Gender equality

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One of generic symbols for gender equality

Gender equality, is also known as sex equality or sexual equality or equality of the genders, implies that men and women should receive equal treatment unless there is a sound biological reason for different treatment.[1] The concept based on the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ultimate aim is to provide equality in law and equality in social situations, especially in democratic activities and securing equal pay for equal work, and for example Equal Rights Amendment in United States.


The Shakers, a celibate evangelical group founded in America in 1774, practiced equality of the sexes soon after they began organizing into their own separatist enclaves. The head of the Shakers' central ministry in 1788, Joseph Meacham, had a revelation that the sexes should be equal, so he brought Lucy Wright into the ministry as his female counterpart, and together they restructured society to balance the rights of the sexes. Meacham and Wright established leadership teams where each elder, who dealt with the men's spiritual welfare, was partnered with an eldress, who did the same for women. Each deacon was partnered with a deaconess. Men had the oversight of men; women had the oversight of women. Women lived with women; men lived with men. In Shaker society, a woman did not have to be controlled or otherwise owned by any man. After Meacham's death in 1796, Wright was the head of the Shaker ministry until her own death in 1821. Going forward, Shakers maintained the same pattern of gender-balanced leadership for more than 200 years. They also promoted equality with women's rights advocates. In 1853, Shaker brother William Leonard wrote that Shakerism brought an end to the “degradation and oppression of WOMAN,” and suggested that the public discussion of woman’s rights, as well as other reforms, originated with Shakers and was due to their recognition of God as both male and female. In 1859, Shaker Elder Frederick Evans stated their beliefs forcefully, writing that Shakers were “the first to disenthrall woman from the condition of vassalage to which all other religious systems (more or less) consign her, and to secure to her those just and equal rights with man that, by her similarity to him in organization and faculties, both God and nature would seem to demand." Evans and his counterpart, Eldress Antoinette Doolittle, joined women's rights advocates on speakers' platforms throughout the northeastern U.S. in the 1870s. A visitor to the Shakers wrote in 1875, “Each sex works in its own appropriate sphere of action, there being a proper subordination, deference and respect of the female to the male in his order, and of the male to the female in her order [emphasis added], so that in any of these communities the zealous advocates of ‘women’s rights’ may here find a practical realization of their ideal.”[2] The Shakers were more than a radical religious sect on the fringes of American society; they put equality of the sexes into practice. They showed that equality could be achieved and how to do it.[3]

In the wider society, the movement towards gender equality, especially in Western countries, began with the suffragette movement of the late-19th century, which sought to allow women to vote and hold elected office.

There have been substantial changes to women's property rights, particularly in relation to their marital status. (See for example, Married Women's Property Act 1882.)

In the 1960s, a more general movement for gender equality developed based on women's liberation and feminism. The central issue was that the rights of women should be the same as men. continued to focus on specific issues.

Changes to attitudes to equality in education opportunities for boys and girls have also undergone a cultural shift.

Over time, there have been significant changes in attitudes which have resulted in more just legislation

Some changes came about by adopting affirmative action policies. The change has also involved changes to social views, including "equal pay for equal work" as well as most occupations being equally available to men and women, in many countries. For example, many countries now permit women to serve in the armed forces, the police forces and to be fire fighters – occupations traditionally reserved for men. Although these continue to be male dominated occupations an increasing number of women are now increasingly active, especially in directive fields such as politics and occupy high positions in business.

Similarly, men are increasingly working in occupations which in previous generations had been considered Women's work, such as nursing, cleaning and child care. In domestic situations, the biological differences between men and women in relation to activities related to child bearing are more commonly shared where possible, and the role of child rearing is not as widely considered to be an exclusively female role, so that a wife may be free to pursue her career after marriage and following childbirth.

Another manifestation of the change in social attitudes is the non-automatic taking by a woman of her husband's surname on marriage or combining names as in the Spanish naming customs.

Many people consider that the objective of gender equality has not been fully achieved, especially in non-Western countries. A highly contentious issue relating to gender equality is the role of women in religiously orientated societies. For example, the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam declared that women have equal dignity, but not equal rights, and this was accepted by many predominantly Muslim countries. In some Christian churches the practice of churching of women may still have elements of Ritual purification and the Ordination of women to the priesthood may be restricted or forbidden. Some Christians or Muslims believe in Complementarianism, a view that holds that men and women have different, but complementing roles. This view may be in opposition to the views and goals of gender equality.

In addition, there are also non-Western countries of low religiosity where the contention surrounding gender equality remains. In China, cultural preference for a male child has resulted in a shortfall of women in the population. Feminism in Japan has made many strides and resulted in in the Gender Equality Bureau, but Japan remains low in gender equality compared to other industrialized nations.

Not all ideas for gender equality have been popularly adopted. For example: despite Topfreedom the right to be bare breasted in public frequently applies only to males and has remained a marginal issue. Breastfeeding in public is more commonly tolerated, especially in semi-private places such as restaurants.[4]

However, this picture of Western progress with regards to gender equality can be seen as severely oversimplified. Indeed, it is the contentious meaning of the term "equality" itself that makes measuring gender equality "progress" inherently problematic. Newman and White suggest that equality can be understood in three distinct ways: identical treatment, differential treatment, and fair treatment.[5] Identical treatment is the claim that equality means the deployment of generalizing, abstract, content-less reason, unaffected with regards to the gender it addresses.[6] This view assumes that gender differences are entirely socially constructed concepts, and that an underlying, gender-neutral human should be the target of equality. Next, the differential treatment notion of equality is the claim that biological ("sex") differences do, in fact, exist as tangible and real, and that structuring treatment around these differences is not unequal, so long as these biological differences are accurately defined (that is to say, so long as differential treatment is not random).[7]

The third view, that equality is fair treatment, is in a sense a reaction to both of the previous two claims. Equality as identical treatment assumes that the criteria we use to define human nature is itself objective, neutral, and fair for each human, and differential treatment assumes that there are inherent, empirical, tangible, biological differences that the binary categories of male-female derive from. Theorists like Judith Lorber, Michel Foucualt, Judith Butler, and many more attack both of these essentialist stances, articulating that any claim to an underlying human nature is absurd. In short, this is because what it is to be a human is at bottom a product of constructive discursive discourses. As Judith Lorber puts the point: "the paradox of 'human nature' is that it is always a manifestation of cultural meanings, social relationships, and power politics".[8] Furthermore, theorists like Catharine MacKinnon claim that all circulating articulations of this fictitious "universal human" actually reflect socially male biases.[9] That is to say, unadulterated, objective, pure reason is merely a tacit disguise for patriarchal reinforcement. It is clear, then, how the identical treatment model fails on this view. Similarly, by this logic, the differential treatment is shown to merely use male rationality to define and construct the gender difference - as a result, true equality is precluded.

This tacit inequality in our sexual concept poses a particular problem, because Western Liberal Democracies are premised on descriptions of people that describe them as equal, yet this exists alongside a description of women and men that describes them in terms that makes them unequal. So the above claims of this article that "Non-Western" countries are less gender equal than Western countries must not be so quickly accepted. Since this acceptance of inequality in sexes is perceived as a natural difference between men and women, it thus permeates into society relatively undiagnosed. Disguised as objective, the subjective/biased nature of these claims for equal treatment become particularly difficult to address. This allows the state/laws to appear to be gender-neutral and universally applicable, while ignoring the backdrop of the underlying forces that have structured our legal system and personal cognition in such a way as to promote equality of opportunity for social category male at the price of inequality for social category female. As Judith Lorber says: "it is the taken-for-grantedness of such everyday gendered behaviour that gives credence to the belief that the widespread differences in what women and men do must come from biology".[10] On such a view, then, addressing equality must take on more than formal equality, and become "fair treatment".[5] That is to say, the male paradigm cannot be seen as natural and objective, thus bias and preference and affirmative action to address past discriminations to women should be seen as furthering equality. Lorber describes the "bathroom problem" to articulate the inequality of overarching, gender-neutral laws.[11] She articulates how men's bathroom norms are used as the standard by which to determine how many and how large public bathrooms should be. For various reasons, however, women make more frequent use of the bathrooms than men, and as a result there are too few bathrooms for women, and sufficient amount for men. ). This tacit structural underpinning of male dominance is particularly dangerous for it creates the space for certain instances of female oppression to be viewed and experienced as the woman’s choice. For instance, a woman might choose not to pursue a job that isn’t compatible with her domestic obligations, while ignoring the structure of the patriarchal family in assigning those domestic roles to her, and furthermore the structuring of workplaces that tacitly stream out women that have this domestic duty in virtue of their strict required hours or inflexibility with days off, etc. As such, the fair treatment model of equality addresses the weaknesses of purely formal/de jure equality in addressing such tacit structural and systematic inequality for women.

Efforts to fight inequality[edit]

World bodies have defined gender equality in terms of human rights, especially women's rights, and economic development.[12][13] UNICEF describes that gender equality "means that women and men, and girls and boys, enjoy the same rights, resources, opportunities and protections. It does not require that girls and boys, or women and men, be the same, or that they be treated exactly alike."[14]

The United Nations Population Fund has declared that men and women have a right to equality.[15] "Gender equity" is one of the goals of the United Nations Millennium Project, to end world poverty by 2015; the project claims, "Every single Goal is directly related to women's rights, and societies where women are not afforded equal rights as men can never achieve development in a sustainable manner."[13]

Thus, promoting gender equality is seen as an encouragement to greater economic prosperity.[12] For example, nations of the Arab world that deny equality of opportunity to women were warned in a 2008 United Nations-sponsored report that this disempowerment is a critical factor crippling these nations' return to the first rank of global leaders in commerce, learning and culture.[16]

In 2010, the European Union opened the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) in Vilnius, Lithuania to promote gender equality and to fight sex discrimination.

It is also worthy to note that gender equality is part of the national curriculum in Great Britain and many other European countries. Personal, Social and Health Education, religious studies and Language acquisition curricula tend to address gender equality issues as a very serious topic for discussion and analysis of its effect in society.

See also[edit]

General issues[edit]

Specific issues[edit]


Organizations and ministries[edit]

Historical anecdotal reports[edit]

Other related topics[edit]


  1. United Nations. Report of the Economic and Social Council for 1997. A/52/3.18 September 1997, at 28: "Mainstreaming a gender perspective is the process of assessing the implications for women and men of any planned action, including legislation, policies or programmes, in all areas and at all levels. It is a strategy for making women's as well as men's concerns and experiences an integral dimension of the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programmes in all political, economic and societal spheres so that women and men benefit equally and inequality is not perpetuated. The ultimate goal is to achieve gender equality."
  2. Glendyne R. Wergland, Sisters in the Faith: Shaker Women and Equality of the Sexes (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011).
  3. Wendy R. Benningfield, Appeal of the Sisterhood: The Shakers and the Woman’s Rights Movement (University of Kentucky Lexington doctoral dissertation, 2004), p. 73.
  4. Jordan, Tim (2002). Social Change (Sociology and society). Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-23311-3. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 Newman, Jacquetta A., and Linda A. White. Women, Politics, and Public Policy: The Political Struggles of Canadian Women. Don Mills, Ont.: Oxford UP, 2012. 14-15. Print.
  6. Ibid., 14.
  7. Ibid., 14.
  8. Kimmel, Michael S., and Amy Aronson. The Gendered Society Reader. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. 18. Print.
  9. Ibid., 17.
  10. Ibid., 16.
  11. Ibid., 14.
  12. 12.0 12.1 World Bank (September, 2006). Gender Equality as Smart Economics: A World Bank Group Gender Action Plan (Fiscal years 2007–10). 
  13. 13.0 13.1 United Nations Millennium Campaign (2008). "Goal #3 Gender Equity". United Nations Millennium Campaign. Retrieved 2008-06-01. 
  14. UNICEF. "Promoting Gender Equality: An Equity-based Approach to Programming". UNICEF. Retrieved 2011-01-28. 
  15. UNFPA (February 2006). "Gender Equality: An End in Itself and a Cornerstone of Development". United Nations Population Fund. Retrieved 2008-06-01. 
  16. Gender equality in Arab world critical for progress and prosperity, UN report warns, E-joussour (21 October 2008)

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