Defining Gender Equality

April 24th, 2009 by Pelle Billing

For an expression that is much talked about, you rarely come across a clear definition of what gender equality actually means. I’m pretty sure different people mean very different things when talking about gender equality, and many people probably aren’t even aware of exactly what they mean.

Not defining words properly is a sure recipe for discussions and debates that lead nowhere, and heated arguments that are as passionate as they are meaningless.

I believe that by defining what we mean by gender equality, we can avoid intellectual sloppiness, and clarify our own beliefs in this area. Furthermore, you cannot hit a target unless you know what the target is, and for most people gender equality is a desired outcome.

My definition of gender equality rests on five different pillars:

1. Men and women have the same intrinsic value

I’m hoping that you find it self-evident that men and women have the same intrinsic value. This is simply the basic moral insight that all people have the same intrinsic value, regardless of race, sex, religion, sexual orientation, etc.

2. Men and women are equally valuable to society


Are men and women equally valuable to society? I guess you could try to make the case that either gender is more valuable, but the burden of proof would rest squarely on you. Research has shown that the male and female brains are sometimes good at different things, but there is no overall difference in brain capacity. This indicates that the two genders have equal potential to be valuable.

Men and women still have very or somewhat different roles in most societies, with men more often fulfilling roles in the public sphere, and women more often fulfilling roles in the private sphere. Regardless of whether you think this will change in the future or not, and regardless of whether you find this division of labor desirable or not, I’d say it’s safe to presume that men and women are equally valuable to society.

Society would not function without the roles that men perform or without the roles that women perform.

3. Men and women should have equal rights and responsibilities

The important thing to note here is that rights and responsibilities go hand in hand. If you want to claim a right for yourself, you should be prepared for an accompanying responsibility. As the economists are fond of saying: “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”.

A good starting point for making sure that men and women have equal rights is to check that legislation and public policy are gender neutral. If either sex has responsibilities that the other one doesn’t have (such as the draft or military service), or if either sex has rights that the other one doesn’t have (such as access to women’s shelters), then we need to take a closer look at those imbalances.

4. An absence of discrimination (a k a equal opportunities)

Discrimination is a word that is used frequently in gender discussions, especially when talking about the labor market. But what is and isn’t discrimination? How do we define it?

Discrimination simply means judging someone by their race, gender, religion, sexuality or age – instead of judging them for their competence. The definition is very simple, but implementing it can be a lot harder!

Sometimes the word discrimination is used incorrectly. For example, you can hear people say that women are discriminated against if they don’t have 50 percent of the important positions in society. However, that is not discrimination unless you can show that men who are less qualified than competing women are given the top jobs.

As long as competence determines who gets a job, we may have 80 percent women in a certain workplace or 70 percent men, without any discrimination occurring. Read more about discrimination in this dedicated post.

5. Realizing that equality need not mean sameness

Equality between the sexes means that the sexes are valued equally, and given equal opportunities, as outlined above. But this need not mean that men and women become the same! Men and women may 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.

We know that biological differences between the sexes exist, but we do not yet know to what extent these differences would influence the choices of women and men in a culture that allows you to go beyond stereotypes.

However, 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. By dropping the criterion of sameness, gender equality becomes much more achievable, and does not limit individual freedom.

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12 Responses to “Defining Gender Equality”

  1. Bj0rnborg Says:

    Once again, very well put. Unfortunately I have nothing meaningful to add. :)
    At least at the moment.

  2. Danny Says:

    5. Realizing that equality need not mean sameness
    This is a big one. Every once in a while I see a feminist chime off something like, “When 50% of politicians are women then we’ll have equality.” and then turn their nose up as if they are above reproach. What they either don’t realize or refuse to acknowledge is that equal opportunity does not mean the same thing as equal results.

    Just saying that there isn’t a 50/50 gender split in politicians alone is not proof of sexism (if it it is then lack of 50/50 gender split in teachers is proof of sexism). One has to actually show some proof or evidence as to why that lack of 50/50 split is due to sexism.

    This also relates to the wage gap. Shouting that women only make 77 cents to men’s dollar doesn’t mean anything until there is something to show that the 23 cent difference is a result of sexism.

  3. Jim Says:

    “When 50% of politicians are women then we’ll have equality.”

    Then other big problem with claiming that this is some kind of evidence of Patriarchy at work is that in the US at least in most voting juridictions, women are the majority of voters, so in this case this is a Patriarchy run by women.

    That doesn’t mean that there isn’t sexism at play. I think women can be horribly sexist towards other women, just as it is ususally men who establish the sexist lwas and policies that harm men.

    As for the wage gap, it has been very heartening to see that President Obama has brought this up, and framed it as “women EARN only [whatver percentage] less than men. It is indeed the difference in EARNINGS that needs to be addressed.

  4. Pelle Billing Says:

    Danny:
    Just saying that there isn’t a 50/50 gender split in politicians alone is not proof of sexism (if it it is then lack of 50/50 gender split in teachers is proof of sexism). One has to actually show some proof or evidence as to why that lack of 50/50 split is due to sexism.

    Excellent point.

    I wonder when people will start requiring some sort of evidence for feminists to be allowed to claim various things?

  5. Just a metalhead Says:

    Agree again here, equality is not parity and parity is not equality. On a left-wing forum (under a different pseudonym) I had once said that it wasn’t reasonable, when you saw a statistical unbalance in an occupation, to directly conclude from that element alone that this was a result of discrimination and sexism. I said that it could be a hint, but that only an in-depth analysis of the situation could reveal if this was so. I also added that if you impose parity, you are then denying people their individuality and telling them that they have a duty to their sex/gender to do X or Y instead of what they may have preferred to do, which was both sexist and a form of discrimination.

    Oh, how it pissed them off, if I hadn’t been an established member of the forum, I’m not sure if they would have resisted the urge to ban me.

    I think one of the problem is that they are applying a kind of marxist class analysis to gender, something that, to my mind, makes no sense. Gender and social class are two different things, one is rooted in biology (both cisgender and transgender will tell you that they didn’t choose to be male or female) the other is merely a social hierarchy.

  6. Pelle Billing Says:

    metalhead:
    I think one of the problem is that they are applying a kind of marxist class analysis to gender, something that, to my mind, makes no sense.

    Very well put, I had never put that label on feminist rhetoric, but you are spot on.

  7. Jim Says:

    Pelle,

    “I had never put that label on feminist rhetoric”

    Feminst rhetoric has always appropriated both the terminlogy and moral self-righteousness of Marxism and the methods and rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement in the US. It has been tis way since the mid-60′s with the very beginnings of the Women’s Liberation movement.

  8. Pelle Billing Says:

    Jim,

    I agree. The funny thing is that I’ve consciously explored how feminists have tried to hijack the (honorable) rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement (for example here), but I’ve never consciously made the connection to Marxism.

  9. Genevie Digeorgio Says:

    The difficulty with Plr items is the fact that most people don’t use it in the right way. They need to either make use of it to generate suggestions for topics to write about or maybe fully re-write it or spin and rewrite it and then put his or her own brand on it.

  10. krishna Says:

    these will help the economy to develop but more publicity is to be done

  11. purnima Says:

    Definition of the basic terms and concepts that form the basic of the study,GENDER this is defined as the fact of male and female….!!

  12. mathipi Says:

    5. Equality need not mean sameness

    This is the right explanation of gender equality. Everyone has its own taste and character. It’s not necessarily all same in nature or morphologically look alike. Functionally difference in societies, public arena and so on did not mean both sexes not equal. It’s equal in diversity. The importance both sexes in a family is crucial. Family completes when both together, means equal in nature but different in roles they play. One will make mistake if think both must do the same job! Parity in sex shows not satisfied upon his/her nature.


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