Gender Equality

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Gender equality, also called gender egalitarianism, sex equality, or sexual equality, condition of parity regardless of an individual’s gender. Gender equality addresses the tendency to ascribe, in various settings across societies, different roles and status to individuals on the basis of gender. In this context, the term gender generally refers to an individual’s gender identity (e.g., male, female, or neither) or to a person’s gender role, which is the manifestation of one’s gender identity. Gender is not necessarily associated with the anatomical sex of an individual. Accordingly, the term gender equality is sometimes also used to mean “universal equality irrespective of gender, sex, or sexuality.”

The manifestation of gender inequality is multidimensional. It may be apparent, for example, in employment experience, in educational opportunity, or in health. Interpretations for the existence of such problems span a broad spectrum. They include essentialist arguments (including those from biological reductionism and evolutionary psychology), whereby an individual’s experience in society is a reflection of discrimination based on innate biological or physiological and psychological sex differences. Cultural accounts of gender inequality generally claim that individuals are herded into different or unequally valued roles because of constructed social norms.

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Attempts to address gender inequality have focused primarily on equal-treatment policy approaches. Gender mainstreaming, for example, relates to the systematic incorporation of gender issues at both the planning and the implementation stages of organizational policies. For some forms of gender inequality, such as professional inequality, the major debate lies in the degree to which individuals should be granted special provisions and exclusive benefits to equalize background conditions. Such provisions may take the form of affirmative action programs that aim to implement specific measures to boost an individual’s chances of success in employment and specific protection rights such as paid family leave with a right to return to work. In such approaches, the emphasis shifts from equality of access and opportunity to creating conditions deemed more likely to result in equality of outcome. Skeptics of such approaches grapple with the extent to which exclusive benefits lend themselves to the exacerbation of gender divides without the comparable provision of benefits for persons who identify with a different gender.

Written by Jude Browne, Jessica and Peter Frankopan Director, University of Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies; Fellow in Social Sciences, King’s College, University of Cambridge. Author of Sex Segregation and Inequality in the Modern Labour Market and others.

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