CLC Blog

CLC Blog

Question for the UN : What does Gender Equality Really Mean?

One of the most frustrating aspects of the ongoing Commission for the Status of Women (CSW) event (held this year from March 11 to March 22) and probably UN events in general, is the lack of clarity in the use of terms. For example, let’s take the term “gender equality”.

This can be understood in at least two ways, and during the week I attended this year's CSW it was never made clear which. The first way this term can be understood is equality of outcome, where equality is not attained until women represent 50% of the persons working in any given field. The other sense in which this term can be understood is equality of opportunity, where equality is attained in the case that all barriers to participation in any given field are removed for both men and women. In this case, a strict numerical 50-50 is neither wanted nor expected, since the proportion of women and men who freely choose a given field will depend on how that field corresponds to the dispositions and abilities of women or men in general. Take for example construction, or mining. We shouldn’t be surprised to see these fields dominated by men. On the other hand, we should not be surprised to see the fields of nursing or daycare numerically dominated by women. But in many cases western government representatives are uncomfortable with the fact that men and women, by their nature, might freely choose different fields. So when cornered on the fact that equality of opportunity might lead to a large disparity in the outcome, they fidget and mumble about how “unseen” factors or forces might be at play—not wanting to admit that men and women may be different, and that this would be, not an injustice, but an objective fact about the world, with real-world consequences.

To take a concrete example, on March 11, I asked the following question at a CSW book-launch event. Jointly hosted by Sweden, Georgia and UN Women, the launch featured a book of fairy tales meant to defy gender stereotypes, so that girls could grow up “empowered.” My question was as follows: 

"What is the measure of success of a gender equality policy, when parity or 50-50 is not necessarily the result we can expect when men and women are given full freedom to choose their destiny? For example, if in a given country 90% of nurses are women, is this ipso facto a sign of a failure of a gender equality policy? If a similar proportion obtains in politics but in reverse (90% men), is this necessarily a sign of failure of a gender equality policy? So again I ask: Does gender equality necessarily mean equality of outcome for both sexes and if not, what does gender equality mean?”

Olof Skoog, Sweden representative at the UN ventured a reply: Gender equality is achieved when both men and women are absolutely “free to do what they want”. He seems therefore to be for equality of opportunity, not outcomes. But he continued: “there are, however, power structures which we might be unaware of, making it such that equality is not attained.” This is the discomfort I described, couched in the hazy terms I deplored at the start. On the one hand, they want to assert a difference between men and women, and say that women should be helped to overcome barriers. But then when said barriers are removed and still some fields remain dominated by men (or women), they refuse to impute this difference to differences between the sexes. What are we to make out of such a worry? My guess is that, for many, any differences between any individual (male, female, black, white, high IQ, low IQ) is ipso facto an injustice. They are for mathematical equality across the board. It seems that, for them, a just world is a world in which everyone is identical.