Gender Equality

Your guide to gender equality

What is gender equality?

Gender equality is the theoretical state of equanimity between men and women or boys and girls. Because nearly all societies have been male-dominated historically, certain inequalities have had to be addressed in order to bring about greater equality. For example, it was not until the twentieth century that women won the right to vote in Western democracies. As such, it is often viewed through the lens of a long-standing campaign, which, to feminists, is known as the women's movement. It should be added, however, that men and women are now not seen by many as the only two possible genders and – for some, at least – gender equality must also mean equality of rights for third-gender, trans-gender, and non-binary individuals.

 Where did gender equality start?

Calls for greater gender equality have been around for centuries from writers like Christine de Pizan and Mary Wollstonecraft. That said, it was not until the suffrage movement in the nineteenth century that significant steps towards gender equality occurred in the West. Married women were the first to win important property rights following various campaigns. Voting rights among propertied women came later. Many women entered the workforce for the first time during World War I, but it was after the cessation of World War II when many of the de facto rights women have won in wartime were put into law. These were championed in the newly formed United Nations, which included various conventions, for example, in rights to education.

How is gender equality measured?

Scholars collect various forms of data to measure gender equality or, more likely, measures of inequality. These include things like how long females spend in education compared to males within certain societies. Another measurement might be the gender pay gap that exists in nearly all countries. There again, the number of reported acts of violence against women is often also used to measure inequality, especially in legal outcomes before the courts. Such data is gathered in a variety of ways and then number-crunched to produce indices of gender equality. The gender-related development index and the global gender gap index are just two examples of them.

Is gender equality a human right?

Various human rights bodies have made equality of many kinds part of their remit. The United Nations holds that gender equality is a fundamental human right. However, it does not guarantee that this can be achieved under any of the aforementioned indices. Rather, the human right spoken of is the right to the potential for equality. In other words, individuals can challenge discrimination based on gender under their human rights, but this won't necessarily change systemic or institutional gender inequality for all.

Will gender equality ever be achieved?

While there have been great strides in gender equality in recent decades, some parts of the world remain very one-sided. Although many hope that greater equality will occur as societies progress, few of us doubt that there is a long way to go still.

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The word equality has its root in the Latin term for knights – or equites – which meant propertied men who, unlike common foot soldiers, had sufficient wealth to ride into battle on a horse. They considered themselves to be equals among their peers but of a distinct social class from the common soldiery. As such, the modern concept of equality never really means a level playing field for all – such ideas are more associated with the concept of egalitarianism. Equality can, therefore, mean different things to different people and have unique meanings in different contexts around the world. Many people who campaign for greater equality want outcomes to be more equal and for people to have a fair chance in life rather than ensuring everyone has an exactly shared out amount of resource and wealth.
The concept was first pioneered by the sociologist Max Weber and is, therefore, sometimes referred to as Weberian social action to distinguish it from other theories that lay behind social behaviours. In sociology, an action is a behaviour or an act that is carried out by an individual. Such individuals – or agents, as they are more often called – do not behave in a social vacuum without reference to any other person. As such, Weber argued, actions must always be seen from the social point of view. A social act could consequently be seen as any type of act that a human being does which takes account of other people, whether this is a conscious thing or not. Anyone who interacts with other people in any way, therefore, could be carrying out some form of social action.
At their simplest, human rights are a number of social norms that are in place to protect individuals from one another and larger organisations, such as big businesses or the state. The idea behind them is that no one can take away another person's rights which are said to be inalienable. That means that they cannot be subject to change or altered at the whim of a government or a dictator, for example. The idea of inalienable rights took off after the calamity of the Second World War when many civilians died as well as combatants. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was made under the auspices of the newly formed United Nations in 1948, and it still creates much of the legal basis for international monitoring.
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