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Monday 21 January 2019
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Gender inequality: A reality check

Diary of a mothering worker

motheringworker@gmail.com

Entry 316

DR GABRIELLE HOSEIN

THERE ARE reasons why nations rely on reports such as the Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI), even though it has limitations. Not every measure of inequality measures up.

There’s the recently released Basic Index of Gender Inequality (BIGI) which focuses on three factors: educational opportunities, healthy life expectancy, and overall life satisfaction. This index reflects a backlash that misunderstands gender inequality and why women’s disadvantage is historically highlighted, and that denies patriarchal ideals are the most powerful force organising such inequality.

It’s being touted as more fair to men, given that previous indexes set men’s status as a standard of comparison for women. Using men’s status as a standard is valid, but not perfect. Globally, women continue to fight to secure equal opportunities to men and equal status in law. For example, in the Bahamas, children can get Bahamian citizenship from their fathers, but not their mothers.

However, such measures also always needed to recognise that women’s struggles cannot all be compared to men’s. Women are specifically targeted by male sexual violence because they are women. Women are denied full right to determine what happens to their bodies and fertility in relation to sex and childbearing because their bodies are female and can reproduce. In other words, the rights that women seek are specific and legitimate because women are human beings with desires for freedom on our own terms.

That said, typical measures, which focus on political leadership, participation on boards, income levels, property ownership, and labour participation, remain valid. They show where power, wealth and decision-making lie.

They highlight how our beliefs about proper roles and rights for women and men, gender stereotyping, unequal responsibility for child care and family financial costs, and violence in homes and streets continue to disadvantage women.

These measures also show the extent of states’ recognition of such disadvantage. For example, although girls and women travelling by public transportation are far more vulnerable to assault and rape than men, nowhere does this reality inform transportation policy in Trinidad and Tobago.

The story behind numbers is complex. Measures, such as educational levels, show significant shifts. Across the world, women are entering tertiary schooling in greater numbers than men, despite the resilience of patriarchal beliefs which make masculine status in religion, family, politics, business, law and media appear normal and invisible or the least somehow justifiable and without consequences. In our region, it’s considered a “Caribbean paradox,” illuminating contradictions in the story that “women have already won.”

The BIGI guys argue that past measures which focus on women’s issues are “biased” and not real measures of gender inequality. They argue that this index doesn’t show where men are at a disadvantage, such as harsher punishments for the same crime, compulsory military service and more occupational deaths. By definition, they argue, men can never be more disadvantaged than women in the gender gap index. However, it isn’t that the index is biased. It’s based on a correct understanding of patriarchy.

Men dominate prison populations, have higher levels of substance abuse, higher suicide rates, and higher murder rates because associations between manhood and strength, physicality, violence, toughness and more shape men’s choices, relations of control and power among men, and between men and women, and the standards by which men are recognised by others as men.

The BIGI’s basic premise is that it’s really men suffering from gender inequality. It’s no surprise then that the measure found “that men are, on average, more disadvantaged than women in 91 countries compared with a relative disadvantage for women in 43 countries.”

Their mistake is to see men’s issues as comparable to women’s when ideals of manhood both benefit and harm men at the same time. By contrast, femininity and all it represents – from softness to vulnerability to being defined as “the neck” rather than the “head” or the sex born to be penetrated – all remain low-status qualities and identities which men avoid.

The BIGI guys even argue that polygamy, an old system of male sexual privilege, harms men. Of course it does, but only as an issue of unequal power between older, higher status and younger or lower status men, not as a sign of men’s gender inequality in relation to women.

Focus on women is suddenly considered discriminatory, men are now considered the oppressed sex, and feminism must apparently, and without irony, earn acceptance by putting men’s needs first. Be sceptical of this argument, and data put out to justify it. This column begins to suggest why and how.

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