Have you ever tried writing or saying a word over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over?
The word eventually starts to lose all meaning and you start to wonder if you’ve been spelling it right all your life. There’s a term for that phenomenon where a word tires out your brain- it’s called semantic satiation.
As someone who works in gender dimensions of economic development, I see the words ‘gender inequality’ get thrown around more than a cricket ball at Eden Gardens and it’s fairly easy to get fatigued of it, to lose the meaning of the term for the trees. At times like this, I find it important to re-centre my understanding of gender inequality, to focus in on the fuzziness that pops up when my brain gets tired of ubiquitous buzzwords – because here’s the thing: gender inequality is real regardless of what some men’s rights activists around the world would have you believe.
Even before people learn what “gender inequality” is, they get derailed by people who say “I’m not a feminist, but-” or men’s rights activists mobilising against ‘false allegations,’ perpetuating ultra-masculine ideals and pushing against feminist/LGBTQ movements. These communities take advantage of society’s general misunderstanding of gender inequality and gender activism, and try to keep them in the dark.
Although our neural pathways sometimes get overloaded seeing the term everywhere, the dangers of succumbing to the fuzziness are too great. It pays to know what we’re up against. So let’s get cracking.
First off, there are a lot of ways experts define gender inequality because like most things in life, definition is interpretation. The most straightforward definition identifies gender inequality as “allowing people different opportunities due to perceived differences based solely on issues of gender.” Gender inequality can also be defined as “differences in the status, power and prestige women and men have in groups, collectivities, and status.” While the first definition focuses on disparities in opportunity, the second highlights disparities in perceptions of gender.
Amartya Sen provides a different framework to assess gender inequality through his ‘capabilities approach’, which assesses people’s potential functionings – a capability could entail the freedom to be healthy, to work, to take part in a community. When applied to gender inequality, Sen’s capabilities approach can help us evaluate whether women and men have the same access, resources, and potential to exercise freedom and lead fulfilled lives.
From my experience, gender inequality encompasses all of these. Gender inequality means that people have different opportunities, levels of power, privilege, and capabilities because of perceived differences based solely on societal constructs of gender.
But that’s the zoomed out concept of gender inequality – what does all of that actually mean in our day-to-day lives?
Gender inequality manifests itself in almost every aspect of life – whether that’s in the way society expects women to cover up their bodies or the abysmally low number of women who sit on executive boards or the fact that women drop out of sports at twice the rate of men. And just like we sometimes get fatigued from reading the term ‘gender inequality’, we often lose sight of just how large that gender gap can be in our everyday lives.
For example, do you know how many women representatives are currently in the Lok Sabha? Out of 543 Members of Parliament, there are only 66 female members – that constitutes a measly 12.5 percent, far from the target 33 percent, let alone being actually representative of the Indian female population. That gender gap is important because that means every time legislation that tries to remedy gender inequality, a room that is 87.5 percent men will evaluate it and vote on it. Which means that people who have never experienced the panic of having a period start in the middle of the day while stranded sanitary pad-less or the fear of entering male-dominated spaces will be the ones with the power to vote on those issues. It’s not to say that men can’t be allies – they can and they are – but only women can ever truly speak to those experiences and formulate practical solutions to those problems.
Or let’s look at the gender pay gap – around the world, women get paid less than men and India is no exception. On average, women in India get paid around 40 percent less than men. Back in October 2014, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella came under fire for his terribly sage advice to women, saying that “It’s not really about asking for a raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will give you the right raise.” And that reflects the reality of the workplace for women all over the world. Not only is it difficult to get paid the fair amount for your work, it’s difficult to get those raises or promotions and to nab leadership positions. In fact in India, a depressing 7.7 percent of board seats and 2.7 percent of board chairs are held by women. Once again, it becomes tough to advocate for yourself when there are a lack of role models and mentors who share the same experiences as you. And that’s how gender inequality continues to perpetuate itself. That’s why there is still no country in the world where women hold equal economic and political status to men.
And it’s not like gender inequality exists in a vacuum – it has some pretty real effects on society and the world as a whole.
For one, gender inequality costs us big time. In 2009, two economists, Stephan Klassen and Francesca Lamanna, conducted a study that compared economic growth rates to education and employment gaps across several regions around the world between 1960 and 2000. They found that “persistent gender gaps not only impact women, but are damaging to the socioeconomic development of entire populations.” Gender equality could mean a boost of more than 12 percentage points to our GDP and billions of dollars in created revenue.
When we fail to address gender inequality, it also becomes difficult to solve other problems. A UN report published in 2014 found that the progress made in the past 20 years towards reducing global poverty is at risk of being reversed. The root cause? A failure to address widening inequality and to strengthen women’s rights. According to another report published by the World Health Organization, denying primary education to girls was found to negatively impact fertility rates, health literacy, and other healthy behaviours.
Luckily, there are a lot of people out there fighting against these problems, challenging the narratives of some men’s rights groups and keeping gender equality a top priority for governments and societies.
Several rural women’s movements like the AROH Mahila Kisan Manch-led campaign in Uttar Pradesh or the tribal women of Odisha have been able to leverage their voices to challenge land rights issues, often with the full support of men and whole communities. In doing so, these activists often expand access to land and property rights for men and women while also preventing destructive extraction.
Other campaigns like Why Loiter and Girls at Dhabas challenge the perpetuation of gender norms in everyday life and aim to reclaim spaces that traditionally shut women out. Through these individual acts of resistance, the participants open up dialogues around gender inequality and inspire others around them to question traditional narratives.
All of which to say, gender inequality is more than just a buzzword. When we fight gender inequality, whether that be through triumphant Facebook posts fighting against period-shaming or standing for election in your locality or marching in the streets to seek #JusticeforJisha, we’re pushing back against all of this and more. I mean, this article doesn’t even begin to touch on issues of intersectionality – how class, caste, race, regionalism, nationality play into issues of gender inequality. Heck, we didn’t even address issues of gender inequality for trans people!
Listen, I get it – it’s depressing to think about all that gender inequality entails and when we think about it often, it’s easy to let it all get fuzzy in the brain, to lose sight of all that we are fighting for and against. But it’s what we do when that happens that matters. Reach out to an ally, read one of these books, have a cup of chai, recharge your batteries – then get back out there and keep fighting the good fight.