Gender discrimination: we need to see it to fight it
As we mark International Women’s Day, it is clear global gender equality is still on the distant horizon. But to achieve it we must first cease the ubiquitous delusion that discrimination doesn’t exist.
In 1955, on the day my parents got married, my mother was legally obliged to quit her job as a police woman in Amsterdam. It was the second time her gender got in the way of her career. The first was directly after the war when, unlike her four brothers, she was not allowed to go to university. The injustices still occasionally made her angry when she was well into her eighties. I have no doubt her strong feelings contributed to her desire for my sister and me to achieve in school and in our studies.
A lot has changed since then. In many countries anti-discrimination laws have come into place and equality between men and women is much more legally regulated. Despite this, not one single country on this planet has achieved full gender equality. The Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI) measures it per country in domains such as education, economic participation, health and survival, and political empowerment. The GGGI 2020 showed the average score was 68.6%, meaning that there is a 31.4% distance to the level at which women have exactly equal opportunity. The UK stood at 77%. It was estimated in 2020 that with the (slow) historic rate of change, it would take another 100 years to achieve parity globally. The COVID-crisis, with its devastating effects on inequalities, has likely set us back even more.
Does is matter that there is no gender equality worldwide? I believe it matters gravely. Not only does the stability and wellbeing of countries and communities suffer from the relative lack of opportunity and engagement of half the global population, it also matters for the lives of individual women and girls who are unable to use their talents and their voices in the same way as men and boys.
“So called ‘just-world beliefs’ enable us to gloss over discrimination, and to ascribe differences in opportunities as inherent to the actions and natural abilities of people in less powerful positions.”
Why is the change happening at such glacial speed, in almost every community on this planet, even in universities? How can that be when there is a huge body of scholarly work showing discrimination against women and girls in almost every aspect of life? I believe it is to a large degree due to our propensity to see society as fair. So called ‘just-world beliefs’ enable us to gloss over discrimination, and to ascribe differences in opportunities as inherent to the actions and natural abilities of people in less powerful positions. In the case of gender discrimination, it creates more peace of mind when we believe that women occupy less prominent positions because they are inherently less able to lead, less decisive, less focused, and more nurturing than men. That’s because the only logical alternative explanation for the vast differences, that start early in the lives of women, is that there is widespread discrimination. And if we accept that notion instead, then more or less inevitably, we are morally obliged to not accept the status-quo and to act.
“If women internalise benevolent sexism, it gets in the way of their confidence about their abilities, which can set them back further.”
It is often postulated that men feel threatened in their jobs or private lives by measures or movements to enable women to progress in education, work and life. That is likely to be the case for some men, but I think that our human tendency to cling to a rosy picture of the world, that enables us to live our lives without being troubled by the awareness of rampant injustices, is a much more prevalent factor. Just-world beliefs can also make it easier for women themselves to accept the status quo. It is closely related to what is called ‘benevolent sexism’, a set of beliefs in the inherent weaknesses of women, and in their nurturing and empathy capabilities that make them ‘better’ than men in domains not related to careers and power. It makes their less visible role in society seem acceptable, and even desirable for themselves. If women internalise benevolent sexism, though, it gets in the way of their confidence about their abilities, which can set them back further.
In spite of my mother’s example, it took me some time to become fully aware of the discrimination women face. Early in my life and career, I did not feel all that disadvantaged compared to young men my age. When I climbed the career ladder and became a mother, I slowly started noticing I had many more obstacles in my way. It was still often mentally challenging to consciously experience the discrimination, and to not reason it away. I think I was at times inclined to not see it, as my own just-world beliefs kicked in.
Also, I have to confess that as I became more aware of the sexism I faced, I did not immediately and fully understand that some women are much worse off than me. Now, after decades of reading, talking and opening myself up to others’ lived experiences, I am much more aware of the phenomenon of intersectionality, that is the fact that one person can have multiple identities that make them liable to being discriminated against. I have learnt that ethnic minority women, for example, have a far harder time than me. That realisation encourages me to be even more of an agent of change.
“If we can use the feeling of discomfort to propel us into compassionate and focused action, the world will be a better place and we will all be happier.”
As a society and as individuals, men and women, we have to open ourselves up to the facts and to the stories of hardship, and get out of our comfort zones. If we can use the feeling of discomfort to propel us into compassionate and focused action, instead of into complacency, the world will be a better place and we will all be happier. I still occasionally think about my mother’s anger and realise that, like her, I can harness such emotions for the good, and make a difference in the lives of other women.