Thursday, March 8, 2012

How Do We Measure Gender Equality?

As I am sure most of you are aware, yesterday was International Women’s Day. This, of course, sparked a number of discussions on the necessity of feminism in Western society. This all reminded me of a previous discussion I had with an acquaintance over what is the best way to measure gender equality. Essentially, it boiled down to whether we should measure equality of representation or equality of opportunity, with my acquaintance arguing the former while I argued the latter. I wish to articulate to you all a point that I tried to impart on my discussion partner. This is that the equality of representation side has a fairly large assumption built into it; namely, that men and women are actually equal in all respects.

Before you fly off into a tirade about how much of a misogynist I am, hear me out. The debate over biological gender difference is one that it still going strong; there are points made on both sides that make it hard to come to any conclusion beyond ‘we don’t know at the moment’. For example, testosterone has been linked to aggression in both males and females and males have higher levels of testosterone simply due to being male. The counterpoint to this is that it has also been found that witnessing and emulating aggressive behaviours can increase testosterone levels. Thus, to take a position on policy (that women and men should be equally represented in all fields) is to run with a conclusion that has yet to be established. Whereas, if your policy position is to remove barriers that prevent women from access certain fields, you allow for both the possibility that men and women are and aren’t equal.

To demonstrate this point, let me present a hypothetical world. In this world, there are no cultural, social or legal barriers to either gender undertaking any task; men can be homemakers, women can be CEO’s and no one bats at eye at either choice. Now, if men and women have equal capabilities/preferences, we would of course see an equal representation of both genders in all fields. However, if there are differences between the averages of the abilities/preferences of each gender, then we would see differences in the representation of both genders. For example, women may actually as a matter of biology rather than culture be more nurturing on average than males. This would lead to an overrepresentation in fields that require a nurturing temperament (healthcare, teaching etc.). This would not be unfair; to the contrary, it would be exactly what the individuals want of their own accord.

It should be noted that I am in no way defending the status quo; there are still many barriers that prevent women from having equal access to the same opportunities that men enjoy and we should make every effort to see that they are eliminated.  My point is more that people need to point to these problems directly rather than point to the difference in representation and infer that there must be a problem because of it.


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