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.