neither approach has the conceptual tools to deal with these questions.
    But you gotta love the arrogant and presumptuous nature of those that think they can. There’s not a lot of things funnier than watching a feminist in one breath tell men what they need to do (usually followed by spamming the reminder that men “need to embrace feminism”) and in that same breath tell men they have no business telling women what they need to do.

  14. Jim Says:

    OK, Danny, rthat’s all true, but there are two things to avoid: dropping to their level and making the same mistakes, and contorting our analysis to answer all their errors. Sometimes the more you stir shit, the more it stinks and that’s all there is to it.

    I have said elsewhere that very often a person’s ideology is just a pathology in drag. Well, sometimes it’s not, and then it can be really valid and useful. The same applies to feminism. So when women presume to lecture men on masculinity, overlook that, in all mercy, and concentrate on the worthwhile things they have to say.

    Let me add something that may mitigate the way that last sounds. I don’t have a daughter. If I did, I would have a lot to say about feminities and the way they were affecting my child. A mother has the same stake in masculinities. But disinterested, dehumanizing academics who operate in the abstract don’t have that right. They are just vampirizing on other people’s lives.

    Lots of boys love to bash into each other on football fields; lots of little girls love to go to Hannah Montana shps and get all tarted up – and lots of dads and moms not only enable that but encourage it. Well, pit bulls love to fight to the death in dogpits – that’s no excuse. And sometimes it’s up to the opposite sex parent to put the squash on the bullshit. But that is the prerogative of a parent, not some self-appointed claque of high-minded “advocates.”

  15. Pelle Billing Says:

    Unomi:
    “This is why we need more men to speak out about what is wrong with the male gender role, because it is extremely unlikely that anybody else is going to do it for them.”

    Others have already pointed out what a great comment this is, and I agree. In fact, the reason I run this blog is because I’m dedicated to speaking out about the male gender role, thereby making the gender debate more whole.

    As it turns out, men aren’t used to complaining, since it is considered “unmanly” to do so. This means that men need to transcend aspects of their own gender role in order to speak out against it.

    I think that the evolution of gender roles will be unable to gain any significant momentum until the awareness of male issues reaches a critical mass.

    Pelle

  16. Jim Says:

    Pelle, in a lot of cultures complaining is not only considered unmanly, it is considered non-adult. Women who cry are considered babies just the same as men – weaklings with no self control. This describes to some extent the culture I grew up in. You could cry because you had to cry sometimes, the same way you had to take a shit sometimes, male or female, but it wasn’t some priveleged way of communicating your “lived experience” or whatever jargon is currently fashionable.

    That was the sense I got of Swedish culture too, 35 years ago. Things have changed obviously.

  17. Bj0rnborg Says:

    I guess I will be the one that disagrees then.

    ““This is why we need more men to speak out about what is wrong with the male gender role, because it is extremely unlikely that anybody else is going to do it for them.”

    Feminists are constantly talking about what is wrong with the male genderroll.

    But I agree its time that MEN take control of our own situation, how we are defined, how we want to evolve and free ourselves, not having a gynocentric feminism do it for us. Because they are. Very poorly and unempathically.

    This is why we need more men to speak up, not only about what is harmful to men with the male genderroll, but about what is harmful to men with feminism; because its extremely unlikely that feminists will bother with either.

    I also agree with Pelle that to accomplish this men need to transcend their genderroll. Wich is an interesting paradox. Yet it is happening all over the place.

  18. Michael Grove Says:

    In the context of the fact that I have come to believe that DESTINY IS that which one discovers … IF every opportunity, with which you are faced, IS responsibly acted upon in all humility and that FATE IS what you are faced with if you don’t …

    My own views on the entirety of “equality need not mean sameness” and its multitudinous facets and consequences, are based entirely on the idea that ….

    1. rights should ONLY be endowed as a consequence of each and every individual assuming responsibility for the his/her’s own ACTIONS of INTEGRITY.

    2. within an internetwork of equitable thinking environments.

    3. based on a “scaleable” core model of five males and five females and an “executive” quorum of ANY six of that group of ten, be it in any combination between five women & one man and five men & one woman.

  19. Silke Says:

    Absolutely!! “Equality need not mean sameness” – realistic and wise approach… since looking for (the impossible) sameness can only create conflict and separation….. whereas equality in the context of differences includes the notion of “acceptance of the differences” or “equally acceptance of difference”…. the beauty of the differences and – as you said, Michael – the infinite combination of differences creating new nuclear entities. Like it!!!

  20. Pelle Billing Says:

    Thank you for your comment Silke, and you Michael :)

  21. Defining Gender Equality Says:

    [...] would start making exactly the same choices, even in a society that is completely open-minded. By dropping the criterion of sameness, gender equality becomes much more achievable, and does not limit individual [...]

  22. Ann Ekman Says:

    Dear Pelle!

    We have gender equality when any person regardless of her or his gender is able to choose to be and do what he or she likes! We have gender equality when both mens and womens values, priorities and experience is influencing the development of our world equally. I don´t understand why this about being alike or being different is an issue at all! It´s not up to you to tell me to be feminine or masculine or to me to tell you what to be! This fixation on that issue makes me wonder if your agenda is to secure your priviliges that you know, even though you deny this, that you have as being men, traditionally. But things will change, and you want change, and that is a matter of give and take. You can´t change society without being prepared to loose something too.

  23. Feminism and chivalry Says:

    [...] mean that chivalry is dead in a society with gender equality? Not necessarily. If a society equates gender equality with gender sameness, then chivalry is indeed dead. Contemporary feminism usually claims that all differences between [...]

  24. Lisa Says:

    It’s much easier for a young girl to be interested in “masculine” hobbies, ask any tomboy.

    Even though females can get away with masculine traits in other aspects of life, they can’t do it in dating and relationships, like asking for dates, paying for dates, expressing feelings of commitment, etc. If they do, they’re seen as “easy”, “desperate”, or “hooker” or worst of all, they get punched or even thrown around by the guy.

  25. Danny Says:

    Ann:
    ” You can´t change society without being prepared to loose something too.”

    Now if only feminists would practice this as much as they preach it at men…

  26. catch Says:

    If “Equality between the sexes simply means that men and women have equal rights, responsibilities and opportunities” then things such as chivalry and “ladies first” should be eliminated, since women should have the same “responsibilities” to sacrifice for men as men do for women. That is why feminists are due no chivalry or other preferred treatment usually reserved for ladies.


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