The Trouble with Gender

It’s another big week for women at the United Nations. March 8, International Women’s Day, falls halfway along a series of events marking the 15th anniversary of the Beijing Conference — the last of four world conferences on women. The Commission on the Status of Women is taking stock, and no less a personage than Hillary Clinton will be speaking at the end of the woman-intensive fortnight on March 12.

Thank goodness it’s all about women. True, several speakers are addressing progress towards “gender equality,” but gender is a concept most people still have trouble with, even though it’s been in circulation for nearly 20 years. By contrast, everyone knows what a woman is.

There were good reasons to switch from talking about “women in development” — the catchphrase of the 1970s and 1980s — to gender. In its day WID, to use one of the many acronyms the development business trails in its wake, did a lot to move the world away from treating women as welfare cases or appendages of men.

By focusing on women’s abilities and needs, the WID movement promoted legislation to uphold women’s rights, including the convention to end all forms of discrimination against women. CEDAW (another unhappy acronym) has been signed by most world countries — even Saudi Arabia; the United States remains a glaring exception.

But the WID approach also had some big down sides. Planners went overboard setting up special projects for women that made them marginal to national development. There was little questioning of the development process itself, which leaves hundreds of millions below the poverty line and concentrates resources among elites. Plus, WID didn’t really enable women to come to grips with the roots of discrimination and challenge entrenched patriarchal power structures.

So along came gender, to get to the core of things and show how social relations can result in discrimination against both women and men. Gender experts (myself included) earnestly preach that the term sex refers to the biological differences between women and men, while gender refers to social roles that can and do change. Neither sex should experience discrimination because of preconceptions as to how each should or should not act. The goal is to achieve gender equality within a society that upholds the rights of all citizens.

Sadly, most people still find gender a fuzzy concept. It doesn’t help that gender experts quickly slide into talking about women’s rights. This is understandable: Women’s rights have yet to be achieved the world over given the backlog of centuries of discrimination. Women partly fear that, if they start talking about the rights of men, then men will suck up all the space. Moreover, for some of those who do understand it, gender is a threatening concept. Many women as well as men resist changes in established roles, where rights and obligations are clear, in exchange for an unknown world.

As a result, “gender equality” is often used interchangeably with “women’s equality.” And, in spite of a burgeoning gender industry, development activities are rarely examined from the perspective of whether they accord women and men equal treatment and opportunities.

Another thing lost along the way is sex. I realized how far things had gone when, at a party in the early 2000s, a male friend exclaimed, “You’re not being fair to my gender.” Visa forms and landing cards started using gender instead of sex. This all muddies the conceptual waters.

Gender is potentially an essential concept. Men and women are imprisoned in roles that stymie their full potential and circumscribe their rights. No matter how backbreaking or humiliating the work, men are still expected to be the main family provider. Only a few countries entitle men to paternity leave to share in some of the joy of rearing their babies. Even though men carry out many domestic duties — shopping, cooking, taking children to school — women are still “naturally” expected to play those roles. When women enter the job market, they are expected and indeed still gravitate to areas related to their “natural” functions, such as education, health care, and social services — and are paid less.

Understanding and addressing gender roles can lead to true partnership and equality of rights and responsibilities. But for this to happen, the term must be defined and used correctly.

A timely booklet has just been produced by the International Center for Research on Women, What Men have to Do with It: Public Policies to Promote Gender Equality. It summarizes the results of research on policies that promote more cooperative relations between women and men, while calling attention to men’s gender-related vulnerabilities.

This is a long overdue shift in discourse to include men as partners in the struggle for a just and equal world where neither sex experiences discrimination. If this discourse takes hold, there may yet be hope for gender equality.

NADIA HIJAB is an independent analyst and a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies.