Opinion & Analysis

Mainstreaming Gender Equity
Daphne Cothren (Laurel Architecture) (Principal)

Treating people fairly, without partiality to a particular gender, is simply just. While fairness is central to most systems of ethics, equity is not the same as equality when discussing the distribution of gains and losses or everyone’s entitlement to an acceptable standard of living. Equity of any kind means equal access to community resources and opportunities, and that no individuals or groups should be asked to carry a greater burden than anyone else in the community.

zoomDifferences in the status, power and prestige that women and men have in groups, collectivities and societies make all the difference in the world. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

Effects of gender injustice

Let us review the effects of injustice on the oppressed and on society. Leaving people out of decision-making, ignoring their views, or worse, leads to loss of influence over actions affecting their environment, governance, mobility, income earning ability and so on. Inequalities of income mean less overall child well-being. Homicides and violence rise with inequity. People trust each other less. While some exaggerate the effects, evidence exists of significant negative effects on health and education, with attendant serious drags on whole economies.

The particular effects of gender injustice on individuals stem from deficiencies in basic facilities available, from encouragement to cultivate one’s natural talents to fair participation in rewarding social functions. Women often have less recourse than men to legal recognition and protection, as well as lower access to public knowledge and information, and less decision-making power both within and outside the home. In many parts of the world, women frequently have little control over fertility, sexuality and marital choices. Women regularly have a much more difficult time getting the same job opportunities, wages and benefits as men. Education, the gateway to economic security and opportunity, is usually preferentially denied to girls in developing countries using poverty as an excuse. Women are commonly more disadvantaged than men in access to health care and quality of nutrition and health care received. Discrimination against men also occurs.

Gender inequality hurts all members of society, not just girls and women. The effects of a male-dominated society extend to people as a whole by distorting the complex nature of individuals and presenting them as binary and definitive. One of the best investments a society can make is educating girls. Investing in human capital is one of the most effective means of reducing poverty and encouraging sustainable development: aside from the fundamental idea of justice, there is the practical aspect – that those who are poor and hungry may destroy their immediate environment in order to survive.

Research suggests that feelings of dominance and submission strongly impact our psychology and social relations. Unless they are psychotic, perpetrators of injustice profit while suffering pangs of conscience and moral disengagement. Despite such pangs, injustices tend to prevail unless overturned by social actions stimulated by outrage. Joris Lammers neatly summed up the efforts and methods that powerful perpetrators regularly use to inhibit outrage. So it behooves us to look for and recognize:

  • cover-up of the action
  • devaluation of the target
  • reinterpretation of the action, including by lying, framing and blaming
  • use of official channels to give an appearance of justice
  • intimidation and bribery of targets, witnesses and others.

The phenomenon of internalizing stereotypes is both an effect of inequity and a barrier to its correction. From birth our malleable young selves are expected to conform to gender norms deemed appropriate for our sex. Stereotypes passed from our host culture become internalized through life, often operate unconsciously and become self-fulfilling expectations.

Extensive gender asymmetry is often based on the superficially innocuous idea that men and women just have different “provinces.” This “separate but equal” concept will be recognized as invalid to the post-slavery inheritors of racism in the USA. The absurdity of this ancient thesis is clear in the 1766 words of the Reverend James Fordyce, who in his Sermons to Young Women, warned against “those masculine women that would plead for your sharing any part of their province with us,” identifying the province of men as including not only “war,” but also “commerce, politics, exercises of strength and dexterity, abstract philosophy and all the abstruse sciences.” To this I respond with Voltaire’s warning that “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”

When confronted with atrocities, abuse or other unfortunate situations, many observers blame, devalue or condemn the victim, even when the victim cannot logically be held responsible – because we all want security, predictability and safety. In a safe and orderly world, people would get what they deserve, which is both a true goal and a delusional denial that the world is often not safe and orderly.

Status Quo regarding gender equity

Mainstreaming gender equity is clearly difficult and will be particularly fraught around religious and cultural identity. For instance, in the Quran 4:11 it says, “Allah commands you regarding your children. For the male a share equivalent to that of two females.” Many threads and ideas have been woven together over many centuries. It will take much effort to tease them apart in the work of increasing freedom for all.

However, the effects of change need not mean the destruction of a culture, nor a religion. Here are just a few examples of firmly held gender stereotypes in Western culture that have been just as firmly upended:

Pink is for girls … but it’s only been that way since about 1940. Before then, a 1918 editorial spelled out the prevailing view that pink was “a more decided and stronger color ... more suitable for the boy; while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”

Nowadays movie watchers seeing a man crying assume that either that man has lost his grip, or he’s more of a soft, sensitive, romantic type than an action hero. But male tears used to be a celebration of manliness, signaling honesty, integrity and strength, all the way from ancient Greece through the Middle Ages and up to the Romantic Movement. Beowulf regularly bawled like a baby.

Women’s monthly cycles make them irrational scream machines. Yet it used to be held that women were delicate creatures and too easily swayed by the opinions of others to be trusted to even form their own. Both views need refuting; it continues to be far too easy to confuse cultural effects with biological ones. Certainly hormones affect behavior, of men as well as women. However, scientific research has found little evidence to suggest that women become emotionally compromised or irrational during the supposed “PMS” phase.

I am reminded of a man I knew, who was proud of his ancient culture with very patriarchal values. He was an aristocrat proud of his noble lineage (though he did deem possessions worth less than the comfort of his family’s servants). He was righteously proud of his personal physical prowess as he held world-class titles in his sport. He was a very masculine, macho man who benefited from the status quo. And yet, his wife noted wryly to me, he became a feminist when he had only daughters.

We are all human beings, together.

That is why FSC, as an organization devoted to a fair and sustainable world, must work to implement gender equity in its dealings and policies.