Global Gender Inequality
- Melissa B. Littlefield, Melissa B. LittlefieldSchool of Social Work, Morgan State University
- Denise McLane-DavisonDenise McLane-DavisonSchool of Social Work, Morgan State University
- and Halaevalu F. O. VakalahiHalaevalu F. O. VakalahiSchool of Social Work, Morgan State University
Mechanisms of oppression that serve to subordinate the strengths, knowledge, experiences, and needs of women in families, communities, and societies to those of men are at the root of gender inequality. Grounded in the strengths perspective of social work, the basic premise of the present discussion emphasizes gender equality as opposed to inequality. At the core of gender equality is the value of womanhood and the need to ensure the health and well-being of women and girls. Women’s participation in different societal domains including economic opportunities, political empowerment, educational attainment, health, and well-being are all impacted by their roles. Thus, structural weaknesses are major barriers for reforming efforts on global gender equality. Challenging traditional notions of gender, which is defined as behavioral, cultural, and social characteristics that are linked to womanhood or manhood, is the basis for achieving gender equality by attending to how these characteristics govern the relationship between women and men and the power differences that impact choices and agency to choose. Further, both equality of opportunity and equality of outcome are imperative for achieving gender equality among women and girls. Although progress has been made toward gender equality for many women, lower income women—as well as women who face social exclusion stemming from their caste, disability, location, ethnicity, and sexual orientation––have not experienced improvements in gender equality to the same extent as other women. Broad outcomes of gender equality around the globe include decreased poverty, increased social and economic justice, and better well-being and empowerment among men and women. Gender equality is a smart tool for economic development because it can remove barriers to access and enhance productivity gains in a competitive world.
Global gender inequality has been explored, re-explored, defined, and re-defined by individual and organizational advocates, politicians and decision makers, lay community members, scholars and scientists in academia, and professionals including social workers. Promotion of social and economic justice across systems levels, from micro to macro, as part of the core values of the profession of social work is at the heart of the global gender inequality debate. Changing the focus of the debate from gender inequality to a conversation promoting gender equality is a likely first step toward reform and transformation. Grounded in the strengths perspective of social work (Hill, 1972; Saleebey, 1996), the basic premise of this discussion emphasizes gender equality. As such, the discussion in this article will primarily focus on the various components of gender equality as opposed to inequality.
Global gender equality is a complex and multidimensional human right that has not been fully exercised nor extended to women and girls around the world, although it has been extensively discussed and studied (Lopez-Claros & Zahidi, 2005; World Bank, 2012). Culture and all of its components directly impact how gender equality is exercised as a basic human right. The quest to ensure global gender equality is an age-old endeavor embraced by women and girls individually, and cultures, communities, and organizations collectively. The support for addressing the issues of women and girls is not completely lacking, however action that impacts it is insufficient and sporadic. That is, every nation on the globe defines and embraces gender equality at different levels and intensity. Nonetheless, strides have been made by communities and major organizations and institutions. The United Nation stands at the forefront of this movement to eliminate gender inequality and ensure that gender equality is a life-long reality for generations of women and girls to come (Blanchfield, 2010). At the core of gender equality is the value of womanhood to life itself and the need to ensure the health and well-being of women and girls. In essence, the importance of addressing the needs of women and girls is integral to “national and international security, development, and economic stability” (Blanchfield, 2010, p. 1).
World powers including the United States, China, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, France, and other world leaders as well as entities such as the United Nations and the World Bank are central to the gender equality movement and are imperative for system-wide reforms and transformations. It is a global priority that requires multiple level responses in terms of policy, funding, services, education and training, and programs that efficiently and effectively respond to gender issues. There are obvious gaps and barriers in existing systems that attempt to address the issues of women and girls which warrant attention and response from every part of society. Structural weaknesses such as the lack of leadership and coordination, financial disparities, disadvantages supported by existing structures, and lack of operational capacity have been noted by advocates as major barriers for reforming efforts on global gender equality (Blanchfield, 2010; World Bank, 2012). Systems and structures including those in the field of social work must remain relevant, versatile, and innovate in ways that respond adequately to an ever-evolving culture of women across the globe today. In principle, the global debate on gender equality has been fundamental to the profession of social work with major implications for a female-populated yet male-dominated profession.
Conceptualization and Definition
Accurately conceptualizing gender equality and its multiple dimensions and complexities in a global setting will contribute to the elimination of inequities and inequalities across the spectrum. To some extent, knowing what “it” is and how it manifests itself in complex systems and contexts can aid in the efforts to address it. As described by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA):
Gender equality is, first and foremost, a human right. Women are entitled to live in dignity and in freedom from want and from fear. Empowering women is also an indispensable tool for advancing development and reducing poverty. Empowered women contribute to the health and productivity of whole families and communities and to improved prospects for the next generation. (United Nations Population Fund, para. 1)
Although gender equality is acknowledged as significant to the development of nations across the world, gender-based discrimination and inequality such as violence against women and girls, socioeconomic disparities, health inequities, and other destructive traditions continue to be pervasive and persistent. Among the entities around the globe that contribute to the movement toward gender equality, UNFPA has led the advocacy efforts for reform and transformation of systems that impact the rights and choices of women and girls around the world (United Nations Population Fund, n.d.).
Challenging traditional notions of gender, which is defined as behavioral, cultural, and social characteristics that are linked to womanhood or manhood, is the basis for achieving gender equality by attending to how these characteristics govern the relationship between women and men and the power differences that impact choices and agency to choose. Because of the many facets of gender relative to household, needs, biology and learned behaviors, income and class differences, the existing literature is incongruent regarding whether gender equality should be measured in outcomes or opportunity. In relation to equality in opportunity, scholars differentiate between circumstances that arise beyond an individual’s control and those that result from preferential treatment and choices. The literature posits gender differences in risk taking, social preferences, and competition, and suggests that if there are gender differences then differences in outcomes may or may not be a result of difference in opportunity. On the other hand, in terms of equality in outcome, scholars argue that differences between men and women are not innate but rather learned, in that men and women embrace certain cultural, social, and environmental norms that may perpetuate inequalities. In reality, both equality of opportunity and equality of outcome are imperative for achieving gender equality among women and girls. Regardless of which side of the debate one joins, essentially, gender equality must be achieved (Booth & Nolen, 2009; Croson & Gneezy, 2009; Gneezy, Leonard, & List, 2009; Kabeer, 1996; Sen, 1999; World Bank, 2011).
A definition of gender equality around the globe cannot be complete without considering the complex and multidimensional roles of women and the contexts in which they exist. Women’s lives are inherently shaped by multidimensional domains of their lives, including their roles in the home, social, educational, and workplace settings, economic, labor, political, and health contexts, and so on. Roles in the lives of women and girls around the world are a unifying concept and thus, responses to their needs must be in concert with these roles. Women’s participation in different societal domains including economic opportunities, political empowerment, educational attainment, health, and well-being are all impacted by their roles. Evidently, gender equality is not only a women’s issue because the status of nations is intimately tied to the roles of women and in turn, the roles of women and women’s equality are linked to the total well-being of nations (Blanchfield, 2010; World Bank, 2012).
Status of Women
Despite the ongoing challenges experienced by women in terms of daily gender-based disadvantage, progress has been made toward equality. Today around the world, progress is seen in women’s educational, employment, and health rights. Equal marriage, inheritance, and land rights have been guaranteed to women by many countries including gender equality and anti-discrimination laws in the constitutions of about 136 countries (World Bank, 2012).
Nonetheless, although progress has been made toward gender equality for many women, lower income women—those living in countries with strong economies and those living in countries with the poorest economies—as well as women who face social exclusion stemming from their caste, disability, location, ethnicity, and sexual orientation have not experienced improvements in gender equality to the same extent as other women. Additionally, even in high-income economies, disparities in women’s participation in traditionally male occupations and their participation in policy making do not necessarily increase with economic advancements that improve other aspects of their lives, despite gains in the civil and economic rights of women in those countries. Moreover, increased income has resulted in very little change in terms of women’s mortality and access to economic opportunities in most developing countries. Women’s ability to control resources, share political voices, and experiences with domestic violence has not improved in these countries, either (World Bank, 2012).
Furthermore, among women of color, the notion of global gender equality manifests itself differently because the complexities of race and ethnicity play an integral role in their lived experiences. Women in countries such as those in the continental Africa still live with unequal distribution of opportunities and outcomes in education, employment, health, and social services (World Bank, 2012). Although certain policies have historically infringed on the rights of all women, the impact on women of color is uniquely intense.
The question thus remains, does global gender equality matter? The answer is a simple yet complex and multidimensional “yes,” because free agency to make choices matters for women around the world. As indicated by the World Bank (2012) and discussed previously:
Gender equality matters intrinsically, because the ability to live the life of one’s own choosing and be spared from absolute deprivation is a basic human right and should be equal for everyone, independent of whether one is male or female, and gender equality matters instrumentally, because greater gender equality contributes to economic efficiency and the achievement of other key development outcomes (p. 3).
Broad outcomes of gender equality around the globe include decreased poverty, increased social and economic justice, and better well-being and empowerment among men and women. Gender equality is a smart tool for economic development because it can remove barriers to access and enhance productivity gains in a competitive world. As women represent almost half of the global workforce and more than half of university students, smart economics argue that adequately utilizing women’s skills and talents will positively impact productivity and economic gains. Most importantly, gender equality feeds the next generation by leveling the playing field, making it possible for social and political engagement, sound decision making, and policies and laws that inform inclusivity and advanced development paths (World Bank, 2012).
Mechanisms of Oppression
The debate on global gender inequality has always been framed by historical, cultural, and geographical mechanisms of oppression which are both practical and philosophical in nature. At the root of gender inequality are mechanisms of oppression that serve to subordinate the strengths, knowledge, experiences, and needs of women in families, communities, and societies to those of men. Specifically, gender—that is, the meaning and value that society places on males and females—is socially constructed in such a way as to ascribe social, economic and political roles, and attitudes and beliefs about psychological traits and physiological abilities to each sex. As such, those assigned to females or women are deemed inferior and less powerful and influential in the public and private spheres than are those ascribed to males or men. Gender stereotypes are made to seem natural by linking gender definitions to biological attributes that appear to distinguish the sexes (Wiranto, 2013).
Cultural practices and moral and religious beliefs reinforce gender roles and attitudes that dictate conformity to stereotypical gender definitions (Auchmuty, 2012; Seguino, 2011; Yu & Lee, 2013). Language is one aspect of culture that heavily reinforces stereotypes and has been linked to gender inequality. For example, Prewitt-Freilino, Caswell, and Laakso (2012) found in their study of 111 countries that those where gendered languages (that is, those where nouns are always assigned masculine or feminine gender) are spoken have less gender equality than those that speak natural gender languages (that is, those in which gender is distinguished through pronouns but not assigned to nouns) or genderless languages (that is, those which completely lack grammatical gender distinction). Those countries where natural gender languages were spoken appeared to exhibit the greatest propensity toward gender equality, especially with regard to women’s greater access to political empowerment.
Strongly held gender-typed practices and beliefs are so integral to the social fabric of societies that extreme measures that would be viewed as heinous and unlawful in other contexts are legitimated to uphold gender stereotypes and force women as well as men who would violate them to submit. Violence, including mob violence, rape, beating, stoning, incarceration, excommunication, familial disownment, social exclusion, and murder are examples of such mechanisms of oppression (Dauer, 2006; Rahman, Nakamura, Seino, & Kizuki, 2013).
As previously alluded, gender has historically defined power and authority relationships between the sexes—that is, the privilege afforded or denied to each group. The physiological ability of females to bear children has been cast as a biological and psychological vulnerability of women that renders them inferior and in need of the protection of males, and effectively limits their economic, political, and social opportunities. Real or perceived differences of men such as their larger average body size and musculature have been cast as strength and used to establish men’s authority over women in every sphere, and to justify their primacy in social, economic, and legal institutions of society. In short, historical and contemporary inequalities between men and women are direct outcomes of gender definitions that have favored and privileged men and promoted the structuring of societal institutions, and the laws and policies that govern them to advantage them, while simultaneously devaluing women and excluding them or limiting them to certain social spaces and statuses (Auchmuty, 2012; Razavi & Jenichen, 2010; Yu & Lee, 2013).
As social, economic, technological and political realities and needs change, there is a growing recognition of the need for women’s brain trust and labor for economic development and well-being on a global scale. Nonetheless, global gender inequality is so pervasive as to seem intractable without major reworking and restructuring of all number of social, religious, and political institutions. Moreover continuing to challenge gender definitions and the values and attitudes that undergird them also seems necessary (Auchmuty, 2012; Yu & Lee, 2013).
Global Models of Transformation
Around the globe, models of transformation involve social and economic justice frameworks that challenge the “status quo” and disrupt cultural customs that link oppression with gender to women, and women to inequality. Traditions and strategies that bind the divisiveness of gender identity subsets which are rooted in sexual preferences, patriarchy, domination, and intellectual privileging of race, biology, and pedigree have yielded political policies that have fueled multi-generational cultures of underclass poverty and inequity. Thus, gender has become synonymous with “deeply entrenched social institutionalization of sexual difference” (Okin, 2004, p. 1539).
The country of Sweden provides a glimpse of what might be accomplished in the name of achieving gender equality. Since the 1970s the Swedish government has implemented a number of laws and social changes that actively promoted women’s rights at home and in the workplace including abolishing joint taxation for spouse to encourage more women to work outside of the home, banning gender discrimination, and toughening penalties for sexual harassment. Abend (2013) reports that today, these policies have resulted in “near parity in political representation, a near leveling of the playing field in the workplace, and fathers who share if not equally, then at least significantly in the raising of their children” (p. 40). Even with the success of these practices in advancing gender equality, forces of oppression are at work with domestic violence and rape remaining persistent problems. More recently the country has begun efforts to implement gender neutral language and de-emphasize gender distinctions between boys and girls in school yards and classrooms. The measures are not embraced by everyone, but they represent a bold attempt to push the envelope on gender equality.
Universal Access to Healthcare
Women and children tend to be disproportionately impacted by poverty, and health care is one resource that is consistently out of reach. International advocates have fought extensively for medical resources from having the latest pharmaceuticals to building and staffing full service health clinics. Access issues are furthermore influenced by distance and lack of transportation particularly in remote locations, as well as not having sufficiently trained medical personnel to meet the needs of the community. Sidibe and Buse (2012) stress the significance for universal healthcare as a mechanism for reform and transformation, indicating that “health is intrinsic to human dignity and a precondition for economic transformation, stability and security” (p. 870).
The formulation of international, national, NGO, and local collaborative partnerships is one means of significantly advancing health care for vulnerable populations, groups dominated by women and girls. The enmeshment of policies that place unequal burdens on gender, particularly for women and girls, often complicates access to services. Thus, strategic partnering across transnational boundaries “promotes a health-in-all-policies approach, including health assessments of non-health, on the premise that attaining and maintaining good health require action beyond the health sector” (Sidibe & Buse, 2012, p. 870). Access to healthcare also ties into sustainability of healthy communities that can produce a labor force to further build the capacity of the community. Ensuring laws and policies that respect, value, and support equity for women and girls helps to guarantee gender equality as a human right globally.
Although historically mainstream education was inaccessible to women, education equity has become the gateway for women to gain access to intellectual capacity, power, and economic security. Shifting focus toward educational policies that emphasize collective care and progress may be a slow process because of the entrenchment of gender power differences in every aspect of life; however, collectivity and reciprocity are critical to making progress toward gender equality. In addition, a shift in language use is one way to move from dichotomous terms that suggest superiority, rank order, and hierarchy relative to gender, to language that is inclusive, collective, and mindful of the inherent interdependency among human beings for the purpose of survival and quality of life (Ramdas, 2011).
Unfortunately, in many societies girls are forced into marriage and child bearing practices which limited their ability to participate in paid labor activities or attend school through secondary education (Smee & Woodroffe, 2013). These customs and common law practices steer women into lives of dependency and caregiving with limited opportunities to participate in other sectors of the society. Empowerment at this level would involve equal access to attend and complete school, as well as participate in all aspects of the education process.
Scarce resources are a reality and fairness in distribution is imperative. Distributive justice refers to guaranteeing that each person regardless of gender has equitable access to services, goods, resources, and opportunities relative to one’s needs. An important component of distributive justice is assuring that certain laws and policies are not created to reinforce unfair privileges for a particular sector of the community to gain more than a fair share of the same goods, opportunities, and privileges. Justice in the distribution of resources is a critical aspect of current conversations given the historical exclusion of women and girls from participation in the local and global economy (Symington, 2004).
In society, persons with the most financial resources are able to purchase additional access to opportunities that make their lives comfortable and secure. When one considers the intersection of gender, labor force, and income, particularly among women, having access to the labor force to earn income is a complex and complicated concept because women continue to receive lower salaries for their labor, which in turn translates into the perpetual inability to purchase the same amount of access as their male counterparts. International organizations such as the United Nations and World Bank have led the efforts in working with national and local governments to assist in addressing some of the gender-based resource, income, and labor gaps through partnerships with municipalities to ensure equal access and provision of additional in-kind goods, as necessary (Symington, 2004; Connell, 2011).
Gender as a Worldwide Structure
In the existing literature, discussion regarding gender has been shaped predominantly by Western/Northern definitions. The literature has defined this term through both a biological and individual framework. Gender identity as linked to power and privilege has been an invention of Western/Northern intellectuals, primarily men of European heritage who have used violence, control, and intimidation as power mechanisms to further their socioeconomic gains. The hijacking of the term gender by these Western intellectuals has perpetuated a dichotomous and adversarial existence. Gender, as defined beyond the Western concept of individualism to mean a more inclusive indigenous epistemology, leads to an opportunity to understand and debate gender in terms of relationship with multiple dimensions and nuances (Connell, 2011; Blanchfield, 2010). Gender as relationship clarifies understanding of access to power, privilege, resources, climate, industrialization, education, health, and the basic right to control one’s body and reproduction system, as these factors relate to the advancement of gender equality. Gender and relationship are therefore recognized in the connection with male, female, child, family, and community.
In a historical context, gender is ever evolving. Gender has been used to define love, voice, violence, and collective action. For instance, as voice, gender has been used to establish power and privilege based on anatomy; and preference has been assigned to male. As a result, men, operating from masculine values have been in charge of “setting the agenda” to determine what is significant, and establishing “patriarchy” as normative. Ultimately, gender becomes a means to justify existing division of labor, distribution of income, power and dominance, role characteristics, and organization of power (Connell, 2011). Furthermore, gender has been experienced as violence and centered in “colonial, neo-colonial, and postcolonial” (Connell, 2011, p. 107) warfare practices of male power and privilege. Rape, brutality, and exploitation are justifiable tools of intimidation and dominance for acquiring land, natural resources, labor, and sexual favor. For many indigenous countries, the gendering of power under the auspices of democracy, economic expansion, industrialization, and religion, has meant the corruption of their communities. Gender as collective power is strategically embedded in the ethos of a culture, including its religious practices, and thus it formulates the basis for many political debates and struggles. Thus, gender has been used to control political power, including the political power of women, as resources become scarce. The Blanchfield (2010) reports that matrilineal communities that historically built on equity of power, labor, and land have experienced shifts as a result of colonial, postcolonial, and industrial demands on their resources. Shifting the focus on the concept of gender to include a collective voice would provide an opportunity for gender to move beyond the “privileged” concepts of “sexual/biological” identity, to capture the fragile and stark imbalances that male domination has created transnationally.
Collective agency is an essential tool in the transformative nature of global gender equality, especially when collective agency is able to move gender outside of the biological and individual conceptualization to include social movements, grassroot organizations, and other collective actions that address the historical identities that are tied to gender. Collective agency reclaims the term “agency” from becoming “nothing more than an individual’s capacity to shift their position in a structure that they cannot fundamentally change” (Connell, 2011, p. 110). Rather, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (2011) supports collective definitions of agency for indigenous communities that have experienced the interference and disruption of colonialism and neocolonialism. Collective agency embraces the nuances of roles, climates, customs, and religion as shaped by demographics and communal practice that impact gender equality. This new type of agency promotes collective and collaborative action across political, geographical, and national boundaries. Speaking in a collective and unified voice affords women opportunities to harness their power as well as experience universal gains in this human rights fight.
Collective agency in the context of achieving gender equality would mean prioritizing women’s voices as a part of addressing human rights. It would mean having local, national and transnational political strategies and policies the mimic each other while simultaneously interrupting the nuances of culture, customs, and traditions that contribute to cycles of inequality and oppression. (Smee & Woodroffe, 2013) advocate for collective agency and action that would address six key areas:
Education––access for girls and women that is free from sexual harassment;
Maternal and child health—adequate and efficient maternal care during pregnancy and preventing women from becoming “baby mills” to produce male children;
Employment––accessibility to opportunities for external wages that are free of sexual harassment and are equitable;
HIV/AIDS and other diseases––particular attention to HIV/AIDS and women’s inability to negotiate power related to reproductive health and sexual practices;
Peace and security––stopping the victimization of women and girls as commodities in political warfare, especially rape and physical violence;
Governance––inclusion of women in political participation and decision making.
Social Work’s Contribution
The social work profession has much to offer to the advancement of the cause of global gender equality, given its extensive global history of women working together to achieve social and economic justice—largely on behalf of other women and their families (Dominelli, 2002). At the profession’s very core is advocating for policies that improve the quality of life for families, children, and communities around the world, and working with them directly to build their capacity to fully participate in societal institutions and organizations (Anand, 2009). The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) code of ethics, which emphasizes the core values of social and economic justice, the dignity and worth of all people, and the importance of human relationships, provides concepts and language with which to frame the moral arguments for global gender equality. Moreover, social work’s systems approach emphasizes the unveiling of power dynamics and abating of structural inequalities such as classism, sexism, racism, heterosexism, and the like, that are inherent at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels, which produce negative outcomes such as gender inequality.
As a global profession, social work can offer models and practices that have been developed and refined over the years to forward the cause of global gender equality. However, though social work has been in the vanguard in the fight for social and economic justice, it has not been unaffected by the mechanisms of oppression it seeks to eliminate. For starters, social work must confront gender inequality within its own ranks. For instance, although social work is a predominantly female profession and provides meaningful employment and self-actualization opportunities for large numbers of women, social work jobs are characterized by lower pay and lower occupational status relative to predominantly male helping professions such as psychology. This occurs despite having similarly high educational and licensure requirements for entry and advancement. Moreover, the societal gender hierarchy is reinforced within the profession in that men are more likely to occupy managerial and leadership positions and to reach these positions sooner, and be higher paid than are women in the same positions. Further, both men and women social workers tend to enact and reinforce gender stereotypes in the workplace rather than challenge or refine gender practices in ways that promote equality for women (Dahlkild-Ohman & Eriksson, 2013; Pease, 2011). Dahlkild-Ohman and Eriksson refer to a “multiplicity of masculinities” that men enact to assert male privilege in the predominantly female spaces social workers inhabit.
Other forms of gender inequality are manifested as social work knowledge and values are legitimated. Dahlkild-Ohman and Eriksson (2013) argue that gender inequality is evidenced in characteristics that are celebrated including rationality, emotional distance, and “technical virtuosity” in social work practice, while emotional engagement and intimacy—stereotypical female traits––are devalued. In a similar vein, Pease (2011) asserts that since at least the 1970s, many mainstream approaches to social work often ignore gender and gender analysis and that today’s social work students are put off by feminist content to the extent that it is presented in the curriculum at all. Pease further argues that male students in social work need to be open to exploring alternative (that is, non-oppressive) masculinities to encourage women to view them as viable partners in challenging gender discrimination.
Social work has the opportunity to model gender equality for the world in how the profession chooses to “do gender.” In addition, the profession needs to recognize and address the intersection of gender oppression with other forms of oppression and marginalization. This includes the tendency to project an ethos that privileges values and norms based in white, European middle class ways of knowing and doing as the standard, at the expense of other ways of knowing and doing. The profession of social work throughout its history has been aligned with the fight for gender equality based on the perspective that women around the globe are valued and valuable in the advancement, health, and well-being of societies, nations, communities, and families. Social work must continue to champion the visible and invisible work of women, create structures to facilitate choices, and include men in the conversation. Equality for every woman in the world is the profession’s bottom line. Thus, social work must address global gender equality holistically and comprehensively. To this end, efforts must be doubled in terms of ongoing future research that informs cutting-edge, cross-cultural and innovative models for guaranteeing gender equality across locations, cultures, and evolving situations; policy practice that challenges and changes the global status quo; and social work education that produces competent advocates and experts who are fearless in fighting for and sustaining global gender equality.
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