Today, calls for gender equality across the globe are louder than at any other time in history. With the increased visibility of trans and gender-nonconforming people, these calls now span across the spectrum of genders. While there is still a lot of work to be done, there is increased optimism about the future of gender equality.
What Does Gender Inequality Mean?
Gender inequality is the social process by which men, women, and non-binary individuals are not treated as equals. While people within almost every culture experience it, women and non-binary folk are most likely to feel the adverse effects. There are many causes—here are a few of the main ones.
- Unequal access to education
- Lack of bodily autonomy
- Lack of political representation
- Lack of employment opportunities
Gender inequality is a very broad idea. Generally, however, it means that men usually hold more political, economic, social, and cultural power than women and non-binary individuals. Men typically have access to better opportunities, higher wages, and more social freedom.
For centuries, however, activists have been working to change this. Our ideas about gender and, therefore, gender equality have evolved significantly over the past few decades, thanks to their hard work. There is a burgeoning understanding that gender equality is a pervasive issue that affects millions. Further, there is a growing acceptance that there is more diversity within gender than we previously understood. As we work towards a more equitable future, previous ideas about gender are being deconstructed.
But what exactly is gender? Is it societally specific or something innate within us? How have our ideas about it evolved?
Gender & Sex
Gender is often conflated with biological sex. Your sex is the expression of physical and biological traits in the body. Things like reproductive organs, hormones, and chromosome count determines sex. It is also determined through secondary sex characteristics such as breasts in women and Adam’s apples in men.
Because physical and biological signifiers determine a person's "sex," there is an implied neatness that leads many to believe that only two sexes exist (female and male). However, there are many exceptions to this rule, and there are numerous biological, anatomical, and chromosomal variations that illuminate the limiting ideas we historically held about sex. For example, some people are intersex, which means their reproductive or sexual anatomy doesn't fit into what is believed to be "female" or "male."
Gender is more abstract than sex. A standard definition of gender is "the range of characteristics pertaining to, and differentiating between, femininity and masculinity." It's widely believed that gender is a socially constructed idea used to describe "the distinction between the biological sex and socialized aspects of femininity and masculinity."
Gender is a role that an individual performs based on how the society they live in believes that gender should act. There are spoken (and unspoken) rules and beliefs about how each gender should look, dress, act, and think within every culture. The idea here is that people absorb and begin to express these norms while they are very young. That said, gender socialization begins well before a child is born when the parents learn what the child's sex "will be" and exhibit gendered behavior and gendered thinking about the child.
Gender as social construction works fine when we consider cisgender individuals (people who identify with their assigned gender). However, for individuals who identify as trans or gender non-conforming, their experience of gender is very different.
Often, gender is assigned at birth based on external sex characteristics. Trans or gender non-conforming individuals do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. Their experience illuminates gender diversity and allows us to expand beyond viewing gender as merely a social construct but also an expression of innate identity. This has led to the distinction between gender and gender identity.
While gender is an external expression of societal norms, gender identity is an "internal perception of maleness or femaleness." Studies show that gender identity is developed in utero in a specific region of the brain called the hypothalamus. Testosterone exposure in utero is what creates a distinction between male and female brains. The hypothalamus region is what makes someone feel like a female or male. Because sexual differentiation of the brain occurs after the sexual differentiation of the genitals, a person can have a female brain in a male body and vice versa. Further, there is the possibility that the hypothalamus can be exposed to levels of hormones that result in a neither fully male or female brain.
Is There A Difference Between The Genders?
To put it plainly: Nope! This kind of research may lead some to believe that there is an inherent difference between the genders and, therefore, gender inequality is justifiable. The truth is that when it comes to personality, cognition, and leadership, there is no real difference among the genders.
The idea that the genders are different is a myth and is used to amplify sexist norms, beliefs, and even legislation. There is an enormous amount of gender diversity and, therefore, possibility! However, we must work to restructure our ideas about gender norms and create equal opportunities for everyone. The best way to get started in this work is through exploring our internalized belief systems about gender roles and how they impact our sense of identity. By unpacking these ideas, we can make moves towards a more equitable, and safe world for all gender expressions.