Gender Equality: Why it Matters, Especially in a Time of Crisis

Bossoutrot Sylvie, Country Manager, World Bank Armenia

We have achieved much in recent history on the path to gender equality, but we have a long way to go to ensure equal endowments, participation, and voice for women.

The stakes are even higher now that the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) is ravaging the world, as times of great crisis often put women on the front lines. Women predominate in key roles as nurses, social workers, and caregivers.  They are also working as doctors and volunteers, and as political and community leaders making critical decisions about how to address the public health, social, and economic effects of the crisis.  Women’s participation will be vital to our success against this shared global threat.

Let us first acknowledge the progress made so far…

Today, we tend to take it for granted that women can vote. But - with the exception of a few frontrunners like New Zealand, Australia, and Finland - universal suffrage became a reality only after World War I. Eventually, voting rights for women were introduced into international law in 1948 by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

Women have also taken advantage of increased opportunities to serve as leaders. In 2019, women held nearly 1 in 4 legislative seats worldwide  - more than double their share in 1995. Management positions are also more likely to be held by women now than twenty years ago, though parity is still a long way off.

With greater representation comes improved outcomes. Looking at education, the world has seen enormous progress in reducing gaps between girls and boys across a variety of important areas such as enrollment rates and literacy outcomes.

In health, fewer mothers are dying in childbirth and significant increases in female life expectancy have followed. With few exceptions, women now outlive men in virtually every country.

In terms of labor participation, more women in countries at every level of income have been engaging in economic activities beyond non-market work in the home.

Around the world, many national reforms have been enacted in recent years to improve the status of women in the workplace, in marriage, and especially to protect women from violence.

Yet, there is still a long way to go…

Despite this meaningful progress, important gender gaps remain. These vary in scale from country to country and take different forms - from physical violence and deprivations to unequal opportunities in work or political life.

The World Health Organization estimates that over 1 in 3 women worldwide will experience violence in their lifetime.

Sadly, the risk of being subjected to violence increases in times of distress, such as the outbreak of COVID-19. The UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Dubravka Simonovic, warned that it was “very likely that rates of widespread domestic violence will increase, as already suggested by initial police and hotline reports.”

Gender disparities also take shape in unequal opportunities to participate fully in economic life. UN Women found that women are less likely than men to participate in the labor market and more likely to be unemployed.

Women are paid less, earning 77 cents to every dollar earned by a man, and bear disproportionate responsibility for unpaid care and domestic work (performing 76 percent of total hours of unpaid care work worldwide). In fact, if women’s unpaid work were assigned a monetary value, one study of six countries has suggested that it would constitute between 10 and 39 percent of GDP . 

These opportunity gaps suggest that women could be disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Women make up a larger share of health and social care workers around the world: 70 percent in 104 countries . Also, early analysis from the World Bank indicates that those in caregiving roles may face an increased burden in the wake of school closures, with working mothers finding themselves even more stretched than usual in trying to juggle home-based work, home-schooling, childcare, and housework.

Inequality of access is also a key concern. Globally, nearly 40 percent of women in wage employment are estimated to lack access to social protection .

Women are less likely than men to have access to financial institutions or to have a bank account. Although women-owned enterprises represent more than 30 percent of registered businesses worldwide, only 10 percent of women entrepreneurs have the capital they need to grow their businesses.

These gender gaps impose real costs on society…

As the World Bank Group’s Women, Business, and the Law 2020 points out, “equality of opportunity is good economics.” Indeed, it is estimated that women’s lagging participation in employment and entrepreneurship cost the world about 15 percent of its GDP .

In considering a “full potential” scenario in which women participated in the economy identically to men, McKinsey concluded that this would add $28 trillion (26 percent) to annual global GDP by 2025 as compared to business as usual.

Yet when girls are allowed to dream and realize their potential, we are all better off…

To quote the famous early 20 th century Armenian novelist and activist, Zabel Yesayan, “a woman is not born into this world to be pleasing. A woman is born to develop her mental, moral and physical abilities.”

Over the course of history, many women have embarked on a path of self-realization to the benefit of our society. Some are famous, some less so, but each contributed to advancing the world, whether by promoting human rights and peace, forging ahead in science, or serving on the front lines to save human lives and protect public health.

Let us pay tribute to just a few.

Marie Curie was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize (twice!) - in physics in 1903 for her work on radioactivity, and again in chemistry in 1911 for her study of the elements polonium and radium.

The first Chinese female Nobel laureate, Tu Youyou, received the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for her discoveries in advancing treatment for malaria, which have since saved millions of lives.

Katherine Hannan, responding to the Red Cross’s call for nurses, volunteered just as the United States entered WWI and the Spanish flu began to ravage the army and eventually the world. She quickly rose through the ranks to head nurse and superintendent, overseeing 100 nurses.

Mother Teresa was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her tireless humanitarian work on behalf of the poor and ailing in Calcutta.

And, today, women are helping lead the battle against COVID-19: on March 7, the Chinese authorities recognized 20 female medical workers for their outstanding and heroic role in the country's fight against the coronavirus outbreak.

Carolina Elliott, a local woman from Charlotte, North Carolina, in the United States, is organizing food deliveries to help doctors and nurses get “through grueling 12-hour shifts.” “Because when you’re busy in the hospital like that,” she says, “you don’t have time to think about food.”

Shobha Luxmi is one of the doctors leading the fight against COVID-19 in Pakistan. She heads an isolation ward for coronavirus patients at a Karachi hospital, which receives 500 patients a day. “I have almost been working round the clock. I just get a few hours of sleep, and even then I am thinking about the hospital,” she recounts .

And we also look up to the many anonymous and silent female heroes around the world who are caring for the growing number of sick people and helping the vulnerable who have been affected by the current pandemic.

Despite the added burdens, crises present an opportunity to improve gender equality…

Unfortunately, we are likely to see some setbacks in gender equality during the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath. The European Institute of Gender Equality has stated that the closure or near-closure of businesses could have a severe effect on women-dominated professions (such as flight attendants, hairdressers, and tour operators), and unpaid care work will continue to increase.

In highlighting the gendered impact of COVID-19, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has stated that, “Targeted measures to address the disproportionate impact of the crisis on women and girls are needed.”

The COVID-19 crisis has put unprecedented pressure on governments, development organizations, and communities. While we strive urgently to respond, we should not lose sight of our goal to achieve gender equality. Instead, we should make it part of our overall effort to tackle these unprecedented challenges and come out stronger afterward.

With contributions from Armine Grigoryan (Consultant, World Bank, Armenia) and Amanda Green (Consultant, World Bank).

Gender Equality Essay for Students and Children

500+ words essay on gender equality essay.

Equality or non-discrimination is that state where every individual gets equal opportunities and rights. Every individual of the society yearns for equal status, opportunity, and rights. However, it is a general observation that there exists lots of discrimination between humans. Discrimination exists because of cultural differences, geographical differences, and gender. Inequality based on gender is a concern that is prevalent in the entire world.  Even in the 21 st century, across globe men and women do not enjoy equal privileges. Gender equality means providing equal opportunities to both men and women in political, economic, education and health aspects.

gender equality essay

Importance of Gender Equality

A nation can progress and attain higher development growth only when both men and women are entitled to equal opportunities. Women in the society are often cornered and are refrained from getting equal rights as men to health, education, decision-making and economic independence in terms of wages.

The social structure that prevails since long in such a way that girls do not get equal opportunities as men. Women generally are the caregivers in the family. Because of this, women are mostly involved in household activities. There is lesser participation of women in higher education, decision-making roles, and leadership roles. This gender disparity is a hindrance in the growth rate of a country. When women participate in the workforce increases the economic growth rate of the country increases. Gender equality increases the overall wellbeing of the nation along with economic prosperity .

How is Gender Equality Measured?

Gender equality is an important factor in determining a country’s overall growth. There are several indexes to measure gender equality.

Gender-Related Development Index (GDI) –   GDI is a gender centric measure of Human Development Index. GDI considers parameters like life expectancy, education, and incomes in assessing the gender equality of a country.

Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM) – This measure includes much detail aspects like the proportion of seats than women candidates hold in national parliament, percentage of women at economic decision-making role, the income share of female employees.

Gender Equity Index (GEI) – GEI ranks countries on three parameters of gender inequality, those are education, economic participation, and empowerment. However, GEI ignores the health parameter.

Global Gender Gap Index – The World Economic Forum introduced the Global Gender Gap Index in 2006. This index focuses more on identifying the level of female disadvantage. The four important areas that the index considers are economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, political empowerment, health, and survival rate.

Get the huge list of more than 500 Essay Topics and Ideas

Gender Inequality in India

As per the World Economic Forum’s gender gap ranking, India stands at rank 108 out of 149 countries. This rank is a major concern as it highlights the immense gap in opportunities in women with comparison to men. In Indian society from a long time back, the social structure has been such that the women are neglected in many areas like education, health, decision-making areas, financial independence, etc.

Another major reason, which contributes to the discriminatory behavior towards women in India, is the dowry system in marriage.  Because of this dowry system, most Indian families consider girls as a burden.  Preference for son still prevails. Girls have refrained from higher education. Women are not entitled to equal job opportunities and wages. In the 21 st century, women are still preferred gender in home managing activities. Many women quit their job and opt-out from leadership roles because of family commitments. However, such actions are very uncommon among men.

For overall wellbeing and growth of a nation, scoring high on gender equality is the most crucial aspect. Countries with less disparity in gender equality have progressed a lot. The government of India has also started taking steps to ensure gender equality. Several laws and policies are prepared to encourage girls. “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao Yojana ” (Save girl, and make girls educated) campaign is created to spread awareness of the importance of girl child.  Several laws to protect girls are also there. However, we need more awareness of spreading knowledge of women rights . In addition, the government should take initiatives to check the correct and proper implementation of policies.

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  • 06 September 2023

Gender equality: the route to a better world

You have full access to this article via your institution.

The Mosuo People lives in China and they are the last matriarchy society. Lugu, Sichuan, China.

The Mosuo people of China include sub-communities in which inheritance passes down either the male or the female line. Credit: TPG/Getty

The fight for global gender equality is nowhere close to being won. Take education: in 87 countries, less than half of women and girls complete secondary schooling, according to 2023 data. Afghanistan’s Taliban continues to ban women and girls from secondary schools and universities . Or take reproductive health: abortion rights have been curtailed in 22 US states since the Supreme Court struck down federal protections, depriving women and girls of autonomy and restricting access to sexual and reproductive health care .

SDG 5, whose stated aim is to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”, is the fifth of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, all of which Nature is examining in a series of editorials. SDG 5 includes targets for ending discrimination and violence against women and girls in both public and private spheres, eradicating child marriage and female genital mutilation, ensuring sexual and reproductive rights, achieving equal representation of women in leadership positions and granting equal rights to economic resources. Globally, the goal is not on track to being achieved, and just a handful of countries have hit all the targets.

gender equality why it matters essay

How the world should oppose the Taliban’s war on women and girls

In July, the UN introduced two new indices (see ), the Women’s Empowerment Index (WEI) and the Global Gender Parity Index (GGPI). The WEI measures women’s ability and freedoms to make their own choices; the GGPI describes the gap between women and men in areas such as health, education, inclusion and decision making. The indices reveal, depressingly, that even achieving a small gender gap does not automatically translate to high levels of women’s empowerment: 114 countries feature in both indices, but countries that do well on both scores cover fewer than 1% of all girls and women.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made things worse, with women bearing the highest burden of extra unpaid childcare when schools needed to close, and subjected to intensified domestic violence. Although child marriages declined from 21% of all marriages in 2016 to 19% in 2022, the pandemic threatened even this incremental progress, pushing up to 10 million more girls into risk of child marriage over the next decade, in addition to the 100 million girls who were at risk before the pandemic.

Of the 14 indicators for SDG 5, only one or two are close to being met by the 2030 deadline. As of 1 January 2023, women occupied 35.4% of seats in local-government assemblies, an increase from 33.9% in 2020 (the target is gender parity by 2030). In 115 countries for which data were available, around three-quarters, on average, of the necessary laws guaranteeing full and equal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights had been enacted. But the UN estimates that worldwide, only 57% of women who are married or in a union make their own decisions regarding sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Systemic discrimination against girls and women by men, in many contexts, remains a colossal barrier to achieving gender equality. But patriarchy is not some “natural order of things” , argues Ruth Mace, an anthropologist at University College London. Hundreds of women-centred societies exist around the world. As the science writer Angela Saini describes in her latest book, The Patriarchs , these are often not the polar opposite of male-dominated systems, but societies in which men and women share decision making .

gender equality why it matters essay

After Roe v. Wade: dwindling US abortion access is harming health a year later

One example comes from the Mosuo people in China, who have both ‘matrilineal’ and ‘patrilineal’ communities, with rights such as inheritance passing down either the male or female line. Researchers compared outcomes for inflammation and hypertension in men and women in these communities, and found that women in matrilineal societies, in which they have greater autonomy and control over resources, experienced better health outcomes. The researchers found no significant negative effect of matriliny on health outcomes for men ( A.  Z. Reynolds et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 117 , 30324–30327; 2020 ).

When it comes to the SDGs, evidence is emerging that a more gender-equal approach to politics and power benefits many goals. In a study published in May, Nobue Amanuma, deputy director of the Integrated Sustainability Centre at the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies in Hayama, Japan, and two of her colleagues tested whether countries with more women legislators, and more younger legislators, are performing better in the SDGs ( N. Amanuma et al. Environ. Res. Lett. 18 , 054018; 2023 ). They found it was so, with the effect more marked for socio-economic goals such as ending poverty and hunger, than for environmental ones such as climate action or preserving life on land. The researchers recommend further qualitative and quantitative studies to better understand the reasons.

The reality that gender equality leads to better outcomes across other SDGs is not factored, however, into most of the goals themselves. Of the 230 unique indicators of the SDGs, 51 explicitly reference women, girls, gender or sex, including the 14 indicators in SDG 5. But there is not enough collaboration between organizations responsible for the different SDGs to ensure that sex and gender are taken into account. The indicator for the sanitation target (SDG 6) does not include data disaggregated by sex or gender ( Nature 620 , 7; 2023 ). Unless we have this knowledge, it will be hard to track improvements in this and other SDGs.

The road to a gender-equal world is long, and women’s power and freedom to make choices is still very constrained. But the evidence from science is getting stronger: distributing power between genders creates the kind of world we all need and want to be living in.

Nature 621 , 8 (2023)


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Gender equality: what is it and why do we need it?

We need gender equality urgently. Find out what gender equality means and why it's important.

We need gender equality urgently. Gender equality prevents violence against women and girls. It’s essential for economic prosperity. Societies that value women and men as equal are safer and healthier. Gender equality is a human right. Everyone benefits from gender equality. 

Gender inequality affects everyone

Gender equality is not a ‘women’s issue’. The effects of gender inequality touch all parts of our community. Gender stereotypes have negative effects on people of all genders.

The benefits of gender equality

Everyone benefits from gender equality. It helps prevent violence against women, is good for the economy, and makes our communities safer and healthier.

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Read our vision and strategy for gender equality in Victoria. We’re addressing gender inequality in these areas: leadership, cultural change, safety, work, economic security, health and wellbeing.

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The difference between gender equity and equality—and why it matters

Rwanda Classroom Women-Gender Equality

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day was centered around the notion that “[a]n equal world is an enabled world.” Indeed, there has been global progress toward a world that has gender equality; nearly 68% of the countries (101 of 149) included in the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap Report showed improvements in their scores for gender parity for 2019. 

But despite this progress, education is one of many areas in which men and women are still not equally enabled. So while the world is close to reaching gender parity in terms of access to primary education, girls still face more obstacles to their education than boys in low- and middle-income countries. Laws may enable girls to attend school, but in many countries there are still other barriers limiting girls’ education, such as families prioritizing boys’ education and cultural beliefs that girls should be limited to a future of raising children. 

The key to removing such barriers is to shift the mindset away from gender equality to one of gender equity. While gender equality is simply focused on providing men and women with the same equal opportunities (like making it legal for women to own land, or even attend school), gender equity works to correct the historical wrongs that have left women behind (such as societal restrictions on employment). Gender equity also means giving women the tools to succeed, like programs that offer conditional cash transfers to women. A focus on equity bridges the gaps in equality through laws and policies and gender-focused programs that don’t just level the playing field, but also work to change the culture to be more supportive of women. 

This cultural shift requires all people, from leaders to individual community members, to understand the difference between equity and equality and provide extra support to women, rather than just offer them the same opportunities as men. And it starts with each of us recognizing and breaking down the lingering barriers that prevent those opportunities from becoming a reality for many women.

By investing in their education, women gain more access to leadership positions , which also empowers them to improve the lives of people within their communities. The profound impact gender equity has is evident: When the status of women improved in low- and middle-income countries, for instance, there was a 47% reduction in childhood mortality , according to a 2015 study published in Biodemography and Social Biology.

In my country, Rwanda, the government and civil society have worked to promote an equity agenda , by not only ensuring equitable access to education, employment, and health care for women, but also promoting women as leaders in society. In medical school admissions in Rwanda, female candidates have been prioritized, with female enrollment rates increasing from 20% in 2017 to 48% in 2018 . Today, at the University of Global Health Equity in Rwanda, we are continuing these efforts to promote gender equity in our programs, by prioritizing that at least two-thirds of our medical students are women. And as these female physicians become leaders in our society, they will leverage their positions to lift other women up. 

Further, as a constitutional requirement in Rwanda, a minimum of one-third of positions in Parliament and all public institutions must be held by both genders, a policy enacted in 2003 , a time when women held very few leadership positions. Today 61% of Parliament is made up of women (the highest in the world) . Through efforts such as these, Rwanda has come closer to gender equality. According to the World Economic Forum, Rwanda holds the rank of the most gender equal country in sub-Saharan Africa, and the ninth-most gender-equal country in the world. In turn, promoting women in our society and, with a mindset of gender equity, ensuring they have the support they need to access education and quality health care have contributed—at least in part—to a decrease in maternal mortality by 80% from 2000 to 2017 and childhood mortality by 75% from 1992 to 2015. 

But Rwanda is just one example of progress toward both gender equity and equality, and there is still work to be done to reach a fully equitable global society. The world has failed on the promises made in the Beijing Declaration over the last 25 years to achieve true gender equality globally—and that failure stems from not having equity at the center of countries’ approaches. 

Today, our global society still has 10 years left to reach the goal of gender equality set by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals . To achieve this, it is time for all of us to shift from an equality to equity agenda and ensure that all are actively promoting and supporting women, in education and in all aspects of life. Only then can an equal and truly enabled world be achieved. 

Dr. Agnes Binagwaho, MD, M(Ped), Ph.D., is vice chancellor of the University of Global Health Equity in Rwanda.

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Ten things to know about gender equality

In 2015, the 193 member countries of the United Nations came together to commit to 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Goal 5 focused on gender equality and set the ambitious target of achieving gender equality  and empowering women and girls everywhere by 2030. Five years later, large gender gaps remain across the world, and the early evidence suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a regressive effect on gender equality.

How can we ensure that the role of women in the workplace and in society is central to efforts to rebuild economies in the COVID-19 era, and that women do not fall further behind? As world leaders at the UN General Assembly assess progress, look ahead to recovery, and commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women and the Beijing declaration , we offer our perspectives on the ten things everyone should know about gender equality.

1. Tackling the global gender gap will boost global GDP

Gender inequality is not only a pressing moral and social issue but also a critical economic challenge. A 2015 report from the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), The Power of Parity: How advancing women’s equality can add $12 trillion to global growth , explored the economic potential available if the global gender gap was narrowed. Five years ago, women generated 37 percent of global GDP despite accounting for 50 percent of the global working-age population. The research found that in a best-in-region scenario in which all countries match the performance of the country in their region that has made the most progress toward gender equality, $12 trillion a year could be added to GDP in 2025. That would be equivalent in size to the GDP of Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom combined, and roughly double the likely growth in global GDP contributed by female workers between 2014 and 2025 in a business-as-usual scenario. Both advanced and developing economies would stand to gain considerably; all regions could achieve at least 8 percent in incremental GDP over business-as-usual levels. In a full-potential scenario in which women match men’s participation in the workforce, their sector mix, and their full-time mix of jobs, the additional GDP opportunity could be $28 trillion, or an additional 26 percent of annual global GDP in 2025. That would be roughly equivalent to the GDP of the United States and China. As we note in item number 6, the COVID-19 pandemic has added new urgency—and new risks—to achieving the economic benefits of gender parity. We have updated our calculations accordingly.

2. Progress toward gender equality has been marginal since 2015; large gaps remain

Even before the COVID-19 crisis, global progress in tackling gender gaps—in both work and society—had been marginal since 2015. MGI mapped 15 indicators of gender equality in work (how men and women engage in paid work, how they share unpaid work, and their representation in high-productivity and formal jobs, and in leading positions in the economy) and society (essential services and enablers of economic opportunity like digital and financial inclusion, legal protection and political voice, and physical security and autonomy). Gender equality in society and gender equality in work are correlated based on MGI’s analysis of 125 countries. While absolute scores on equality in society tend to be higher than those of equality in work for most countries, we found virtually no countries with high equality on social indicators and low equality in employment and labor markets. This suggests that solutions need to tackle both.

We aggregated the 15 indicators into a Gender Parity Score, or GPS, ranging from zero (no gender equality) to one (full gender equality). In the past five years, progress has been marginal. Gender gaps remain across all regions (Exhibit 1). In 2015, the global GPS was 0.60; today, it is 0.61. For gender equality in work, the overall score in 2019 was 0.52, up from 0.51 in 2015. For gender equality in society, the overall score in 2019 was 0.67, up from 0.66 in 2015. These trends are similar across regions. The Middle East and North Africa region experienced the biggest increase in gender equality, rising from a global GPS of 0.47 in 2015 to 0.50 in 2019. However, some regions have experienced declines in either gender equality in work or gender equality in society since 2015.

All is not doom and gloom—there are significant bright spots to celebrate. Maternal mortality is decreasing in most places, and literacy and secondary education enrollment are increasing in many countries. At work, too, most countries are making slow and steady progress in equality. McKinsey has conducted research on gender diversity in North American companies in partnership with LeanIn.Org on since 2015. The research finds that 87 percent of North American companies today report gender diversity is a top priority , compared with 74 percent in 2015, but this reported priority still needs to translate into more decisive action. Representation of women in the C-suite in North America has increased to 21 percent, from 17 percent in 2015.

3. Over the past two decades, while women in advanced economies have made large gains as workers, consumers, and savers, they have faced rising costs and insecurity

Although women in advanced economies of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development have made far-reaching gains as workers, consumers, and savers  over the past two decades, much of this progress has been offset by rising costs and new forms of insecurity that disproportionately affect women. Between 2000 and 2018, women accounted for two-thirds of 45 million jobs created in 22 OECD countries, but many of these jobs were part-time or independent work that were less secure and offered lower pay and fewer benefits. In this period, female part-time employment increased by 2.3 percentage points, versus a 0.7-percentage-point increase in full-time employment for women. As consumers, women—and men—benefited from a sharp decline in the prices of many discretionary goods and services such as communications and recreation, but that was offset by rising costs of housing, healthcare, and education that absorbed 54 to 107 percent of the average household’s income gains in Australia, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. As savers, the outlook for women is also challenging. One study found that while women’s median net wealth is higher overall than it was two decades ago, a large gender gap remains. In Europe, women’s median net wealth is 62 percent that of men.

4. Women continue to work a double shift at home

While women face inequality in the world of work, they also face inequalities in the home. Around the world, women do three times as much unpaid care work as men. As one of many examples around the world, the “double shift” is a fact of life for millions of women in China , who go out to work but then do the lion’s share of work in the home as well. On average, they work nearly nine hours a day, and only about half of that is paid. Putting the two together, on average women in China work almost one entire day a week more than men. In some countries like India, women do almost ten times as much unpaid care work as men. This phenomenon is by no means confined to developing economies; it is a consistent fact that women work a double shift in advanced economies, too. In the United States, for instance, women still do almost twice as much unpaid care work  as men; 54 percent of women but only 22 percent of men report doing all or most of the housework . Even among individuals who earn the majority of their household’s income, 43 percent of women who are primary household income earners continue to do all or most of the household work, compared with only 12 percent of men. In addition, working women are more likely than their male colleagues to have a working spouse: 81 percent of women are part of a dual-career couple and have two careers to balance, while only 56 percent of men are part of a dual-career couple.

5. Women face growing challenges from automation

Growing automation adoption adds to the challenges that women face in the workplace. MGI research  found that the share of women whose jobs are replaced by machines and will likely need to make job transitions due to automation is roughly the same as for men: up to one in four over the next decade may have to shift to a different occupation. Between 40 million and 160 million women globally may need to transition between occupations by 2030, often into higher-skill roles (Exhibit 2).

The particular challenge for women is that long-standing barriers make it harder for them to adapt to the future of work. Women and men alike need to develop (1) the skills that will be in demand; (2) the flexibility and mobility needed to negotiate labor-market transitions successfully; and (3) the access to and knowledge of technology necessary to work with automated systems, including participating in its creation. Unfortunately, women often face long-established and pervasive structural and societal barriers that could hinder them in all three of these areas. Women may have less time to refresh or learn new skills or to search for employment because they spend much more time than men on unpaid care work. They may also face financial constraints in doing so. And they may not have the professional networks and sponsors that could make it easier for them to navigate job transitions, among other factors. Moreover, women tend to have less access to digital technology and lower participation in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields than men. If women make these transitions, they could find more productive, better-paid work; if they don’t, they could face a growing wage gap or leave the labor market altogether.

6. The challenge for women is now even greater as they experience economic fallout from COVID-19

Although the early evidence suggests that the COVID-19 infection has been more deadly for men than women—the death rate for men in countries like China, Italy, and South Korea has been almost double the rate for women—women’s economic prospects have been hit the hardest. On employment, our research  has found that women’s jobs globally are 1.8 times as vulnerable to this crisis as men’s jobs. Women make up 39 percent of global employment but accounted for 54 percent of overall job losses as of May 2020. Globally, part of the reason is that women are disproportionately represented in industries that are expected to decline the most in 2020 due to COVID-19 (Exhibit 3). Another factor is that during the pandemic, even more unpaid care work such as childcare and home schooling fell to women as nurseries and schools closed; in the United States, for example, the amount of time women spend on household responsibilities has increased by 1.5 to two hours, according to one study . The pandemic may have had noneconomic consequences for women, too—some reports suggest that the prevalence of violence against women from an intimate partner may have increased during lockdowns . If no action is taken to counter the gender-regressive impacts of COVID-19, we calculate that global GDP growth could be $1 trillion lower in 2030 than it would be if women’s unemployment simply tracked that of men in each sector. That hit to growth could be even larger if increased childcare responsibilities, a slower recovery, and reduced public and private spending on services such as education and childcare force women to leave the labor market permanently. However, if action is taken to advance gender equality, $12 trillion could be added to global GDP in 2030 compared with the baseline, as noted earlier; this implies a $13 trillion potential compared with the gender-regressive scenario in which global GDP slides back by $1 trillion in 2030. A middle path—taking action only after the crisis has subsided rather than now—would reduce the potential opportunity by more than $5 trillion.

7. We can grow our way out of some gender equality issues but not others

Even if policy makers and companies manage to craft a robust economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, there is no guarantee that a resumption of economic growth will help revive progress toward gender equality. For many years, it has been clear that economic growth (rising per capita GDP) does not lift all segments of the population—we cannot grow our way out of some aspects of gender equality.

In MGI’s 2015 power of parity report, we identified ten “impact zones.” These are the largest concentrations of gender inequality, where action to tackle gender gaps would have the most impact. In five global impact zones, gender inequality is high whether women live in an advanced or emerging economy: blocked economic potential (including women’s participation in leadership positions and formal work), time spent in unpaid care work, fewer legal rights, political underrepresentation, and violence against women. Today, for every 100 men in leadership positions globally, there are just 37 women. One in three women globally, including in developed countries like the United States, has experienced violence from an intimate partner at some time in her life. In these impact zones, economic growth alone is insufficient to guarantee progress; sustained and proactive interventions will be needed.

In contrast, in some geographies, economic growth could help advance gender inequality in five regional impact zones where certain aspects of gender inequality are most prominent. They are low labor-force participation in quality jobs (in South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa), low maternal and reproductive health (in sub-Saharan Africa), unequal education levels (in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa), financial and digital exclusion (in South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa), and girl-child vulnerability (in China and South Asia). For many of these impact zones, economic growth can increase the provision of services that could help improve outcomes. In Africa, for instance, rising per capita GDP should enable more healthcare provision, reducing maternal mortality. As countries increase their standard of living, girls typically attain increasing levels of education. In developed countries, women are now outperforming men academically on many dimensions. In the United States, for example, women receive 57 percent of college degrees, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and have higher overall average GPAs (but still lag behind men in STEM graduation rates).

8. Companies that are gender and ethnically diverse outperform their peers

Advancing gender equality is not just an opportunity for countries; companies also stand to gain. McKinsey research on Diversity Matters (2015), on Delivering through Diversity (2018), and most recently in May 2020 on Diversity Wins examined whether companies with higher levels of both gender and ethnic diversity have greater economic performance. The 2020 research examined a data set of more than 1,000 large companies in 15 countries and found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity were 25 percent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile. Companies in the top quartile of ethnic and cultural diversity were 36 percent more likely to outperform on profitability. The highest-performing companies on both profitability and diversity had more women in line roles (that is, owning a line of business) than in staff roles on their executive teams. The research also found a penalty for bottom-quartile performance on gender diversity: companies in the bottom quartile for both gender and ethnic diversity were 27 percent more likely to underperform the industry average than all other firms.

Given all the competing priorities arising from the current pandemic, there is a significant risk that inclusion and diversity may recede as strategic priorities for organizations as companies focus on recovery. Downgrading diversity could well be a mistake, compromising performance and thwarting efforts to strengthen recovery over time.

9. The corporate career pipeline for women is leaky, especially early on

Over the years, our research with LeanIn.Org has found some progress in the advancement of women through the corporate pipeline in North America. In the 2019 Women in the Workplace  report, we found that, of entry-level workers, 48 percent were women, compared with 45 percent in 2015. Women made up 21 percent of the C-suite, compared with 17 percent in 2019. However, as these numbers show, women are underrepresented at all levels of organizations, and the pipeline is leaky between the entry level and the C-suite. The biggest obstacle to women on the corporate ladder is a “broken rung” in the first step up to the manager level. For every 100 men hired or promoted to manager, there are only 72 women—and only 58 black women. After this initial degree of drop-off, it is very difficult for women to make up the ground lost. If differences in promotion rate are aggregated across five years, this equates to a difference of one million women in leadership roles.

Women of color are especially underrepresented in the North American workforce and face the steepest drop-offs. In North America, 18 percent of entry-level positions are held by women of color, but their representation in the C-suite is 4 percent, according to our 2019 Women in the Workplace research. These outcomes are mirrored in the day-to-day experiences of women of color in the workforce—56 percent of black women say they and their peers have equal opportunity for growth, compared with 69 percent of white women. Women of color also experience more workplace “microaggressions.” For example, 40 percent of black women and 30 percent of Asian women say they needed to provide more evidence of their competence than others, compared with 28 percent of white women and 14 percent of men.

We find similar trends across the world. Across Asia–Pacific , for instance, there is only one woman in leadership positions for every four men. In some countries in East Asia, there are only 12 to 20 women leaders for every 100 men.

10. All stakeholders need to work together to maintain and accelerate progress on gender equality

There is a huge amount to do, particularly given that the automation age and now COVID-19 mean that women face new challenges on top of old ones. The only way to breathe new life into efforts to meet Sustainable Development Goal 5 is for the main stakeholders to work together on comprehensive solutions to the complex issue of gender inequality. As governments design stimulus programs and companies look for restart strategies in the wake of the pandemic, it will be important not to ignore potential gender consequences; indeed, it’s time to double down by putting gender at the heart of these initiatives to capture opportunities. More data will be needed to ensure greater transparency and understanding of gender consequences.

National governments can enable change on a broader front using the law. For instance, they can remove legal barriers against women working (such as regulations prohibiting women from working night shifts) and can enforce laws protecting women from violence. The policy tool kit is wide-ranging, from financial support for women such as cash transfers, to tax regulations, childcare programs, and ensuring that public infrastructure is built and designed with gender in mind. The importance of reducing the gender gap in who takes responsibility for caregiving cannot be overstated, and governments can play an important role here. Some governments have enacted quotas to ensure a minimum level of women in leadership roles. Others have accelerated gender equality through incentives for women’s education, entrepreneurship, and business lending, for instance. Nongovernmental organizations also have an important role to play, for example in shaping attitudes and social norms. Many governments and NGOs have developed fruitful partnerships with companies to scale new solutions quickly. Finally, stimulus programs can be used to help invest in women and girls.

Companies can act on a number of fronts starting with their own employees, attracting, retaining, and promoting women and understanding where the pinch points in the talent pipeline are greatest. Leaders need to champion gender diversity, ensuring that hiring and promotions are fair and fostering an inclusive and respectful culture. In the COVID-19 era, many companies are exploring family-friendly policies, including flexible and part-time positions, to support workers experiencing an increased childcare burden, as well as rethinking performance reviews and promotions. Companies can use this moment to design and put in place policies and practices that can support women in the long term. Companies can also use their supply chains and procurement practices to support women-owned businesses and hold suppliers accountable to diversity and inclusion targets.

Individuals need to make a contribution, too, from advocating for themselves in their own careers to helping others advance through sponsorship and mentorship. At work, they can be proactive in supporting talented women and speaking up if they see unconscious bias or microaggressions. In their personal lives, they can explore their own biases, both conscious and unconscious. If they have families, they can aim to raise sons and daughters who are not constrained by gender. If they are investing, they can back companies that are driving gender equality in a way that is consistent with their values.

Five years after the introduction of the Sustainable Development Goals, progress on gender equality has been modest at best, and now the effort to narrow gender gaps faces new challenges in the form of automation trends and the regressive impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. With only ten years left to meet Goal 5, progress needs to accelerate. Achieving equality for half the world’s population is a global imperative that risks being undermined by competing priorities in a complex world and by the challenges of recovering from the pandemic. Creating more opportunity for women and the next generation is an aspiration and a very real goal that can lift the global economy as well as contributing to a more just society. It is a goal we need to meet collectively.

Mekala Krishnan

The authors wish to thank MGI’s co-chair James Manyika, based in San Francisco, and MGI director Jonathan Woetzel, in Shanghai, for their ongoing contributions to gender equality research.

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Why Aren’t We Making More Progress Towards Gender Equity?

  • Elisabeth Kelan

gender equality why it matters essay

Research on how “gender fatigue” is holding us back.

Despite many of the advances we’ve made toward gender equality in the past few decades, progress has been slow. Research shows that one reason may be that many managers acknowledge that the bias exists in general but fail to recognize it in their daily workplace interactions. This “gender fatigue” means that people aren’t motivated to make change in their organizations. Through ethnographic studies and interviews across industries, the author identified several rationalizations managers use to deny gender inequality. First, they assume it happens elsewhere, at a competitor, for example, but not in their own organization. Second, they believe that gender inequality existed in the past but is no longer an issue. Third, they point to the initiatives to support women as evidence that inequality has been addressed. Last, when they do see incidents of discrimination, they reason that the situation had nothing to do with gender. Until we stop denying inequality exists in our own organizations, it will be impossible to make progress.

Organizations have worked towards achieving gender equality for decades. They’ve invested resources into developing women’s careers. They’ve implemented bias awareness training. Those at the top, including many CEOs, have made public commitments to make their workplaces more fair and equitable. And, still, despite all of this, progress towards gender equality has been limited. In fact, many managers struggle to recognize gender inequalities in daily workplace interactions.

gender equality why it matters essay

  • EK Elisabeth Kelan is a Professor of Leadership and Organisation and a Leverhulme Trust Major Research Fellow at Essex Business School at University of Essex in the United Kingdom.

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Infographic: Why gender equality matters to achieving all 17 SDGs

Date: 05 July 2018

“Turning promises into action” is UN Women’s global report on gender equality in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development . It makes an urgent call to step up efforts to end discrimination against women and girls everywhere. This infographic puts a spotlight on where the global community stands on gender equality under each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and ends with a call to action on ways to make women and girls count going forward.  View/download print version »

Why gender equality matters to achieving SDG 1

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Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender

Feminism is said to be the movement to end women’s oppression (hooks 2000, 26). One possible way to understand ‘woman’ in this claim is to take it as a sex term: ‘woman’ picks out human females and being a human female depends on various biological and anatomical features (like genitalia). Historically many feminists have understood ‘woman’ differently: not as a sex term, but as a gender term that depends on social and cultural factors (like social position). In so doing, they distinguished sex (being female or male) from gender (being a woman or a man), although most ordinary language users appear to treat the two interchangeably. In feminist philosophy, this distinction has generated a lively debate. Central questions include: What does it mean for gender to be distinct from sex, if anything at all? How should we understand the claim that gender depends on social and/or cultural factors? What does it mean to be gendered woman, man, or genderqueer? This entry outlines and discusses distinctly feminist debates on sex and gender considering both historical and more contemporary positions.

1.1 Biological determinism

1.2 gender terminology, 2.1 gender socialisation, 2.2 gender as feminine and masculine personality, 2.3 gender as feminine and masculine sexuality, 3.1.1 particularity argument, 3.1.2 normativity argument, 3.2 is sex classification solely a matter of biology, 3.3 are sex and gender distinct, 3.4 is the sex/gender distinction useful, 4.1.1 gendered social series, 4.1.2 resemblance nominalism, 4.2.1 social subordination and gender, 4.2.2 gender uniessentialism, 4.2.3 gender as positionality, 5. beyond the binary, 6. conclusion, other internet resources, related entries, 1. the sex/gender distinction..

The terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ mean different things to different feminist theorists and neither are easy or straightforward to characterise. Sketching out some feminist history of the terms provides a helpful starting point.

Most people ordinarily seem to think that sex and gender are coextensive: women are human females, men are human males. Many feminists have historically disagreed and have endorsed the sex/ gender distinction. Provisionally: ‘sex’ denotes human females and males depending on biological features (chromosomes, sex organs, hormones and other physical features); ‘gender’ denotes women and men depending on social factors (social role, position, behaviour or identity). The main feminist motivation for making this distinction was to counter biological determinism or the view that biology is destiny.

A typical example of a biological determinist view is that of Geddes and Thompson who, in 1889, argued that social, psychological and behavioural traits were caused by metabolic state. Women supposedly conserve energy (being ‘anabolic’) and this makes them passive, conservative, sluggish, stable and uninterested in politics. Men expend their surplus energy (being ‘katabolic’) and this makes them eager, energetic, passionate, variable and, thereby, interested in political and social matters. These biological ‘facts’ about metabolic states were used not only to explain behavioural differences between women and men but also to justify what our social and political arrangements ought to be. More specifically, they were used to argue for withholding from women political rights accorded to men because (according to Geddes and Thompson) “what was decided among the prehistoric Protozoa cannot be annulled by Act of Parliament” (quoted from Moi 1999, 18). It would be inappropriate to grant women political rights, as they are simply not suited to have those rights; it would also be futile since women (due to their biology) would simply not be interested in exercising their political rights. To counter this kind of biological determinism, feminists have argued that behavioural and psychological differences have social, rather than biological, causes. For instance, Simone de Beauvoir famously claimed that one is not born, but rather becomes a woman, and that “social discrimination produces in women moral and intellectual effects so profound that they appear to be caused by nature” (Beauvoir 1972 [original 1949], 18; for more, see the entry on Simone de Beauvoir ). Commonly observed behavioural traits associated with women and men, then, are not caused by anatomy or chromosomes. Rather, they are culturally learned or acquired.

Although biological determinism of the kind endorsed by Geddes and Thompson is nowadays uncommon, the idea that behavioural and psychological differences between women and men have biological causes has not disappeared. In the 1970s, sex differences were used to argue that women should not become airline pilots since they will be hormonally unstable once a month and, therefore, unable to perform their duties as well as men (Rogers 1999, 11). More recently, differences in male and female brains have been said to explain behavioural differences; in particular, the anatomy of corpus callosum, a bundle of nerves that connects the right and left cerebral hemispheres, is thought to be responsible for various psychological and behavioural differences. For instance, in 1992, a Time magazine article surveyed then prominent biological explanations of differences between women and men claiming that women’s thicker corpus callosums could explain what ‘women’s intuition’ is based on and impair women’s ability to perform some specialised visual-spatial skills, like reading maps (Gorman 1992). Anne Fausto-Sterling has questioned the idea that differences in corpus callosums cause behavioural and psychological differences. First, the corpus callosum is a highly variable piece of anatomy; as a result, generalisations about its size, shape and thickness that hold for women and men in general should be viewed with caution. Second, differences in adult human corpus callosums are not found in infants; this may suggest that physical brain differences actually develop as responses to differential treatment. Third, given that visual-spatial skills (like map reading) can be improved by practice, even if women and men’s corpus callosums differ, this does not make the resulting behavioural differences immutable. (Fausto-Sterling 2000b, chapter 5).

In order to distinguish biological differences from social/psychological ones and to talk about the latter, feminists appropriated the term ‘gender’. Psychologists writing on transsexuality were the first to employ gender terminology in this sense. Until the 1960s, ‘gender’ was often used to refer to masculine and feminine words, like le and la in French. However, in order to explain why some people felt that they were ‘trapped in the wrong bodies’, the psychologist Robert Stoller (1968) began using the terms ‘sex’ to pick out biological traits and ‘gender’ to pick out the amount of femininity and masculinity a person exhibited. Although (by and large) a person’s sex and gender complemented each other, separating out these terms seemed to make theoretical sense allowing Stoller to explain the phenomenon of transsexuality: transsexuals’ sex and gender simply don’t match.

Along with psychologists like Stoller, feminists found it useful to distinguish sex and gender. This enabled them to argue that many differences between women and men were socially produced and, therefore, changeable. Gayle Rubin (for instance) uses the phrase ‘sex/gender system’ in order to describe “a set of arrangements by which the biological raw material of human sex and procreation is shaped by human, social intervention” (1975, 165). Rubin employed this system to articulate that “part of social life which is the locus of the oppression of women” (1975, 159) describing gender as the “socially imposed division of the sexes” (1975, 179). Rubin’s thought was that although biological differences are fixed, gender differences are the oppressive results of social interventions that dictate how women and men should behave. Women are oppressed as women and “by having to be women” (Rubin 1975, 204). However, since gender is social, it is thought to be mutable and alterable by political and social reform that would ultimately bring an end to women’s subordination. Feminism should aim to create a “genderless (though not sexless) society, in which one’s sexual anatomy is irrelevant to who one is, what one does, and with whom one makes love” (Rubin 1975, 204).

In some earlier interpretations, like Rubin’s, sex and gender were thought to complement one another. The slogan ‘Gender is the social interpretation of sex’ captures this view. Nicholson calls this ‘the coat-rack view’ of gender: our sexed bodies are like coat racks and “provide the site upon which gender [is] constructed” (1994, 81). Gender conceived of as masculinity and femininity is superimposed upon the ‘coat-rack’ of sex as each society imposes on sexed bodies their cultural conceptions of how males and females should behave. This socially constructs gender differences – or the amount of femininity/masculinity of a person – upon our sexed bodies. That is, according to this interpretation, all humans are either male or female; their sex is fixed. But cultures interpret sexed bodies differently and project different norms on those bodies thereby creating feminine and masculine persons. Distinguishing sex and gender, however, also enables the two to come apart: they are separable in that one can be sexed male and yet be gendered a woman, or vice versa (Haslanger 2000b; Stoljar 1995).

So, this group of feminist arguments against biological determinism suggested that gender differences result from cultural practices and social expectations. Nowadays it is more common to denote this by saying that gender is socially constructed. This means that genders (women and men) and gendered traits (like being nurturing or ambitious) are the “intended or unintended product[s] of a social practice” (Haslanger 1995, 97). But which social practices construct gender, what social construction is and what being of a certain gender amounts to are major feminist controversies. There is no consensus on these issues. (See the entry on intersections between analytic and continental feminism for more on different ways to understand gender.)

2. Gender as socially constructed

One way to interpret Beauvoir’s claim that one is not born but rather becomes a woman is to take it as a claim about gender socialisation: females become women through a process whereby they acquire feminine traits and learn feminine behaviour. Masculinity and femininity are thought to be products of nurture or how individuals are brought up. They are causally constructed (Haslanger 1995, 98): social forces either have a causal role in bringing gendered individuals into existence or (to some substantial sense) shape the way we are qua women and men. And the mechanism of construction is social learning. For instance, Kate Millett takes gender differences to have “essentially cultural, rather than biological bases” that result from differential treatment (1971, 28–9). For her, gender is “the sum total of the parents’, the peers’, and the culture’s notions of what is appropriate to each gender by way of temperament, character, interests, status, worth, gesture, and expression” (Millett 1971, 31). Feminine and masculine gender-norms, however, are problematic in that gendered behaviour conveniently fits with and reinforces women’s subordination so that women are socialised into subordinate social roles: they learn to be passive, ignorant, docile, emotional helpmeets for men (Millett 1971, 26). However, since these roles are simply learned, we can create more equal societies by ‘unlearning’ social roles. That is, feminists should aim to diminish the influence of socialisation.

Social learning theorists hold that a huge array of different influences socialise us as women and men. This being the case, it is extremely difficult to counter gender socialisation. For instance, parents often unconsciously treat their female and male children differently. When parents have been asked to describe their 24- hour old infants, they have done so using gender-stereotypic language: boys are describes as strong, alert and coordinated and girls as tiny, soft and delicate. Parents’ treatment of their infants further reflects these descriptions whether they are aware of this or not (Renzetti & Curran 1992, 32). Some socialisation is more overt: children are often dressed in gender stereotypical clothes and colours (boys are dressed in blue, girls in pink) and parents tend to buy their children gender stereotypical toys. They also (intentionally or not) tend to reinforce certain ‘appropriate’ behaviours. While the precise form of gender socialization has changed since the onset of second-wave feminism, even today girls are discouraged from playing sports like football or from playing ‘rough and tumble’ games and are more likely than boys to be given dolls or cooking toys to play with; boys are told not to ‘cry like a baby’ and are more likely to be given masculine toys like trucks and guns (for more, see Kimmel 2000, 122–126). [ 1 ]

According to social learning theorists, children are also influenced by what they observe in the world around them. This, again, makes countering gender socialisation difficult. For one, children’s books have portrayed males and females in blatantly stereotypical ways: for instance, males as adventurers and leaders, and females as helpers and followers. One way to address gender stereotyping in children’s books has been to portray females in independent roles and males as non-aggressive and nurturing (Renzetti & Curran 1992, 35). Some publishers have attempted an alternative approach by making their characters, for instance, gender-neutral animals or genderless imaginary creatures (like TV’s Teletubbies). However, parents reading books with gender-neutral or genderless characters often undermine the publishers’ efforts by reading them to their children in ways that depict the characters as either feminine or masculine. According to Renzetti and Curran, parents labelled the overwhelming majority of gender-neutral characters masculine whereas those characters that fit feminine gender stereotypes (for instance, by being helpful and caring) were labelled feminine (1992, 35). Socialising influences like these are still thought to send implicit messages regarding how females and males should act and are expected to act shaping us into feminine and masculine persons.

Nancy Chodorow (1978; 1995) has criticised social learning theory as too simplistic to explain gender differences (see also Deaux & Major 1990; Gatens 1996). Instead, she holds that gender is a matter of having feminine and masculine personalities that develop in early infancy as responses to prevalent parenting practices. In particular, gendered personalities develop because women tend to be the primary caretakers of small children. Chodorow holds that because mothers (or other prominent females) tend to care for infants, infant male and female psychic development differs. Crudely put: the mother-daughter relationship differs from the mother-son relationship because mothers are more likely to identify with their daughters than their sons. This unconsciously prompts the mother to encourage her son to psychologically individuate himself from her thereby prompting him to develop well defined and rigid ego boundaries. However, the mother unconsciously discourages the daughter from individuating herself thereby prompting the daughter to develop flexible and blurry ego boundaries. Childhood gender socialisation further builds on and reinforces these unconsciously developed ego boundaries finally producing feminine and masculine persons (1995, 202–206). This perspective has its roots in Freudian psychoanalytic theory, although Chodorow’s approach differs in many ways from Freud’s.

Gendered personalities are supposedly manifested in common gender stereotypical behaviour. Take emotional dependency. Women are stereotypically more emotional and emotionally dependent upon others around them, supposedly finding it difficult to distinguish their own interests and wellbeing from the interests and wellbeing of their children and partners. This is said to be because of their blurry and (somewhat) confused ego boundaries: women find it hard to distinguish their own needs from the needs of those around them because they cannot sufficiently individuate themselves from those close to them. By contrast, men are stereotypically emotionally detached, preferring a career where dispassionate and distanced thinking are virtues. These traits are said to result from men’s well-defined ego boundaries that enable them to prioritise their own needs and interests sometimes at the expense of others’ needs and interests.

Chodorow thinks that these gender differences should and can be changed. Feminine and masculine personalities play a crucial role in women’s oppression since they make females overly attentive to the needs of others and males emotionally deficient. In order to correct the situation, both male and female parents should be equally involved in parenting (Chodorow 1995, 214). This would help in ensuring that children develop sufficiently individuated senses of selves without becoming overly detached, which in turn helps to eradicate common gender stereotypical behaviours.

Catharine MacKinnon develops her theory of gender as a theory of sexuality. Very roughly: the social meaning of sex (gender) is created by sexual objectification of women whereby women are viewed and treated as objects for satisfying men’s desires (MacKinnon 1989). Masculinity is defined as sexual dominance, femininity as sexual submissiveness: genders are “created through the eroticization of dominance and submission. The man/woman difference and the dominance/submission dynamic define each other. This is the social meaning of sex” (MacKinnon 1989, 113). For MacKinnon, gender is constitutively constructed : in defining genders (or masculinity and femininity) we must make reference to social factors (see Haslanger 1995, 98). In particular, we must make reference to the position one occupies in the sexualised dominance/submission dynamic: men occupy the sexually dominant position, women the sexually submissive one. As a result, genders are by definition hierarchical and this hierarchy is fundamentally tied to sexualised power relations. The notion of ‘gender equality’, then, does not make sense to MacKinnon. If sexuality ceased to be a manifestation of dominance, hierarchical genders (that are defined in terms of sexuality) would cease to exist.

So, gender difference for MacKinnon is not a matter of having a particular psychological orientation or behavioural pattern; rather, it is a function of sexuality that is hierarchal in patriarchal societies. This is not to say that men are naturally disposed to sexually objectify women or that women are naturally submissive. Instead, male and female sexualities are socially conditioned: men have been conditioned to find women’s subordination sexy and women have been conditioned to find a particular male version of female sexuality as erotic – one in which it is erotic to be sexually submissive. For MacKinnon, both female and male sexual desires are defined from a male point of view that is conditioned by pornography (MacKinnon 1989, chapter 7). Bluntly put: pornography portrays a false picture of ‘what women want’ suggesting that women in actual fact are and want to be submissive. This conditions men’s sexuality so that they view women’s submission as sexy. And male dominance enforces this male version of sexuality onto women, sometimes by force. MacKinnon’s thought is not that male dominance is a result of social learning (see 2.1.); rather, socialization is an expression of power. That is, socialized differences in masculine and feminine traits, behaviour, and roles are not responsible for power inequalities. Females and males (roughly put) are socialised differently because there are underlying power inequalities. As MacKinnon puts it, ‘dominance’ (power relations) is prior to ‘difference’ (traits, behaviour and roles) (see, MacKinnon 1989, chapter 12). MacKinnon, then, sees legal restrictions on pornography as paramount to ending women’s subordinate status that stems from their gender.

3. Problems with the sex/gender distinction

3.1 is gender uniform.

The positions outlined above share an underlying metaphysical perspective on gender: gender realism . [ 2 ] That is, women as a group are assumed to share some characteristic feature, experience, common condition or criterion that defines their gender and the possession of which makes some individuals women (as opposed to, say, men). All women are thought to differ from all men in this respect (or respects). For example, MacKinnon thought that being treated in sexually objectifying ways is the common condition that defines women’s gender and what women as women share. All women differ from all men in this respect. Further, pointing out females who are not sexually objectified does not provide a counterexample to MacKinnon’s view. Being sexually objectified is constitutive of being a woman; a female who escapes sexual objectification, then, would not count as a woman.

One may want to critique the three accounts outlined by rejecting the particular details of each account. (For instance, see Spelman [1988, chapter 4] for a critique of the details of Chodorow’s view.) A more thoroughgoing critique has been levelled at the general metaphysical perspective of gender realism that underlies these positions. It has come under sustained attack on two grounds: first, that it fails to take into account racial, cultural and class differences between women (particularity argument); second, that it posits a normative ideal of womanhood (normativity argument).

Elizabeth Spelman (1988) has influentially argued against gender realism with her particularity argument. Roughly: gender realists mistakenly assume that gender is constructed independently of race, class, ethnicity and nationality. If gender were separable from, for example, race and class in this manner, all women would experience womanhood in the same way. And this is clearly false. For instance, Harris (1993) and Stone (2007) criticise MacKinnon’s view, that sexual objectification is the common condition that defines women’s gender, for failing to take into account differences in women’s backgrounds that shape their sexuality. The history of racist oppression illustrates that during slavery black women were ‘hypersexualised’ and thought to be always sexually available whereas white women were thought to be pure and sexually virtuous. In fact, the rape of a black woman was thought to be impossible (Harris 1993). So, (the argument goes) sexual objectification cannot serve as the common condition for womanhood since it varies considerably depending on one’s race and class. [ 3 ]

For Spelman, the perspective of ‘white solipsism’ underlies gender realists’ mistake. They assumed that all women share some “golden nugget of womanness” (Spelman 1988, 159) and that the features constitutive of such a nugget are the same for all women regardless of their particular cultural backgrounds. Next, white Western middle-class feminists accounted for the shared features simply by reflecting on the cultural features that condition their gender as women thus supposing that “the womanness underneath the Black woman’s skin is a white woman’s, and deep down inside the Latina woman is an Anglo woman waiting to burst through an obscuring cultural shroud” (Spelman 1988, 13). In so doing, Spelman claims, white middle-class Western feminists passed off their particular view of gender as “a metaphysical truth” (1988, 180) thereby privileging some women while marginalising others. In failing to see the importance of race and class in gender construction, white middle-class Western feminists conflated “the condition of one group of women with the condition of all” (Spelman 1988, 3).

Betty Friedan’s (1963) well-known work is a case in point of white solipsism. [ 4 ] Friedan saw domesticity as the main vehicle of gender oppression and called upon women in general to find jobs outside the home. But she failed to realize that women from less privileged backgrounds, often poor and non-white, already worked outside the home to support their families. Friedan’s suggestion, then, was applicable only to a particular sub-group of women (white middle-class Western housewives). But it was mistakenly taken to apply to all women’s lives — a mistake that was generated by Friedan’s failure to take women’s racial and class differences into account (hooks 2000, 1–3).

Spelman further holds that since social conditioning creates femininity and societies (and sub-groups) that condition it differ from one another, femininity must be differently conditioned in different societies. For her, “females become not simply women but particular kinds of women” (Spelman 1988, 113): white working-class women, black middle-class women, poor Jewish women, wealthy aristocratic European women, and so on.

This line of thought has been extremely influential in feminist philosophy. For instance, Young holds that Spelman has definitively shown that gender realism is untenable (1997, 13). Mikkola (2006) argues that this isn’t so. The arguments Spelman makes do not undermine the idea that there is some characteristic feature, experience, common condition or criterion that defines women’s gender; they simply point out that some particular ways of cashing out what defines womanhood are misguided. So, although Spelman is right to reject those accounts that falsely take the feature that conditions white middle-class Western feminists’ gender to condition women’s gender in general, this leaves open the possibility that women qua women do share something that defines their gender. (See also Haslanger [2000a] for a discussion of why gender realism is not necessarily untenable, and Stoljar [2011] for a discussion of Mikkola’s critique of Spelman.)

Judith Butler critiques the sex/gender distinction on two grounds. They critique gender realism with their normativity argument (1999 [original 1990], chapter 1); they also hold that the sex/gender distinction is unintelligible (this will be discussed in section 3.3.). Butler’s normativity argument is not straightforwardly directed at the metaphysical perspective of gender realism, but rather at its political counterpart: identity politics. This is a form of political mobilization based on membership in some group (e.g. racial, ethnic, cultural, gender) and group membership is thought to be delimited by some common experiences, conditions or features that define the group (Heyes 2000, 58; see also the entry on Identity Politics ). Feminist identity politics, then, presupposes gender realism in that feminist politics is said to be mobilized around women as a group (or category) where membership in this group is fixed by some condition, experience or feature that women supposedly share and that defines their gender.

Butler’s normativity argument makes two claims. The first is akin to Spelman’s particularity argument: unitary gender notions fail to take differences amongst women into account thus failing to recognise “the multiplicity of cultural, social, and political intersections in which the concrete array of ‘women’ are constructed” (Butler 1999, 19–20). In their attempt to undercut biologically deterministic ways of defining what it means to be a woman, feminists inadvertently created new socially constructed accounts of supposedly shared femininity. Butler’s second claim is that such false gender realist accounts are normative. That is, in their attempt to fix feminism’s subject matter, feminists unwittingly defined the term ‘woman’ in a way that implies there is some correct way to be gendered a woman (Butler 1999, 5). That the definition of the term ‘woman’ is fixed supposedly “operates as a policing force which generates and legitimizes certain practices, experiences, etc., and curtails and delegitimizes others” (Nicholson 1998, 293). Following this line of thought, one could say that, for instance, Chodorow’s view of gender suggests that ‘real’ women have feminine personalities and that these are the women feminism should be concerned about. If one does not exhibit a distinctly feminine personality, the implication is that one is not ‘really’ a member of women’s category nor does one properly qualify for feminist political representation.

Butler’s second claim is based on their view that“[i]dentity categories [like that of women] are never merely descriptive, but always normative, and as such, exclusionary” (Butler 1991, 160). That is, the mistake of those feminists Butler critiques was not that they provided the incorrect definition of ‘woman’. Rather, (the argument goes) their mistake was to attempt to define the term ‘woman’ at all. Butler’s view is that ‘woman’ can never be defined in a way that does not prescribe some “unspoken normative requirements” (like having a feminine personality) that women should conform to (Butler 1999, 9). Butler takes this to be a feature of terms like ‘woman’ that purport to pick out (what they call) ‘identity categories’. They seem to assume that ‘woman’ can never be used in a non-ideological way (Moi 1999, 43) and that it will always encode conditions that are not satisfied by everyone we think of as women. Some explanation for this comes from Butler’s view that all processes of drawing categorical distinctions involve evaluative and normative commitments; these in turn involve the exercise of power and reflect the conditions of those who are socially powerful (Witt 1995).

In order to better understand Butler’s critique, consider their account of gender performativity. For them, standard feminist accounts take gendered individuals to have some essential properties qua gendered individuals or a gender core by virtue of which one is either a man or a woman. This view assumes that women and men, qua women and men, are bearers of various essential and accidental attributes where the former secure gendered persons’ persistence through time as so gendered. But according to Butler this view is false: (i) there are no such essential properties, and (ii) gender is an illusion maintained by prevalent power structures. First, feminists are said to think that genders are socially constructed in that they have the following essential attributes (Butler 1999, 24): women are females with feminine behavioural traits, being heterosexuals whose desire is directed at men; men are males with masculine behavioural traits, being heterosexuals whose desire is directed at women. These are the attributes necessary for gendered individuals and those that enable women and men to persist through time as women and men. Individuals have “intelligible genders” (Butler 1999, 23) if they exhibit this sequence of traits in a coherent manner (where sexual desire follows from sexual orientation that in turn follows from feminine/ masculine behaviours thought to follow from biological sex). Social forces in general deem individuals who exhibit in coherent gender sequences (like lesbians) to be doing their gender ‘wrong’ and they actively discourage such sequencing of traits, for instance, via name-calling and overt homophobic discrimination. Think back to what was said above: having a certain conception of what women are like that mirrors the conditions of socially powerful (white, middle-class, heterosexual, Western) women functions to marginalize and police those who do not fit this conception.

These gender cores, supposedly encoding the above traits, however, are nothing more than illusions created by ideals and practices that seek to render gender uniform through heterosexism, the view that heterosexuality is natural and homosexuality is deviant (Butler 1999, 42). Gender cores are constructed as if they somehow naturally belong to women and men thereby creating gender dimorphism or the belief that one must be either a masculine male or a feminine female. But gender dimorphism only serves a heterosexist social order by implying that since women and men are sharply opposed, it is natural to sexually desire the opposite sex or gender.

Further, being feminine and desiring men (for instance) are standardly assumed to be expressions of one’s gender as a woman. Butler denies this and holds that gender is really performative. It is not “a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts follow; rather, gender is … instituted … through a stylized repetition of [habitual] acts ” (Butler 1999, 179): through wearing certain gender-coded clothing, walking and sitting in certain gender-coded ways, styling one’s hair in gender-coded manner and so on. Gender is not something one is, it is something one does; it is a sequence of acts, a doing rather than a being. And repeatedly engaging in ‘feminising’ and ‘masculinising’ acts congeals gender thereby making people falsely think of gender as something they naturally are . Gender only comes into being through these gendering acts: a female who has sex with men does not express her gender as a woman. This activity (amongst others) makes her gendered a woman.

The constitutive acts that gender individuals create genders as “compelling illusion[s]” (Butler 1990, 271). Our gendered classification scheme is a strong pragmatic construction : social factors wholly determine our use of the scheme and the scheme fails to represent accurately any ‘facts of the matter’ (Haslanger 1995, 100). People think that there are true and real genders, and those deemed to be doing their gender ‘wrong’ are not socially sanctioned. But, genders are true and real only to the extent that they are performed (Butler 1990, 278–9). It does not make sense, then, to say of a male-to-female trans person that s/he is really a man who only appears to be a woman. Instead, males dressing up and acting in ways that are associated with femininity “show that [as Butler suggests] ‘being’ feminine is just a matter of doing certain activities” (Stone 2007, 64). As a result, the trans person’s gender is just as real or true as anyone else’s who is a ‘traditionally’ feminine female or masculine male (Butler 1990, 278). [ 5 ] Without heterosexism that compels people to engage in certain gendering acts, there would not be any genders at all. And ultimately the aim should be to abolish norms that compel people to act in these gendering ways.

For Butler, given that gender is performative, the appropriate response to feminist identity politics involves two things. First, feminists should understand ‘woman’ as open-ended and “a term in process, a becoming, a constructing that cannot rightfully be said to originate or end … it is open to intervention and resignification” (Butler 1999, 43). That is, feminists should not try to define ‘woman’ at all. Second, the category of women “ought not to be the foundation of feminist politics” (Butler 1999, 9). Rather, feminists should focus on providing an account of how power functions and shapes our understandings of womanhood not only in the society at large but also within the feminist movement.

Many people, including many feminists, have ordinarily taken sex ascriptions to be solely a matter of biology with no social or cultural dimension. It is commonplace to think that there are only two sexes and that biological sex classifications are utterly unproblematic. By contrast, some feminists have argued that sex classifications are not unproblematic and that they are not solely a matter of biology. In order to make sense of this, it is helpful to distinguish object- and idea-construction (see Haslanger 2003b for more): social forces can be said to construct certain kinds of objects (e.g. sexed bodies or gendered individuals) and certain kinds of ideas (e.g. sex or gender concepts). First, take the object-construction of sexed bodies. Secondary sex characteristics, or the physiological and biological features commonly associated with males and females, are affected by social practices. In some societies, females’ lower social status has meant that they have been fed less and so, the lack of nutrition has had the effect of making them smaller in size (Jaggar 1983, 37). Uniformity in muscular shape, size and strength within sex categories is not caused entirely by biological factors, but depends heavily on exercise opportunities: if males and females were allowed the same exercise opportunities and equal encouragement to exercise, it is thought that bodily dimorphism would diminish (Fausto-Sterling 1993a, 218). A number of medical phenomena involving bones (like osteoporosis) have social causes directly related to expectations about gender, women’s diet and their exercise opportunities (Fausto-Sterling 2005). These examples suggest that physiological features thought to be sex-specific traits not affected by social and cultural factors are, after all, to some extent products of social conditioning. Social conditioning, then, shapes our biology.

Second, take the idea-construction of sex concepts. Our concept of sex is said to be a product of social forces in the sense that what counts as sex is shaped by social meanings. Standardly, those with XX-chromosomes, ovaries that produce large egg cells, female genitalia, a relatively high proportion of ‘female’ hormones, and other secondary sex characteristics (relatively small body size, less body hair) count as biologically female. Those with XY-chromosomes, testes that produce small sperm cells, male genitalia, a relatively high proportion of ‘male’ hormones and other secondary sex traits (relatively large body size, significant amounts of body hair) count as male. This understanding is fairly recent. The prevalent scientific view from Ancient Greeks until the late 18 th century, did not consider female and male sexes to be distinct categories with specific traits; instead, a ‘one-sex model’ held that males and females were members of the same sex category. Females’ genitals were thought to be the same as males’ but simply directed inside the body; ovaries and testes (for instance) were referred to by the same term and whether the term referred to the former or the latter was made clear by the context (Laqueur 1990, 4). It was not until the late 1700s that scientists began to think of female and male anatomies as radically different moving away from the ‘one-sex model’ of a single sex spectrum to the (nowadays prevalent) ‘two-sex model’ of sexual dimorphism. (For an alternative view, see King 2013.)

Fausto-Sterling has argued that this ‘two-sex model’ isn’t straightforward either (1993b; 2000a; 2000b). Based on a meta-study of empirical medical research, she estimates that 1.7% of population fail to neatly fall within the usual sex classifications possessing various combinations of different sex characteristics (Fausto-Sterling 2000a, 20). In her earlier work, she claimed that intersex individuals make up (at least) three further sex classes: ‘herms’ who possess one testis and one ovary; ‘merms’ who possess testes, some aspects of female genitalia but no ovaries; and ‘ferms’ who have ovaries, some aspects of male genitalia but no testes (Fausto-Sterling 1993b, 21). (In her [2000a], Fausto-Sterling notes that these labels were put forward tongue–in–cheek.) Recognition of intersex people suggests that feminists (and society at large) are wrong to think that humans are either female or male.

To illustrate further the idea-construction of sex, consider the case of the athlete Maria Patiño. Patiño has female genitalia, has always considered herself to be female and was considered so by others. However, she was discovered to have XY chromosomes and was barred from competing in women’s sports (Fausto-Sterling 2000b, 1–3). Patiño’s genitalia were at odds with her chromosomes and the latter were taken to determine her sex. Patiño successfully fought to be recognised as a female athlete arguing that her chromosomes alone were not sufficient to not make her female. Intersex people, like Patiño, illustrate that our understandings of sex differ and suggest that there is no immediately obvious way to settle what sex amounts to purely biologically or scientifically. Deciding what sex is involves evaluative judgements that are influenced by social factors.

Insofar as our cultural conceptions affect our understandings of sex, feminists must be much more careful about sex classifications and rethink what sex amounts to (Stone 2007, chapter 1). More specifically, intersex people illustrate that sex traits associated with females and males need not always go together and that individuals can have some mixture of these traits. This suggests to Stone that sex is a cluster concept: it is sufficient to satisfy enough of the sex features that tend to cluster together in order to count as being of a particular sex. But, one need not satisfy all of those features or some arbitrarily chosen supposedly necessary sex feature, like chromosomes (Stone 2007, 44). This makes sex a matter of degree and sex classifications should take place on a spectrum: one can be more or less female/male but there is no sharp distinction between the two. Further, intersex people (along with trans people) are located at the centre of the sex spectrum and in many cases their sex will be indeterminate (Stone 2007).

More recently, Ayala and Vasilyeva (2015) have argued for an inclusive and extended conception of sex: just as certain tools can be seen to extend our minds beyond the limits of our brains (e.g. white canes), other tools (like dildos) can extend our sex beyond our bodily boundaries. This view aims to motivate the idea that what counts as sex should not be determined by looking inwards at genitalia or other anatomical features. In a different vein, Ásta (2018) argues that sex is a conferred social property. This follows her more general conferralist framework to analyse all social properties: properties that are conferred by others thereby generating a social status that consists in contextually specific constraints and enablements on individual behaviour. The general schema for conferred properties is as follows (Ásta 2018, 8):

Conferred property: what property is conferred. Who: who the subjects are. What: what attitude, state, or action of the subjects matter. When: under what conditions the conferral takes place. Base property: what the subjects are attempting to track (consciously or not), if anything.

With being of a certain sex (e.g. male, female) in mind, Ásta holds that it is a conferred property that merely aims to track physical features. Hence sex is a social – or in fact, an institutional – property rather than a natural one. The schema for sex goes as follows (72):

Conferred property: being female, male. Who: legal authorities, drawing on the expert opinion of doctors, other medical personnel. What: “the recording of a sex in official documents ... The judgment of the doctors (and others) as to what sex role might be the most fitting, given the biological characteristics present.” When: at birth or after surgery/ hormonal treatment. Base property: “the aim is to track as many sex-stereotypical characteristics as possible, and doctors perform surgery in cases where that might help bring the physical characteristics more in line with the stereotype of male and female.”

This (among other things) offers a debunking analysis of sex: it may appear to be a natural property, but on the conferralist analysis is better understood as a conferred legal status. Ásta holds that gender too is a conferred property, but contra the discussion in the following section, she does not think that this collapses the distinction between sex and gender: sex and gender are differently conferred albeit both satisfying the general schema noted above. Nonetheless, on the conferralist framework what underlies both sex and gender is the idea of social construction as social significance: sex-stereotypical characteristics are taken to be socially significant context specifically, whereby they become the basis for conferring sex onto individuals and this brings with it various constraints and enablements on individuals and their behaviour. This fits object- and idea-constructions introduced above, although offers a different general framework to analyse the matter at hand.

In addition to arguing against identity politics and for gender performativity, Butler holds that distinguishing biological sex from social gender is unintelligible. For them, both are socially constructed:

If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called ‘sex’ is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all. (Butler 1999, 10–11)

(Butler is not alone in claiming that there are no tenable distinctions between nature/culture, biology/construction and sex/gender. See also: Antony 1998; Gatens 1996; Grosz 1994; Prokhovnik 1999.) Butler makes two different claims in the passage cited: that sex is a social construction, and that sex is gender. To unpack their view, consider the two claims in turn. First, the idea that sex is a social construct, for Butler, boils down to the view that our sexed bodies are also performative and, so, they have “no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute [their] reality” (1999, 173). Prima facie , this implausibly implies that female and male bodies do not have independent existence and that if gendering activities ceased, so would physical bodies. This is not Butler’s claim; rather, their position is that bodies viewed as the material foundations on which gender is constructed, are themselves constructed as if they provide such material foundations (Butler 1993). Cultural conceptions about gender figure in “the very apparatus of production whereby sexes themselves are established” (Butler 1999, 11).

For Butler, sexed bodies never exist outside social meanings and how we understand gender shapes how we understand sex (1999, 139). Sexed bodies are not empty matter on which gender is constructed and sex categories are not picked out on the basis of objective features of the world. Instead, our sexed bodies are themselves discursively constructed : they are the way they are, at least to a substantial extent, because of what is attributed to sexed bodies and how they are classified (for discursive construction, see Haslanger 1995, 99). Sex assignment (calling someone female or male) is normative (Butler 1993, 1). [ 6 ] When the doctor calls a newly born infant a girl or a boy, s/he is not making a descriptive claim, but a normative one. In fact, the doctor is performing an illocutionary speech act (see the entry on Speech Acts ). In effect, the doctor’s utterance makes infants into girls or boys. We, then, engage in activities that make it seem as if sexes naturally come in two and that being female or male is an objective feature of the world, rather than being a consequence of certain constitutive acts (that is, rather than being performative). And this is what Butler means in saying that physical bodies never exist outside cultural and social meanings, and that sex is as socially constructed as gender. They do not deny that physical bodies exist. But, they take our understanding of this existence to be a product of social conditioning: social conditioning makes the existence of physical bodies intelligible to us by discursively constructing sexed bodies through certain constitutive acts. (For a helpful introduction to Butler’s views, see Salih 2002.)

For Butler, sex assignment is always in some sense oppressive. Again, this appears to be because of Butler’s general suspicion of classification: sex classification can never be merely descriptive but always has a normative element reflecting evaluative claims of those who are powerful. Conducting a feminist genealogy of the body (or examining why sexed bodies are thought to come naturally as female and male), then, should ground feminist practice (Butler 1993, 28–9). Feminists should examine and uncover ways in which social construction and certain acts that constitute sex shape our understandings of sexed bodies, what kinds of meanings bodies acquire and which practices and illocutionary speech acts ‘make’ our bodies into sexes. Doing so enables feminists to identity how sexed bodies are socially constructed in order to resist such construction.

However, given what was said above, it is far from obvious what we should make of Butler’s claim that sex “was always already gender” (1999, 11). Stone (2007) takes this to mean that sex is gender but goes on to question it arguing that the social construction of both sex and gender does not make sex identical to gender. According to Stone, it would be more accurate for Butler to say that claims about sex imply gender norms. That is, many claims about sex traits (like ‘females are physically weaker than males’) actually carry implications about how women and men are expected to behave. To some extent the claim describes certain facts. But, it also implies that females are not expected to do much heavy lifting and that they would probably not be good at it. So, claims about sex are not identical to claims about gender; rather, they imply claims about gender norms (Stone 2007, 70).

Some feminists hold that the sex/gender distinction is not useful. For a start, it is thought to reflect politically problematic dualistic thinking that undercuts feminist aims: the distinction is taken to reflect and replicate androcentric oppositions between (for instance) mind/body, culture/nature and reason/emotion that have been used to justify women’s oppression (e.g. Grosz 1994; Prokhovnik 1999). The thought is that in oppositions like these, one term is always superior to the other and that the devalued term is usually associated with women (Lloyd 1993). For instance, human subjectivity and agency are identified with the mind but since women are usually identified with their bodies, they are devalued as human subjects and agents. The opposition between mind and body is said to further map on to other distinctions, like reason/emotion, culture/nature, rational/irrational, where one side of each distinction is devalued (one’s bodily features are usually valued less that one’s mind, rationality is usually valued more than irrationality) and women are associated with the devalued terms: they are thought to be closer to bodily features and nature than men, to be irrational, emotional and so on. This is said to be evident (for instance) in job interviews. Men are treated as gender-neutral persons and not asked whether they are planning to take time off to have a family. By contrast, that women face such queries illustrates that they are associated more closely than men with bodily features to do with procreation (Prokhovnik 1999, 126). The opposition between mind and body, then, is thought to map onto the opposition between men and women.

Now, the mind/body dualism is also said to map onto the sex/gender distinction (Grosz 1994; Prokhovnik 1999). The idea is that gender maps onto mind, sex onto body. Although not used by those endorsing this view, the basic idea can be summed by the slogan ‘Gender is between the ears, sex is between the legs’: the implication is that, while sex is immutable, gender is something individuals have control over – it is something we can alter and change through individual choices. However, since women are said to be more closely associated with biological features (and so, to map onto the body side of the mind/body distinction) and men are treated as gender-neutral persons (mapping onto the mind side), the implication is that “man equals gender, which is associated with mind and choice, freedom from body, autonomy, and with the public real; while woman equals sex, associated with the body, reproduction, ‘natural’ rhythms and the private realm” (Prokhovnik 1999, 103). This is said to render the sex/gender distinction inherently repressive and to drain it of any potential for emancipation: rather than facilitating gender role choice for women, it “actually functions to reinforce their association with body, sex, and involuntary ‘natural’ rhythms” (Prokhovnik 1999, 103). Contrary to what feminists like Rubin argued, the sex/gender distinction cannot be used as a theoretical tool that dissociates conceptions of womanhood from biological and reproductive features.

Moi has further argued that the sex/gender distinction is useless given certain theoretical goals (1999, chapter 1). This is not to say that it is utterly worthless; according to Moi, the sex/gender distinction worked well to show that the historically prevalent biological determinism was false. However, for her, the distinction does no useful work “when it comes to producing a good theory of subjectivity” (1999, 6) and “a concrete, historical understanding of what it means to be a woman (or a man) in a given society” (1999, 4–5). That is, the 1960s distinction understood sex as fixed by biology without any cultural or historical dimensions. This understanding, however, ignores lived experiences and embodiment as aspects of womanhood (and manhood) by separating sex from gender and insisting that womanhood is to do with the latter. Rather, embodiment must be included in one’s theory that tries to figure out what it is to be a woman (or a man).

Mikkola (2011) argues that the sex/gender distinction, which underlies views like Rubin’s and MacKinnon’s, has certain unintuitive and undesirable ontological commitments that render the distinction politically unhelpful. First, claiming that gender is socially constructed implies that the existence of women and men is a mind-dependent matter. This suggests that we can do away with women and men simply by altering some social practices, conventions or conditions on which gender depends (whatever those are). However, ordinary social agents find this unintuitive given that (ordinarily) sex and gender are not distinguished. Second, claiming that gender is a product of oppressive social forces suggests that doing away with women and men should be feminism’s political goal. But this harbours ontologically undesirable commitments since many ordinary social agents view their gender to be a source of positive value. So, feminism seems to want to do away with something that should not be done away with, which is unlikely to motivate social agents to act in ways that aim at gender justice. Given these problems, Mikkola argues that feminists should give up the distinction on practical political grounds.

Tomas Bogardus (2020) has argued in an even more radical sense against the sex/gender distinction: as things stand, he holds, feminist philosophers have merely assumed and asserted that the distinction exists, instead of having offered good arguments for the distinction. In other words, feminist philosophers allegedly have yet to offer good reasons to think that ‘woman’ does not simply pick out adult human females. Alex Byrne (2020) argues in a similar vein: the term ‘woman’ does not pick out a social kind as feminist philosophers have “assumed”. Instead, “women are adult human females–nothing more, and nothing less” (2020, 3801). Byrne offers six considerations to ground this AHF (adult, human, female) conception.

  • It reproduces the dictionary definition of ‘woman’.
  • One would expect English to have a word that picks out the category adult human female, and ‘woman’ is the only candidate.
  • AHF explains how we sometimes know that an individual is a woman, despite knowing nothing else relevant about her other than the fact that she is an adult human female.
  • AHF stands or falls with the analogous thesis for girls, which can be supported independently.
  • AHF predicts the correct verdict in cases of gender role reversal.
  • AHF is supported by the fact that ‘woman’ and ‘female’ are often appropriately used as stylistic variants of each other, even in hyperintensional contexts.

Robin Dembroff (2021) responds to Byrne and highlights various problems with Byrne’s argument. First, framing: Byrne assumes from the start that gender terms like ‘woman’ have a single invariant meaning thereby failing to discuss the possibility of terms like ‘woman’ having multiple meanings – something that is a familiar claim made by feminist theorists from various disciplines. Moreover, Byrne (according to Dembroff) assumes without argument that there is a single, universal category of woman – again, something that has been extensively discussed and critiqued by feminist philosophers and theorists. Second, Byrne’s conception of the ‘dominant’ meaning of woman is said to be cherry-picked and it ignores a wealth of contexts outside of philosophy (like the media and the law) where ‘woman’ has a meaning other than AHF . Third, Byrne’s own distinction between biological and social categories fails to establish what he intended to establish: namely, that ‘woman’ picks out a biological rather than a social kind. Hence, Dembroff holds, Byrne’s case fails by its own lights. Byrne (2021) responds to Dembroff’s critique.

Others such as ‘gender critical feminists’ also hold views about the sex/gender distinction in a spirit similar to Bogardus and Byrne. For example, Holly Lawford-Smith (2021) takes the prevalent sex/gender distinction, where ‘female’/‘male’ are used as sex terms and ‘woman’/’man’ as gender terms, not to be helpful. Instead, she takes all of these to be sex terms and holds that (the norms of) femininity/masculinity refer to gender normativity. Because much of the gender critical feminists’ discussion that philosophers have engaged in has taken place in social media, public fora, and other sources outside academic philosophy, this entry will not focus on these discussions.

4. Women as a group

The various critiques of the sex/gender distinction have called into question the viability of the category women . Feminism is the movement to end the oppression women as a group face. But, how should the category of women be understood if feminists accept the above arguments that gender construction is not uniform, that a sharp distinction between biological sex and social gender is false or (at least) not useful, and that various features associated with women play a role in what it is to be a woman, none of which are individually necessary and jointly sufficient (like a variety of social roles, positions, behaviours, traits, bodily features and experiences)? Feminists must be able to address cultural and social differences in gender construction if feminism is to be a genuinely inclusive movement and be careful not to posit commonalities that mask important ways in which women qua women differ. These concerns (among others) have generated a situation where (as Linda Alcoff puts it) feminists aim to speak and make political demands in the name of women, at the same time rejecting the idea that there is a unified category of women (2006, 152). If feminist critiques of the category women are successful, then what (if anything) binds women together, what is it to be a woman, and what kinds of demands can feminists make on behalf of women?

Many have found the fragmentation of the category of women problematic for political reasons (e.g. Alcoff 2006; Bach 2012; Benhabib 1992; Frye 1996; Haslanger 2000b; Heyes 2000; Martin 1994; Mikkola 2007; Stoljar 1995; Stone 2004; Tanesini 1996; Young 1997; Zack 2005). For instance, Young holds that accounts like Spelman’s reduce the category of women to a gerrymandered collection of individuals with nothing to bind them together (1997, 20). Black women differ from white women but members of both groups also differ from one another with respect to nationality, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation and economic position; that is, wealthy white women differ from working-class white women due to their economic and class positions. These sub-groups are themselves diverse: for instance, some working-class white women in Northern Ireland are starkly divided along religious lines. So if we accept Spelman’s position, we risk ending up with individual women and nothing to bind them together. And this is problematic: in order to respond to oppression of women in general, feminists must understand them as a category in some sense. Young writes that without doing so “it is not possible to conceptualize oppression as a systematic, structured, institutional process” (1997, 17). Some, then, take the articulation of an inclusive category of women to be the prerequisite for effective feminist politics and a rich literature has emerged that aims to conceptualise women as a group or a collective (e.g. Alcoff 2006; Ásta 2011; Frye 1996; 2011; Haslanger 2000b; Heyes 2000; Stoljar 1995, 2011; Young 1997; Zack 2005). Articulations of this category can be divided into those that are: (a) gender nominalist — positions that deny there is something women qua women share and that seek to unify women’s social kind by appealing to something external to women; and (b) gender realist — positions that take there to be something women qua women share (although these realist positions differ significantly from those outlined in Section 2). Below we will review some influential gender nominalist and gender realist positions. Before doing so, it is worth noting that not everyone is convinced that attempts to articulate an inclusive category of women can succeed or that worries about what it is to be a woman are in need of being resolved. Mikkola (2016) argues that feminist politics need not rely on overcoming (what she calls) the ‘gender controversy’: that feminists must settle the meaning of gender concepts and articulate a way to ground women’s social kind membership. As she sees it, disputes about ‘what it is to be a woman’ have become theoretically bankrupt and intractable, which has generated an analytical impasse that looks unsurpassable. Instead, Mikkola argues for giving up the quest, which in any case in her view poses no serious political obstacles.

Elizabeth Barnes (2020) responds to the need to offer an inclusive conception of gender somewhat differently, although she endorses the need for feminism to be inclusive particularly of trans people. Barnes holds that typically philosophical theories of gender aim to offer an account of what it is to be a woman (or man, genderqueer, etc.), where such an account is presumed to provide necessary and sufficient conditions for being a woman or an account of our gender terms’ extensions. But, she holds, it is a mistake to expect our theories of gender to do so. For Barnes, a project that offers a metaphysics of gender “should be understood as the project of theorizing what it is —if anything— about the social world that ultimately explains gender” (2020, 706). This project is not equivalent to one that aims to define gender terms or elucidate the application conditions for natural language gender terms though.

4.1 Gender nominalism

Iris Young argues that unless there is “some sense in which ‘woman’ is the name of a social collective [that feminism represents], there is nothing specific to feminist politics” (1997, 13). In order to make the category women intelligible, she argues that women make up a series: a particular kind of social collective “whose members are unified passively by the objects their actions are oriented around and/or by the objectified results of the material effects of the actions of the other” (Young 1997, 23). A series is distinct from a group in that, whereas members of groups are thought to self-consciously share certain goals, projects, traits and/ or self-conceptions, members of series pursue their own individual ends without necessarily having anything at all in common. Young holds that women are not bound together by a shared feature or experience (or set of features and experiences) since she takes Spelman’s particularity argument to have established definitely that no such feature exists (1997, 13; see also: Frye 1996; Heyes 2000). Instead, women’s category is unified by certain practico-inert realities or the ways in which women’s lives and their actions are oriented around certain objects and everyday realities (Young 1997, 23–4). For example, bus commuters make up a series unified through their individual actions being organised around the same practico-inert objects of the bus and the practice of public transport. Women make up a series unified through women’s lives and actions being organised around certain practico-inert objects and realities that position them as women .

Young identifies two broad groups of such practico-inert objects and realities. First, phenomena associated with female bodies (physical facts), biological processes that take place in female bodies (menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth) and social rules associated with these biological processes (social rules of menstruation, for instance). Second, gender-coded objects and practices: pronouns, verbal and visual representations of gender, gender-coded artefacts and social spaces, clothes, cosmetics, tools and furniture. So, women make up a series since their lives and actions are organised around female bodies and certain gender-coded objects. Their series is bound together passively and the unity is “not one that arises from the individuals called women” (Young 1997, 32).

Although Young’s proposal purports to be a response to Spelman’s worries, Stone has questioned whether it is, after all, susceptible to the particularity argument: ultimately, on Young’s view, something women as women share (their practico-inert realities) binds them together (Stone 2004).

Natalie Stoljar holds that unless the category of women is unified, feminist action on behalf of women cannot be justified (1995, 282). Stoljar too is persuaded by the thought that women qua women do not share anything unitary. This prompts her to argue for resemblance nominalism. This is the view that a certain kind of resemblance relation holds between entities of a particular type (for more on resemblance nominalism, see Armstrong 1989, 39–58). Stoljar is not alone in arguing for resemblance relations to make sense of women as a category; others have also done so, usually appealing to Wittgenstein’s ‘family resemblance’ relations (Alcoff 1988; Green & Radford Curry 1991; Heyes 2000; Munro 2006). Stoljar relies more on Price’s resemblance nominalism whereby x is a member of some type F only if x resembles some paradigm or exemplar of F sufficiently closely (Price 1953, 20). For instance, the type of red entities is unified by some chosen red paradigms so that only those entities that sufficiently resemble the paradigms count as red. The type (or category) of women, then, is unified by some chosen woman paradigms so that those who sufficiently resemble the woman paradigms count as women (Stoljar 1995, 284).

Semantic considerations about the concept woman suggest to Stoljar that resemblance nominalism should be endorsed (Stoljar 2000, 28). It seems unlikely that the concept is applied on the basis of some single social feature all and only women possess. By contrast, woman is a cluster concept and our attributions of womanhood pick out “different arrangements of features in different individuals” (Stoljar 2000, 27). More specifically, they pick out the following clusters of features: (a) Female sex; (b) Phenomenological features: menstruation, female sexual experience, child-birth, breast-feeding, fear of walking on the streets at night or fear of rape; (c) Certain roles: wearing typically female clothing, being oppressed on the basis of one’s sex or undertaking care-work; (d) Gender attribution: “calling oneself a woman, being called a woman” (Stoljar 1995, 283–4). For Stoljar, attributions of womanhood are to do with a variety of traits and experiences: those that feminists have historically termed ‘gender traits’ (like social, behavioural, psychological traits) and those termed ‘sex traits’. Nonetheless, she holds that since the concept woman applies to (at least some) trans persons, one can be a woman without being female (Stoljar 1995, 282).

The cluster concept woman does not, however, straightforwardly provide the criterion for picking out the category of women. Rather, the four clusters of features that the concept picks out help single out woman paradigms that in turn help single out the category of women. First, any individual who possesses a feature from at least three of the four clusters mentioned will count as an exemplar of the category. For instance, an African-American with primary and secondary female sex characteristics, who describes herself as a woman and is oppressed on the basis of her sex, along with a white European hermaphrodite brought up ‘as a girl’, who engages in female roles and has female phenomenological features despite lacking female sex characteristics, will count as woman paradigms (Stoljar 1995, 284). [ 7 ] Second, any individual who resembles “any of the paradigms sufficiently closely (on Price’s account, as closely as [the paradigms] resemble each other) will be a member of the resemblance class ‘woman’” (Stoljar 1995, 284). That is, what delimits membership in the category of women is that one resembles sufficiently a woman paradigm.

4.2 Neo-gender realism

In a series of articles collected in her 2012 book, Sally Haslanger argues for a way to define the concept woman that is politically useful, serving as a tool in feminist fights against sexism, and that shows woman to be a social (not a biological) notion. More specifically, Haslanger argues that gender is a matter of occupying either a subordinate or a privileged social position. In some articles, Haslanger is arguing for a revisionary analysis of the concept woman (2000b; 2003a; 2003b). Elsewhere she suggests that her analysis may not be that revisionary after all (2005; 2006). Consider the former argument first. Haslanger’s analysis is, in her terms, ameliorative: it aims to elucidate which gender concepts best help feminists achieve their legitimate purposes thereby elucidating those concepts feminists should be using (Haslanger 2000b, 33). [ 8 ] Now, feminists need gender terminology in order to fight sexist injustices (Haslanger 2000b, 36). In particular, they need gender terms to identify, explain and talk about persistent social inequalities between males and females. Haslanger’s analysis of gender begins with the recognition that females and males differ in two respects: physically and in their social positions. Societies in general tend to “privilege individuals with male bodies” (Haslanger 2000b, 38) so that the social positions they subsequently occupy are better than the social positions of those with female bodies. And this generates persistent sexist injustices. With this in mind, Haslanger specifies how she understands genders:

S is a woman iff [by definition] S is systematically subordinated along some dimension (economic, political, legal, social, etc.), and S is ‘marked’ as a target for this treatment by observed or imagined bodily features presumed to be evidence of a female’s biological role in reproduction.
S is a man iff [by definition] S is systematically privileged along some dimension (economic, political, legal, social, etc.), and S is ‘marked’ as a target for this treatment by observed or imagined bodily features presumed to be evidence of a male’s biological role in reproduction. (2003a, 6–7)

These are constitutive of being a woman and a man: what makes calling S a woman apt, is that S is oppressed on sex-marked grounds; what makes calling S a man apt, is that S is privileged on sex-marked grounds.

Haslanger’s ameliorative analysis is counterintuitive in that females who are not sex-marked for oppression, do not count as women. At least arguably, the Queen of England is not oppressed on sex-marked grounds and so, would not count as a woman on Haslanger’s definition. And, similarly, all males who are not privileged would not count as men. This might suggest that Haslanger’s analysis should be rejected in that it does not capture what language users have in mind when applying gender terms. However, Haslanger argues that this is not a reason to reject the definitions, which she takes to be revisionary: they are not meant to capture our intuitive gender terms. In response, Mikkola (2009) has argued that revisionary analyses of gender concepts, like Haslanger’s, are both politically unhelpful and philosophically unnecessary.

Note also that Haslanger’s proposal is eliminativist: gender justice would eradicate gender, since it would abolish those sexist social structures responsible for sex-marked oppression and privilege. If sexist oppression were to cease, women and men would no longer exist (although there would still be males and females). Not all feminists endorse such an eliminativist view though. Stone holds that Haslanger does not leave any room for positively revaluing what it is to be a woman: since Haslanger defines woman in terms of subordination,

any woman who challenges her subordinate status must by definition be challenging her status as a woman, even if she does not intend to … positive change to our gender norms would involve getting rid of the (necessarily subordinate) feminine gender. (Stone 2007, 160)

But according to Stone this is not only undesirable – one should be able to challenge subordination without having to challenge one’s status as a woman. It is also false: “because norms of femininity can be and constantly are being revised, women can be women without thereby being subordinate” (Stone 2007, 162; Mikkola [2016] too argues that Haslanger’s eliminativism is troublesome).

Theodore Bach holds that Haslanger’s eliminativism is undesirable on other grounds, and that Haslanger’s position faces another more serious problem. Feminism faces the following worries (among others):

Representation problem : “if there is no real group of ‘women’, then it is incoherent to make moral claims and advance political policies on behalf of women” (Bach 2012, 234). Commonality problems : (1) There is no feature that all women cross-culturally and transhistorically share. (2) Delimiting women’s social kind with the help of some essential property privileges those who possess it, and marginalizes those who do not (Bach 2012, 235).

According to Bach, Haslanger’s strategy to resolve these problems appeals to ‘social objectivism’. First, we define women “according to a suitably abstract relational property” (Bach 2012, 236), which avoids the commonality problems. Second, Haslanger employs “an ontologically thin notion of ‘objectivity’” (Bach 2012, 236) that answers the representation problem. Haslanger’s solution (Bach holds) is specifically to argue that women make up an objective type because women are objectively similar to one another, and not simply classified together given our background conceptual schemes. Bach claims though that Haslanger’s account is not objective enough, and we should on political grounds “provide a stronger ontological characterization of the genders men and women according to which they are natural kinds with explanatory essences” (Bach 2012, 238). He thus proposes that women make up a natural kind with a historical essence:

The essential property of women, in virtue of which an individual is a member of the kind ‘women,’ is participation in a lineage of women. In order to exemplify this relational property, an individual must be a reproduction of ancestral women, in which case she must have undergone the ontogenetic processes through which a historical gender system replicates women. (Bach 2012, 271)

In short, one is not a woman due to shared surface properties with other women (like occupying a subordinate social position). Rather, one is a woman because one has the right history: one has undergone the ubiquitous ontogenetic process of gender socialization. Thinking about gender in this way supposedly provides a stronger kind unity than Haslanger’s that simply appeals to shared surface properties.

Not everyone agrees; Mikkola (2020) argues that Bach’s metaphysical picture has internal tensions that render it puzzling and that Bach’s metaphysics does not provide good responses to the commonality and presentation problems. The historically essentialist view also has anti-trans implications. After all, trans women who have not undergone female gender socialization won’t count as women on his view (Mikkola [2016, 2020] develops this line of critique in more detail). More worryingly, trans women will count as men contrary to their self-identification. Both Bettcher (2013) and Jenkins (2016) consider the importance of gender self-identification. Bettcher argues that there is more than one ‘correct’ way to understand womanhood: at the very least, the dominant (mainstream), and the resistant (trans) conceptions. Dominant views like that of Bach’s tend to erase trans people’s experiences and to marginalize trans women within feminist movements. Rather than trans women having to defend their self-identifying claims, these claims should be taken at face value right from the start. And so, Bettcher holds, “in analyzing the meaning of terms such as ‘woman,’ it is inappropriate to dismiss alternative ways in which those terms are actually used in trans subcultures; such usage needs to be taken into consideration as part of the analysis” (2013, 235).

Specifically with Haslanger in mind and in a similar vein, Jenkins (2016) discusses how Haslanger’s revisionary approach unduly excludes some trans women from women’s social kind. On Jenkins’s view, Haslanger’s ameliorative methodology in fact yields more than one satisfying target concept: one that “corresponds to Haslanger’s proposed concept and captures the sense of gender as an imposed social class”; another that “captures the sense of gender as a lived identity” (Jenkins 2016, 397). The latter of these allows us to include trans women into women’s social kind, who on Haslanger’s social class approach to gender would inappropriately have been excluded. (See Andler 2017 for the view that Jenkins’s purportedly inclusive conception of gender is still not fully inclusive. Jenkins 2018 responds to this charge and develops the notion of gender identity still further.)

In addition to her revisionary argument, Haslanger has suggested that her ameliorative analysis of woman may not be as revisionary as it first seems (2005, 2006). Although successful in their reference fixing, ordinary language users do not always know precisely what they are talking about. Our language use may be skewed by oppressive ideologies that can “mislead us about the content of our own thoughts” (Haslanger 2005, 12). Although her gender terminology is not intuitive, this could simply be because oppressive ideologies mislead us about the meanings of our gender terms. Our everyday gender terminology might mean something utterly different from what we think it means; and we could be entirely ignorant of this. Perhaps Haslanger’s analysis, then, has captured our everyday gender vocabulary revealing to us the terms that we actually employ: we may be applying ‘woman’ in our everyday language on the basis of sex-marked subordination whether we take ourselves to be doing so or not. If this is so, Haslanger’s gender terminology is not radically revisionist.

Saul (2006) argues that, despite it being possible that we unknowingly apply ‘woman’ on the basis of social subordination, it is extremely difficult to show that this is the case. This would require showing that the gender terminology we in fact employ is Haslanger’s proposed gender terminology. But discovering the grounds on which we apply everyday gender terms is extremely difficult precisely because they are applied in various and idiosyncratic ways (Saul 2006, 129). Haslanger, then, needs to do more in order to show that her analysis is non-revisionary.

Charlotte Witt (2011a; 2011b) argues for a particular sort of gender essentialism, which Witt terms ‘uniessentialism’. Her motivation and starting point is the following: many ordinary social agents report gender being essential to them and claim that they would be a different person were they of a different sex/gender. Uniessentialism attempts to understand and articulate this. However, Witt’s work departs in important respects from the earlier (so-called) essentialist or gender realist positions discussed in Section 2: Witt does not posit some essential property of womanhood of the kind discussed above, which failed to take women’s differences into account. Further, uniessentialism differs significantly from those position developed in response to the problem of how we should conceive of women’s social kind. It is not about solving the standard dispute between gender nominalists and gender realists, or about articulating some supposedly shared property that binds women together and provides a theoretical ground for feminist political solidarity. Rather, uniessentialism aims to make good the widely held belief that gender is constitutive of who we are. [ 9 ]

Uniessentialism is a sort of individual essentialism. Traditionally philosophers distinguish between kind and individual essentialisms: the former examines what binds members of a kind together and what do all members of some kind have in common qua members of that kind. The latter asks: what makes an individual the individual it is. We can further distinguish two sorts of individual essentialisms: Kripkean identity essentialism and Aristotelian uniessentialism. The former asks: what makes an individual that individual? The latter, however, asks a slightly different question: what explains the unity of individuals? What explains that an individual entity exists over and above the sum total of its constituent parts? (The standard feminist debate over gender nominalism and gender realism has largely been about kind essentialism. Being about individual essentialism, Witt’s uniessentialism departs in an important way from the standard debate.) From the two individual essentialisms, Witt endorses the Aristotelian one. On this view, certain functional essences have a unifying role: these essences are responsible for the fact that material parts constitute a new individual, rather than just a lump of stuff or a collection of particles. Witt’s example is of a house: the essential house-functional property (what the entity is for, what its purpose is) unifies the different material parts of a house so that there is a house, and not just a collection of house-constituting particles (2011a, 6). Gender (being a woman/a man) functions in a similar fashion and provides “the principle of normative unity” that organizes, unifies and determines the roles of social individuals (Witt 2011a, 73). Due to this, gender is a uniessential property of social individuals.

It is important to clarify the notions of gender and social individuality that Witt employs. First, gender is a social position that “cluster[s] around the engendering function … women conceive and bear … men beget” (Witt 2011a, 40). These are women and men’s socially mediated reproductive functions (Witt 2011a, 29) and they differ from the biological function of reproduction, which roughly corresponds to sex on the standard sex/gender distinction. Witt writes: “to be a woman is to be recognized to have a particular function in engendering, to be a man is to be recognized to have a different function in engendering” (2011a, 39). Second, Witt distinguishes persons (those who possess self-consciousness), human beings (those who are biologically human) and social individuals (those who occupy social positions synchronically and diachronically). These ontological categories are not equivalent in that they possess different persistence and identity conditions. Social individuals are bound by social normativity, human beings by biological normativity. These normativities differ in two respects: first, social norms differ from one culture to the next whereas biological norms do not; second, unlike biological normativity, social normativity requires “the recognition by others that an agent is both responsive to and evaluable under a social norm” (Witt 2011a, 19). Thus, being a social individual is not equivalent to being a human being. Further, Witt takes personhood to be defined in terms of intrinsic psychological states of self-awareness and self-consciousness. However, social individuality is defined in terms of the extrinsic feature of occupying a social position, which depends for its existence on a social world. So, the two are not equivalent: personhood is essentially about intrinsic features and could exist without a social world, whereas social individuality is essentially about extrinsic features that could not exist without a social world.

Witt’s gender essentialist argument crucially pertains to social individuals , not to persons or human beings: saying that persons or human beings are gendered would be a category mistake. But why is gender essential to social individuals? For Witt, social individuals are those who occupy positions in social reality. Further, “social positions have norms or social roles associated with them; a social role is what an individual who occupies a given social position is responsive to and evaluable under” (Witt 2011a, 59). However, qua social individuals, we occupy multiple social positions at once and over time: we can be women, mothers, immigrants, sisters, academics, wives, community organisers and team-sport coaches synchronically and diachronically. Now, the issue for Witt is what unifies these positions so that a social individual is constituted. After all, a bundle of social position occupancies does not make for an individual (just as a bundle of properties like being white , cube-shaped and sweet do not make for a sugar cube). For Witt, this unifying role is undertaken by gender (being a woman or a man): it is

a pervasive and fundamental social position that unifies and determines all other social positions both synchronically and diachronically. It unifies them not physically, but by providing a principle of normative unity. (2011a, 19–20)

By ‘normative unity’, Witt means the following: given our social roles and social position occupancies, we are responsive to various sets of social norms. These norms are “complex patterns of behaviour and practices that constitute what one ought to do in a situation given one’s social position(s) and one’s social context” (Witt 2011a, 82). The sets of norms can conflict: the norms of motherhood can (and do) conflict with the norms of being an academic philosopher. However, in order for this conflict to exist, the norms must be binding on a single social individual. Witt, then, asks: what explains the existence and unity of the social individual who is subject to conflicting social norms? The answer is gender.

Gender is not just a social role that unifies social individuals. Witt takes it to be the social role — as she puts it, it is the mega social role that unifies social agents. First, gender is a mega social role if it satisfies two conditions (and Witt claims that it does): (1) if it provides the principle of synchronic and diachronic unity of social individuals, and (2) if it inflects and defines a broad range of other social roles. Gender satisfies the first in usually being a life-long social position: a social individual persists just as long as their gendered social position persists. Further, Witt maintains, trans people are not counterexamples to this claim: transitioning entails that the old social individual has ceased to exist and a new one has come into being. And this is consistent with the same person persisting and undergoing social individual change via transitioning. Gender satisfies the second condition too. It inflects other social roles, like being a parent or a professional. The expectations attached to these social roles differ depending on the agent’s gender, since gender imposes different social norms to govern the execution of the further social roles. Now, gender — as opposed to some other social category, like race — is not just a mega social role; it is the unifying mega social role. Cross-cultural and trans-historical considerations support this view. Witt claims that patriarchy is a social universal (2011a, 98). By contrast, racial categorisation varies historically and cross-culturally, and racial oppression is not a universal feature of human cultures. Thus, gender has a better claim to being the social role that is uniessential to social individuals. This account of gender essentialism not only explains social agents’ connectedness to their gender, but it also provides a helpful way to conceive of women’s agency — something that is central to feminist politics.

Linda Alcoff holds that feminism faces an identity crisis: the category of women is feminism’s starting point, but various critiques about gender have fragmented the category and it is not clear how feminists should understand what it is to be a woman (2006, chapter 5). In response, Alcoff develops an account of gender as positionality whereby “gender is, among other things, a position one occupies and from which one can act politically” (2006, 148). In particular, she takes one’s social position to foster the development of specifically gendered identities (or self-conceptions): “The very subjectivity (or subjective experience of being a woman) and the very identity of women are constituted by women’s position” (Alcoff 2006, 148). Alcoff holds that there is an objective basis for distinguishing individuals on the grounds of (actual or expected) reproductive roles:

Women and men are differentiated by virtue of their different relationship of possibility to biological reproduction, with biological reproduction referring to conceiving, giving birth, and breast-feeding, involving one’s body . (Alcoff 2006, 172, italics in original)

The thought is that those standardly classified as biologically female, although they may not actually be able to reproduce, will encounter “a different set of practices, expectations, and feelings in regard to reproduction” than those standardly classified as male (Alcoff 2006, 172). Further, this differential relation to the possibility of reproduction is used as the basis for many cultural and social phenomena that position women and men: it can be

the basis of a variety of social segregations, it can engender the development of differential forms of embodiment experienced throughout life, and it can generate a wide variety of affective responses, from pride, delight, shame, guilt, regret, or great relief from having successfully avoided reproduction. (Alcoff 2006, 172)

Reproduction, then, is an objective basis for distinguishing individuals that takes on a cultural dimension in that it positions women and men differently: depending on the kind of body one has, one’s lived experience will differ. And this fosters the construction of gendered social identities: one’s role in reproduction helps configure how one is socially positioned and this conditions the development of specifically gendered social identities.

Since women are socially positioned in various different contexts, “there is no gender essence all women share” (Alcoff 2006, 147–8). Nonetheless, Alcoff acknowledges that her account is akin to the original 1960s sex/gender distinction insofar as sex difference (understood in terms of the objective division of reproductive labour) provides the foundation for certain cultural arrangements (the development of a gendered social identity). But, with the benefit of hindsight

we can see that maintaining a distinction between the objective category of sexed identity and the varied and culturally contingent practices of gender does not presume an absolute distinction of the old-fashioned sort between culture and a reified nature. (Alcoff 2006, 175)

That is, her view avoids the implausible claim that sex is exclusively to do with nature and gender with culture. Rather, the distinction on the basis of reproductive possibilities shapes and is shaped by the sorts of cultural and social phenomena (like varieties of social segregation) these possibilities gives rise to. For instance, technological interventions can alter sex differences illustrating that this is the case (Alcoff 2006, 175). Women’s specifically gendered social identities that are constituted by their context dependent positions, then, provide the starting point for feminist politics.

Recently Robin Dembroff (2020) has argued that existing metaphysical accounts of gender fail to address non-binary gender identities. This generates two concerns. First, metaphysical accounts of gender (like the ones outlined in previous sections) are insufficient for capturing those who reject binary gender categorisation where people are either men or women. In so doing, these accounts are not satisfying as explanations of gender understood in a more expansive sense that goes beyond the binary. Second, the failure to understand non-binary gender identities contributes to a form of epistemic injustice called ‘hermeneutical injustice’: it feeds into a collective failure to comprehend and analyse concepts and practices that undergird non-binary classification schemes, thereby impeding on one’s ability to fully understand themselves. To overcome these problems, Dembroff suggests an account of genderqueer that they call ‘critical gender kind’:

a kind whose members collectively destabilize one or more elements of dominant gender ideology. Genderqueer, on my proposed model, is a category whose members collectively destabilize the binary axis, or the idea that the only possible genders are the exclusive and exhaustive kinds men and women. (2020, 2)

Note that Dembroff’s position is not to be confused with ‘gender critical feminist’ positions like those noted above, which are critical of the prevalent feminist focus on gender, as opposed to sex, kinds. Dembroff understands genderqueer as a gender kind, but one that is critical of dominant binary understandings of gender.

Dembroff identifies two modes of destabilising the gender binary: principled and existential. Principled destabilising “stems from or otherwise expresses individuals’ social or political commitments regarding gender norms, practices, and structures”, while existential destabilising “stems from or otherwise expresses individuals’ felt or desired gender roles, embodiment, and/or categorization” (2020, 13). These modes are not mutually exclusive, and they can help us understand the difference between allies and members of genderqueer kinds: “While both resist dominant gender ideology, members of [genderqueer] kinds resist (at least in part) due to felt or desired gender categorization that deviates from dominant expectations, norms, and assumptions” (2020, 14). These modes of destabilisation also enable us to formulate an understanding of non-critical gender kinds that binary understandings of women and men’s kinds exemplify. Dembroff defines these kinds as follows:

For a given kind X , X is a non-critical gender kind relative to a given society iff X ’s members collectively restabilize one or more elements of the dominant gender ideology in that society. (2020, 14)

Dembroff’s understanding of critical and non-critical gender kinds importantly makes gender kind membership something more and other than a mere psychological phenomenon. To engage in collectively destabilising or restabilising dominant gender normativity and ideology, we need more than mere attitudes or mental states – resisting or maintaining such normativity requires action as well. In so doing, Dembroff puts their position forward as an alternative to two existing internalist positions about gender. First, to Jennifer McKitrick’s (2015) view whereby gender is dispositional: in a context where someone is disposed to behave in ways that would be taken by others to be indicative of (e.g.) womanhood, the person has a woman’s gender identity. Second, to Jenkin’s (2016, 2018) position that takes an individual’s gender identity to be dependent on which gender-specific norms the person experiences as being relevant to them. On this view, someone is a woman if the person experiences norms associated with women to be relevant to the person in the particular social context that they are in. Neither of these positions well-captures non-binary identities, Dembroff argues, which motivates the account of genderqueer identities as critical gender kinds.

As Dembroff acknowledges, substantive philosophical work on non-binary gender identities is still developing. However, it is important to note that analytic philosophers are beginning to engage in gender metaphysics that goes beyond the binary.

This entry first looked at feminist objections to biological determinism and the claim that gender is socially constructed. Next, it examined feminist critiques of prevalent understandings of gender and sex, and the distinction itself. In response to these concerns, the entry looked at how a unified women’s category could be articulated for feminist political purposes. This illustrated that gender metaphysics — or what it is to be a woman or a man or a genderqueer person — is still very much a live issue. And although contemporary feminist philosophical debates have questioned some of the tenets and details of the original 1960s sex/gender distinction, most still hold onto the view that gender is about social factors and that it is (in some sense) distinct from biological sex. The jury is still out on what the best, the most useful, or (even) the correct definition of gender is.

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Beauvoir, Simone de | feminist philosophy, approaches: intersections between analytic and continental philosophy | feminist philosophy, topics: perspectives on reproduction and the family | feminist philosophy, topics: perspectives on the self | homosexuality | identity politics | speech acts


I am very grateful to Tuukka Asplund, Jenny Saul, Alison Stone and Nancy Tuana for their extremely helpful and detailed comments when writing this entry.

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How tennis inequality lets women down: Prize money, scheduling and Saudi Arabia

This article is part of the launch of extended tennis coverage on The Athletic , which will go beyond the baseline to bring you the biggest stories on and off the court. To follow the tennis vertical, click here .

Last month at the Madrid Open, Coco Gauff was warming up on the least desirable practice courts when she saw some male players — without small numbers next to their names — on the much better courts.


Gauff is familiar with the misogynist history of the tournament . She partnered with compatriot Jessica Pegula against Victoria Azarenka and Beatriz Haddad Maia in the women’s doubles final in 2023, after Azarenka and other players commented on unfair scheduling and the size disparity of birthday cakes for Carlos Alcaraz and Aryna Sabalenka.

Officials refused to let the foursome speak after the match.

Gauff said she had seen progress this year. But she couldn’t help but notice the weirdness: she, a Grand Slam champion and the world No 3, was warming up at an event just one rung below the U.S. Open on “really bad” courts.

“When you look out on the practice court and you see guys who are ranked 30 or 40 spots lower than you on the court, you’re like ‘OK, what happened?’” she said a few days later.

gender equality why it matters essay

Maybe that doesn’t sound like a big deal. She played her match on the top court, in a desirable time slot. There are plenty of benefits that Gauff and a handful of other women at the top of tennis enjoy, including prize money and endorsements that can reach into the tens of millions of dollars.

Still, to exist as a female tennis player in 2024 is to endure what can feel like endless slights: the micro-aggressions baked in; the structural inequality foundational to a sport run mostly by men; stark set-piece examples of inequality that can be hard to comprehend and harder to endure, for their magnitude, their reasoning, or more commonly both.

“I get a little bit frustrated here because I feel some tournaments in Europe can fancy men more than women,” Ons Jabeur, the two-time Wimbledon finalist from Tunisia, told The Athletic in Madrid.

“I see that especially on social media, more posts about the men, more this more that and for me it’s really frustrating because we play really well. And it’s such, you know, an amazing sport for women. So I wish we can be more seen,” she said.

“I think we deserve better.”

It’s not just Europe.

Jabeur, 29, just finished playing the Italian Open, where the women competed for a prize pool of $5.5 million. The men’s equivalent was $8.5 million.

In August, the men and women arrive at the Western & Southern Open in Mason, Ohio. The men play for $7.9 million; the women for $6.8 million, even though the tournament owner, Ben Navarro, has a daughter, Emma, who plays on the WTA Tour.

A tournament spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

Consider that m ore generally, the WTA Tour’s most lucrative route to additional funding centers on being in lockstep with the ATP Tour men, over letting Saudi Arabia, a country where women do not have equal rights, pump money into tennis.

H ow else do elite women get the short end of the racket handle in the sport to which they dedicate their lives?

Let us count — just some of — the ways.


Tennis’ top women say the sport is broken. This is why

Ever the bridesmaid

It’s the final weekend of a Grand Slam tournament . The women’s singles final takes place on the Saturday. The climax arrives 24 hours later, with the men’s final.

It’s been that way basically forever. There’s an implicit message that everyone in tennis, from the little girl who just started taking lessons to the world No 1, receives.

Tournament officials often say it has to be this way. The men play best-of-five sets in the Grand Slams; the women play best-of-three . (We’ll get to that. We have thoughts.)

Whoever plays the final on Saturday has to have one day during the tournament where two players compete on consecutive days, between the second day of quarter-finals and the semi-finals. Since the men play longer matches, it wouldn’t be fair for their semi-finalists to have to play on consecutive days, would it?

gender equality why it matters essay

Perhaps not. The French and Australian Opens now stretch their first round over three days, and the other Grand Slams could follow suit. Surely there is a permutation that allows the men and women who have reached the late stages of the peak of their sport equal rest?

Of course, there are also television contracts that exist — television contracts that get renegotiated all the time. If there is a will, perhaps there is a way.

If there is a will.

Darren Pearce, chief spokesperson for Tennis Australia, said they have looked at a swap and will continue to do so. They moved the women’s final to Saturday night in 2009 to maximize domestic exposure, but they have to consider time zones and international exposure as well. Pearce cited Australian Ash Barty ’s win in 2022  as an example of the Saturday offering “so much more coverage and exposure in Australia.”

The U.S. Open has looked at swapping the two finals “in an effort to optimize viewership and interest,” said Brendan McIntire, a USTA spokesperson.

Last week (Wednesday May 15), ESPN announced that its free-to-air broadcaster, ABC, will show the U.S. Open men’s final , though the women’s final the day before will remain on the pay channel, ESPN, because ABC has contractual commitments to college football that Saturday.

The U.S. women’s final has outperformed the men’s final four of the past five years in television viewership, and the men’s final competes with the opening weekend of the NFL. In this case, the second-class spot may be a blessing.

What about the big mixed events where both the women and the men play best-of-three sets? 

Indian Wells has a finals Sunday on which both the women and the men play — guess who plays first? Cincinnati will hold the finals on the same day this year, and we’ll see who goes first. Miami, Madrid and Rome have the women play Saturday, the men Sunday. 

“ I don’t really think that it’s just a question of money, but also respect,” Jabeur said. “ It’s small details that make the difference.” 

It happens in a macro way, too. The WTA Tour Finals take place the week before the ATP Tour Finals . The Billie Jean King Cup wraps up before the Davis Cup, although there will be overlap from this year.

gender equality why it matters essay

Next year, Great Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association will host a women’s WTA 500 at the Queen’s Club in London . It will begin immediately after the French Open, the week before the men take the stage at Queen’s, and in the build-up the focus has been not on the benefits of a women’s tournament at such a prestigious event, but whether or not the ATP is happy that the grass will be pristine enough for male feet after a week of tennis.

There will not be equal prize money.


What's the one thing you would change about tennis?

Games, sets, and matches

Jessica Pegula, the world No 5 and a member of the WTA Player Council made it very clear at the French Open in 2022.

“I don’t want to play three out of five,” Pegula said. 

She’s hardly the only one. It’s a slog, with matches that can stretch beyond five hours, and then you have to do it all over again two days later. There is not a throng of women’s players clamoring for best-of-five tennis at the Grand Slams.

It’s still t he third rail of equality in tennis. 

gender equality why it matters essay

Best-of-five sets only exists at the Grand Slams, where women and men compete for the same prize money — and a lot of folks complain that it’s equal pay for less work every time it comes up. It’s a prime example of another uneven dynamic, where women have to account for every possible bad-faith accusation that could emerge before opening their mouths on the biggest issues in their sport.

Duration isn’t the only element of work. Best-of-three requires immediate competitiveness, with little time for recovery. It’s not Swiatek’s fault that she is so good at plowing through the competition, and it’s no player’s fault that the best players in the men’s game might drop two sets to lesser opponents and have to claw back three.

It’s also not any WTA player’s fault that tennis audiences sometimes dismiss the variety of styles in the women’s game as “boring” — though they’re probably talking without watching. Anyone who has watched a WTA match this year, especially between Swiatek, Sabalenka, Gauff, and Rybakina would have to agree with the Pole’s comments after her Madrid final against Sabalenka.

“ Who’s gonna say now that women ‘s tennis is boring? ”


Men's grand-slam matches are 25% longer than in 1999. Does something need to change?

Stardom also fluctuates. When Wimbledon, and the French, U.S. and Australian Opens sell tickets, sponsorships and media rights, they mostly don’t sell separately for the men’s tournament and the women’s tournament. There were plenty of days and nights when Serena Williams was the featured match in New York and elsewhere, and a couple of guys were the undercard or the afterthought. In Rome this month, where men and women play best-of-three, the WTA semi-finals featured the top three players on tour and the best form player of 2024 in Danielle Collins , with the final again between world No 1 Swiatek and world No 2 Sabalenka.

The men’s semi-finalists had an average ranking of 19, with one of the finalists, Alexander Zverev, about to defend himself in a domestic abuse hearing while continuing to play . Some of that is to do with the caprices of injury and form — but they are intrinsic parts of tennis, and they don’t change the fact that the WTA Tour appears to be locking in to a generational rivalry while the ATP Tour is in relative flux.

If a similar dynamic emerges at Roland Garros, is the men’s event still qualitatively better because of two more sets?

Billie Jean King, the trailblazing Grand Slam champion and founding figurehead of the WTA Tour, is adamant: as long as there are different formats, there will be inequality.

Hang around with her even a little bit, and three phrases keep coming up.

“Same format.” “Equal content.” “Equal exposure.”

To King, if a women’s match only lasts 60 percent as long as a men’s match, then they will receive 60 percent of the television exposure as the men, and spend 60 percent of the time on the biggest courts in the biggest tournaments.

gender equality why it matters essay

That math practically guarantees that women are less well-known and attract less money. There are exceptions — Williams, Maria Sharapova, Naomi Osaka , Emma Raducanu, Coco Gauff — but the numbers are hard to overcome. World No 1 Swiatek has recently bagged the huge sponsorships her status deserves, but it’s taken time.


Iga Swiatek's 100 weeks as world No 1: The streak, the slams, the bagels

Tournament directors say having men and women play best-of-five is impossible from a scheduling perspective. Too many too-long matches. Too few courts. And the players don’t want it.

King and others have offered a solution — best-of-three for everyone the first week; best-of-five the second. There’s precedent — 50 years ago at the French Open, the men played best-of-three for the first two rounds. Bjorn Borg and Chris Evert won their first Grand Slam titles, and you might remember that they did pretty well after that. The sun also continued to rise in the east.

The knock-on effects of the current system on scheduling also virtually guarantee more conflict and inequality — sometimes in the name of equality.

As night follows day

Tennis players of a certain age who spent time around private clubs remember times not very long ago when men got first dibs on high-demand slots. Elina Svitolina said that the men (regular players, not tour stars) still get the prime slots at the club near her home in Monte Carlo. Svitolina, top 20 in her sport, formerly a world No 3, had to practice early morning or at dusk.

Three years ago, the French Open started holding a night session with a featured singles match, which now starts at at 8:15 p.m. in the main stadium, Court Philippe Chatrier. The tournament markets it as the match of the day. The U.S. and Australian Open schedule two matches in their night sessions, until the late rounds.

gender equality why it matters essay

During the first three years, Roland Garros organizers scheduled a total of four women’s matches at night. Amelie Mauresmo, the former women’s world No 1 and tournament director, initially justified the disparity by explaining that men’s tennis is more appealing.

She tried to walk that back but also explained that charging a premium for a session that might finish in an hour is problematic — a knock-on effect of those unequal formats that deprives top women of a primetime audience. Moving a doubles match onto Chatrier after Iga Swiatek blows through an opponent 6-0, 6-1 isn’t seen as viable.

Swiatek made it clear last year that she doesn’t care for playing at night.

“There are players who like the hype and the energy, and maybe the conditions, but for me it’s more comfortable to just have the normal day/night rhythm,” Swiatek said. “I think it’s more healthy for me to play day sessions.”

That was arguably a self-inflicted wound, as were Aryna Sabalenka’s recent comments about preferring men’s tennis . However, this also illustrates another unspoken dynamic: women have to be extra careful not to say anything denigrating about their sport, lest they get criticized for not supporting fellow players, even though a top men’s player saying something about their sport would likely not be considered an existential threat to its repute.

It’s also rare that male players speak up. Andy Murray’s corrections of journalists’ “first…” stats are an exception: the three-time Grand Slam champion has routinely reminded journalists of their forgetting about the Williams sisters, most notably in 2017 when a reporter claimed Sam Querrey was the first American to reach a major semi-final since 2009. Canadian Denis Shapovalov wrote that “I think some people might think of gender equality as mere political correctness” in an essay on the equal pay in the Players’ Tribune in 2023.

Furthermore, it’s well-documented that top men’s players have unspoken preferences, which they often communicate to tournaments, and which tournaments — unspokenly — try to accommodate or nudge around. (They do this some for top women, too). Rafael Nadal has said clay-court tennis should never take place at night, and it goes on.

gender equality why it matters essay

The other scheduling inequality also happens at night. No-one, man or woman, wants to play the second late match at the U.S. or Australian Open, with a ridiculous start time .

The men argue that if women are getting equal pay then they should play the late match half the time. OK, but then a men’s match goes five sets in four hours and the women start at 11:30 pm in an empty stadium.

Sometimes scheduling benefits to men happen so fast no one really notices. The Madrid Open experimented with a new doubles format this year, cramming the men’s event mostly into the second half of the second week.

That meant men who weren’t playing the singles got an extra week off. A highly-ranked man who lost early could find a doubles partner, and with him an extra few days of free food, lodging and practice. Nice.

The women’s doubles? It started at the start. They didn’t have that option. Organizers didn’t purposefully set out to deprive them; it just happened, and they had to deal with it.

This attitude extends to matters of inequality in planning and infrastructure off-court, too; anxiety about change doesn’t just extend to the number of sets played or matches scheduled.

Wimbledon only relaxed its all-white dress code after concerns from players about menstruation last year, where the tournament previously required all clothing, including underwear, to be white. At the time, Magda Linette told The Athletic that she has “had a couple of situations at Wimbledon where I felt very uncomfortable,” and welcomed the change, but it had required strident protest at the previous year’s tournament to make it happen.

Top players have become increasingly open about discussing the impact of menstruation on form and performance, with numerous female players talking about PMS’ impact on their game — albeit while coding it as “girl things” in press conferences. China’s Zheng Qinwen saw cramps derail what would have been a famous victory against Iga Swiatek at the French Open in 2022, while Swiatek herself opened up about PMS contributing to her loss to Maria Sakkari of Greece at the same tournament in 2021. “PMS really hit me that day. I’m telling this for every young girl who doesn’t know what’s going on. Don’t worry, it’s normal. Everybody has it,” she said.

gender equality why it matters essay

Women also suffer speculations about general injuries and “illness” that men never have to go through. Combined with the sport’s limited provisions for players that want to have children — there is no maternity pay, even though players that take time out can retain their previous ranking to enter 12 tournaments over a three-year period after giving birth — these changes and the increased visibility, through players like Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, Caroline Wozniacki, and Elina Svitolina, also reinforce that tennis’ women are playing in a structure built for men.

On the tour, it is ever thus.


Wimbledon are relaxing their all-white dress code to ease the stress of women's periods

(Down) the bottom line

Ultimately, the starkest measure comes in dollars, euros, pounds.

Women and men have received equal prize money at all of the Grand Slam tournaments since 2007. Amid some fanfare, last year the WTA Tour announced that the 500-level tournaments would follow suit, along with that 2027 plan for the 1000-level tournaments one rung below the Grand Slams. But not until 2033, in almost a decade. At the time of the deal, Paula Badosa said, “I don’t know why it’s not equal right now.” Tour officials said new sales and marketing efforts need time to produce more revenue.

The WTA requires top players to participate in every Masters 1000 tournament as part of that deal. World No 4 Elena Rybakina, and Swiatek too, have previously expressed disappointment at the way the WTA communicated these changes. Last year in Rome, Rybakina had to lift her title gone midnight after rain delays. Organizers refused to move the match to Sunday, because of the men’s final. Schedule, audience, money.

gender equality why it matters essay

Tournament organizers have long complained that equal prize money is impossible when WTA media deals are worth about 20 percent of ATP equivalents. Consequently, the WTA contributes far less than the ATP, and the prize money reflects that. That’s how two tournaments in Auckland, New Zealand organized essentially by the same people have the women playing for $262,000 and the men for $660,000. 

Last year, male players shared $336million in prize money, including the Grand Slams. Women shared $170million.

Why are those media deals worth so much less? Women often receive second billing in mixed tournaments, play less desirable schedules and don’t get the same television coverage, because their matches are shorter. And then the players get blamed for not being able to bring in as much money. This is how it all coheres, into the ultimate self-fulfilling, blame-the-victim ouroboros that is seemingly impossible to slay.

gender equality why it matters essay

Last year, Steve Simon, the chief executive of the WTA Tour, struck a deal with CVC Capital Partners, a private equity firm, which bought 20 percent of a WTA commercial subsidiary for $150 million . The tour has launched a commercial ventures entity aimed at enhancing sales and marketing efforts and improve the visibility of tournaments, part of which is improving streaming and online showings of matches, which are currently limited in comparison to the ATP Tour.

“I would love to go to the hotel and open the TV and see a woman’s tennis match,” Jabeur said midway through the Madrid Open. “I haven’t seen once one tennis match of woman. For me, it’s really frustrating to see that.”

There are more improvements. After a series of disastrous decisions on venues, scheduling, and promotion which came to a nadir in Cancun last year , women will compete for about the same amount of prize money as the men at the season-ending Tour Finals — the WTA’s premier event and a knock-out showcase for the top eight players in the world — for the next three years.

They’ll just have to do so in Saudi Arabia , a country with a long history of human rights abuses, that has jailed women who have run afoul of the country’s leaders by pushing too hard for equality.

Welcome to the new dawn.

(Top photos: Hannah Peters; Julian Finney/Getty Images; Design: John Bradford)

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Matthew Futterman

Matthew Futterman is an award-winning veteran sports journalist and the author of two books, “Running to the Edge: A Band of Misfits and the Guru Who Unlocked the Secrets of Speed” and “Players: How Sports Became a Business.”Before coming to The Athletic in 2023, he worked for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Star-Ledger of New Jersey and The Philadelphia Inquirer. He is currently writing a book about tennis, "The Cruelest Game: Agony, Ecstasy and Near Death Experiences on the Pro Tennis Tour," to be published by Doubleday in 2026. Follow Matthew on Twitter @ mattfutterman

  • Get Involved

Statement of Samuel Rizk, Resident Representative, UNDP Pakistan on Gender Climate Award 2024

May 23, 2024.

gender equality why it matters essay

Distinguished Ms. Romina Khurshid Alam, Ambassador Nicolas Galey (France), Ambassador Dr. Riina Kionka (EU), Deputy Head of Mission  Mr. Mohammed Al-Kaitoob (UAE), Ms. Aisha Khan, 

Ladies and gentlemen,

First of all, I wish to congratulate the winners of the Climate Action, Green Enterprise, and Young Climate Journalism Awards. These awards highlight the remarkable strides made in addressing climate change, promoting sustainable business practices, and empowering youth to speak up and amplify vital environmental messages and stories.  Climate change is a reality all around us, and there are few places in which this is more apparent than in Pakistan, a country which routinely finds itself at the receiving end of climate induced disasters while contributing little to greenhouse gas emissions, and a disproportionate modest appetite for large risk management, adaptation and mitigation investments.

When calamities happen, it hits the most vulnerable first – this appears to be an accepted fact. In many cases, women are disproportionately represented in that group: they lose their home, their livelihoods, or simple things like their ID. With Pakistan ranking particularly low on gender equality, addressing climate change and gender equality are both equally urgent matters. We’ve committed to doing this in our country programme 2023-2027.

That’s why/or where climate adaptation and gender equality go hand in hand.  To truly prosper, a country needs an economy where women are equal partners in economic access, opportunity and outlook. Today’s winners exemplify this vision in Pakistan, and show that these barriers can and will be broken down.

I would like to express my thanks to the Embassy of France and Agence Française de Développement (AFD), the European Union Delegation, the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates, as well as the Civil Society Coalition for Climate Change (CSCCC) for their partnership in creating this award and to create more opportunities for women and gender sensitive climate solutions.

The initiatives awarded today, ranging from sustainable tourism, to green energy for rural communities, to journalism highlight the potential for transformation in the way we approach climate change in Pakistan. They show the enormous national drive to recognize and reward innovation. UNDP is proud to accompany this journey where women turn dreams into action, at the start of their professional journey or at the pinnacle of their career, proving that increased gender equality and adaptation to climate change can indeed go hand in hand.  Congratulations Qandeel, Umbreen, and Khalida.  Thank you. 

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Human Rights Careers

5 Essays to Learn More About Equality

“Equality” is one of those words that seems simple, but is more complicated upon closer inspection. At its core, equality can be defined as “the state of being equal.” When societies value equality, their goals include racial, economic, and gender equality . Do we really know what equality looks like in practice? Does it mean equal opportunities, equal outcomes, or both? To learn more about this concept, here are five essays focusing on equality:

“The Equality Effect” (2017) – Danny Dorling

In this essay, professor Danny Dorling lays out why equality is so beneficial to the world. What is equality? It’s living in a society where everyone gets the same freedoms, dignity, and rights. When equality is realized, a flood of benefits follows. Dorling describes the effect of equality as “magical.” Benefits include happier and healthier citizens, less crime, more productivity, and so on. Dorling believes the benefits of “economically equitable” living are so clear, change around the world is inevitable. Despite the obvious conclusion that equality creates a better world, progress has been slow. We’ve become numb to inequality. Raising awareness of equality’s benefits is essential.

Danny Dorling is the Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography at the University of Oxford. He has co-authored and authored a handful of books, including Slowdown: The End of the Great Acceleration—and Why It’s Good for the Planet, the Economy, and Our Lives . “The Equality Effect” is excerpted from this book. Dorling’s work focuses on issues like health, education, wealth, poverty, and employment.

“The Equality Conundrum” (2020) – Joshua Rothman

Originally published as “Same Difference” in the New Yorker’s print edition, this essay opens with a story. A couple plans on dividing their money equally among their children. However, they realize that to ensure equal success for their children, they might need to start with unequal amounts. This essay digs into the complexity of “equality.” While inequality is a major concern for people, most struggle to truly define it. Citing lectures, studies, philosophy, religion, and more, Rothman sheds light on the fact that equality is not a simple – or easy – concept.

Joshua Rothman has worked as a writer and editor of The New Yorker since 2012. He is the ideas editor of

“Why Understanding Equity vs Equality in Schools Can Help You Create an Inclusive Classroom” (2019) –

Equality in education is critical to society. Students that receive excellent education are more likely to succeed than students who don’t. This essay focuses on the importance of equity, which means giving support to students dealing with issues like poverty, discrimination and economic injustice. What is the difference between equality and equity? What are some strategies that can address barriers? This essay is a great introduction to the equity issues teachers face and why equity is so important. is a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving equity and education in the United States. It believes that the educational experiences children receive are crucial for their future. was founded by Dr. Dustin Heuston.

“What does equality mean to me?” (2020) – Gabriela Vivacqua and Saddal Diab

While it seems simple, the concept of equality is complex. In this piece posted by WFP_Africa on the WFP’s Insight page, the authors ask women from South Sudan what equality means to them. Half of South Sudan’s population consists of women and girls. Unequal access to essentials like healthcare, education, and work opportunities hold them back. Complete with photographs, this short text gives readers a glimpse into interpretations of equality and what organizations like the World Food Programme are doing to tackle gender inequality.

As part of the UN, the World Food Programme is the world’s largest humanitarian organization focusing on hunger and food security . It provides food assistance to over 80 countries each year.

“Here’s How Gender Equality is Measured” (2020) – Catherine Caruso

Gender inequality is one of the most discussed areas of inequality. Sobering stats reveal that while progress has been made, the world is still far from realizing true gender equality. How is gender equality measured? This essay refers to the Global Gender Gap report ’s factors. This report is released each year by the World Economic Forum. The four factors are political empowerment, health and survival, economic participation and opportunity, and education. The author provides a brief explanation of each factor.

Catherine Caruso is the Editorial Intern at Global Citizen, a movement committed to ending extreme poverty by 2030. Previously, Caruso worked as a writer for Inquisitr. Her English degree is from Syracuse University. She writes stories on health, the environment, and citizenship.

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About the author, emmaline soken-huberty.

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.

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Criminalizing marital rape in India is not only a matter of legal reform but also a crucial step toward promoting gender equality, protecting women’s rights, and ending violence within intimate relationships. Elaborate.

Topic: Government policies and interventions for development in various sectors and issues arising out of their design and implementation.

3. Criminalizing marital rape in India is not only a matter of legal reform but also a crucial step toward promoting gender equality, protecting women’s rights, and ending violence within intimate relationships. Elaborate. (250 words)

Difficulty level: Moderate

Reference: Insights on India ,  Live Mint

Why the question: A Madhya Pradesh high court ruling has reignited India’s debate on the need to criminalize marital rape. Key Demand of the question: To write about the need to criminalise marital rape in India. Directive word:  Elaborate – Give a detailed account as to how and why it occurred, or what is the context. You must be defining key terms wherever appropriate and substantiate with relevant associated facts. Structure of the answer: Introduction:  Begin the answer by giving context regarding criminalisation of marital rape. Body: First, mention the need to criminalise marital rape – against right to dignity under Article 21, Gender violence, against article 14, marital rape has adverse and long-term consequences on women’s health and well-being etc. Next, write about the factors which creates obstacles for criminalisation of marital rape. Suggest reforms to overcome the above issues. Conclusion: Conclude with a way forward.

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Goldman prize for excellence in teaching honors professors Bai, Bryant, and Houh

headshot of Joey Yerace

When talking about what makes a Goldman Prize recipient stand out, one can mention various qualities. But what really matters is how they use those qualities to make a difference in the lives of the students they teach. "The winners this year should come as no surprise to anyone who knows them well," stated Dean Haider Hamoudi in an email announcing the recipients. Given as a prestigious accolade upon faculty members, it offers students a chance to honor their professors and highlight their dedication to exemplary teaching.

Let the testimonials of their students shine a light on why they were deserving of this award. Congratulations to this year's honorees: Professors Lynn Bai, Chris Bryant, and Emily Houh.

Below is a compilation of excerpts from the nominating letters.

Lin (Lynn) Bai, Professor of Law

Professor Lynn Bai

"I was terrified to take Property after hearing from many students that it is the hardest 1L course. Professor Bai makes it seem easy. She is incredibly organized, prepared, and engaged every single day. She is always available to speak with students and is masterful at explaining confusing concepts in a way that is easy to grasp. She is the best professor I have had in my entire academic career, and I actually look forward to going to her class. I have spoken to several of my classmates about this and they could not agree more. We always joke that once we start talking about how much we love her we can't stop talking about it.” – student nominator

Professor Lynn Bai has expertise in the areas of corporate finance, securities regulation, property and empirical legal methods. A former corporate attorney and investment banker, she has worked as a professor at the College of Law for 17 years. Professor Bai’s research focuses on corporate and securities law. Her work has appeared in the University of Pennsylvania Journal of Business Law, NYU Journal of Law and Business, William & Mary Business Law Journal, Emory Corporate Governance and Accountability Review, University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Wisconsin Law Review, etc.  She has been published on these topics in varies ways some of those include.

No Peeking: Addressing Pretextual Inspection Demands by Competitor-Affiliated Shareholders, Virginia Law & Business Review (forthcoming February 2024, with Sean Meyer)

Shareholder Inspection Rights: From Credible Basis to Rational Belief , 10 Emory Corporate Governance and Accountability Review 193 (2023)

Shareholder Appraisal Rights: Delaware’s Flawed Market Exception, 56 Michigan Journal of Law Reform Caveat 1 (2022) (with William Murphy)

Limited Liability Partnerships: An (Overlooked) Hole in the Shield, 23 University of Pennsylvania Journal of Business Law 862 (2021) (with Sarah Harden)

A. Christopher Bryant, Rufus King Professor of Constitutional Law

"Professor Bryant distinguishes himself above his peers because he is caring, approachable, and genuinely concerned with student success. As a first-year student in his Constitutional Law I course, I was able to see these qualities firsthand. As many of his students can attest, Professor Bryant's first year courses - because of his daily meditations, easy to understand approach to the class, and kind demeanor - are a haven from the panic and horror that makes up much of 1L [year]. Whether it was willing to stay after class to discuss a difficult concept, meeting over Zoom during Thanksgiving break, or just providing a kind and reassuring word during class, Professor Bryant's care and concern for students was obvious and contributed greatly to alleviating my personal fears of law school. [...] Professor Bryant's love for students shines in everything he does at the College of Law and for that reason he is deserving of this award.” –student nominator

Since joining the College of Law faculty in 2003, Professor A. Christopher Bryant has distinguished himself as a scholar and award-winning teacher of constitutional law. He has authored numerous articles and essays on contemporary constitutional issues, including the separation of powers, judicial review, and the roles of various branches of government in constitutional interpretation. He is a recognized expert on national legislative power and the deference owed to Congressional actions by the judiciary, with leading articles on the subject published in the Cornell Law Review, George Washington Law Review, BYU Law Review, Notre Dame Journal of Legislation, and William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal. His work on federalism and unenumerated rights includes a co-authored book, “Powers Reserved for the People and the States”: A History of the Ninth and Tenth Amendments, and articles in the Georgia Law Review and the Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy.  Some of his other publications are as follows:

Counting the Votes: Electronic Voting Irregularities, Election Integrity, and Public Corruption, 49 U. MEM. L. REV. (with Kimberly Breedon).

Hoosier Bridesmaids , 52 IND. L. REV.  (with Margo Lambert).

Executive Privilege in a Hyper-partisan Era, 64 WAYNE L. REV. 63 (2018) (with Kimberly Breedon).

Restoring Trust with Trusts: Constructive and Blind Trusts as Remedies for Presidential Violations of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clauses , 11 ALB. GOV’T L. REV. 284 (2018) (with Kimberly Breedon).

Emily M.S. Houh, Gustavus Henry Wald Professor of the Law and Contracts | Co-founder, Nathaniel R. Jones Center for Race, Gender, and Social Justice

"Last fall, Professor Houh took on the task of teaching Contracts to the entire 1L class when Dean Tomain was away because of emergency health reasons. This task consisted of her class doubling in size overnight, required her to, at times, teach two Contracts classes back-to-back in one day, and opened her up from academically supporting 70 students to 140 students. Amid this, she remained committed to the legal education and success of the entire 1L class. […] Along with her commitment to fostering diversity and academic excellence, Professor Houh was also willing to fill a vacancy on the College’s Admissions Committee […].  Her dedication is admirable.” -  student nominator

Professor Emily Houh has been teaching contracts, commercial law, and critical race theory since 2003 at UC Law. She co-founded the College’s Nathaniel R. Jones Center for Race, Gender, and Social Justice and co-directed the center for many years.

Professor Houh’s scholarship focuses on the interplay between contract law, critical race theory, and socioeconomic (in)equality. Her research with University of Cincinnati College of Law colleague Professor Kristin Kalsem explores the use of participatory action research methods in critical race/feminist praxis, particularly regarding the raced and gendered nature of the “fringe economy. Her work has been published in law reviews and other legal publications, such as:

Sketches of A Redemptive Theory of Contract, 66 HASTINGS L.J. 951 (2015).

Theorizing a Legal Participatory Action Research Method: Critical Race/Feminism and Participatory Action Research, 21 QUALITATIVE INQUIRY 262 (2015) (with Kristin Kalsem).

It’s Critical: Legal Participatory Action Research, 19 MICH. J. RACE & L. 287 (2014) (with Kristin Kalsem).

About the Goldman Prize for Excellence in Teaching

For more than 35 years, the Goldman Prize has been bestowed upon deserving individuals. What sets this award apart is its distinct process: students nominate and select the recipients, who happen to be their professors. In reaching their decision, the committee evaluates the professors' research and public service, recognizing how these aspects contribute to outstanding performance within the classroom.

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