written by On November 1, 2018 in Gender Equality, WIIS Blog

In Support of Equity

By Sarah Kenny

Montanasuffragettes. 2018 Women’s March in Missoula, Montana. Red sign with white letters, “Equal means equal.”

To best support female experts and leaders, we should commit to gender equity in pursuit of gender equality. While equality is a paramount priority among activists and academics of many causes and identities, the singular concept of equality has the tendency to erase key distinctions between groups such as men and women. The concept of gender equity, on the other hand, can help us take significant and constructive gendered differences into account along the road to equal access, opportunity, and prosperity for all.

We can likely agree that women’s involvement in security and public life is important because women are dignified, self-actualizing members of our societies, just like men are. Therefore, women deserve equal access to opportunity. Should women strive to act like or be treated like men upon achieving opportunity and status in the field? Are ideal domestic and foreign policies devoid of gender considerations? No, quite the contrary. Organizations like WIIS offer women invaluable tools and connections to fight gender inequality as they navigate a traditionally “man’s world.” Moreover, such organizations shed light on the distinctive value that women and gendered perspectives bring to the project of international peace.

WIIS is premised upon an acknowledgment and appreciation of gender-conscious perspectives in scholarship, public policy, and leadership.[1] On this view, the two primary genders- male and female- offer distinct contributions to national and international security dilemmas, among other areas of life. Due to a currently inextricable blend of biological and environmental factors, women and men are treated with distinction on multiple bases, such as sex, socialization, and experiences. Many of these distinctions rest upon a female’s child-bearing capacity, a biological and experiential reality that social policy and technology will likely never render obsolete. However, academics and activists have advanced substantive and critical scholarship that disrupts the binaries of sex and gender identity, challenging near-universal and deeply embedded notions that men and women are significantly and systematically different from one another. In the last century alone, a sweeping array of states and cultures have done away with longstanding gendered distinctions, such as assumed IQ differentials, evaluations of fitness for employment outside the home, and opportunities for political participation. Furthermore, LGBTQI activists and scholars have achieved recognition for those who self-identify outside the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ in a remarkably short period of time. Nevertheless, the gender binary remains one of the most stable social determinants across time and place.

Arguments for equality between men and women dominate discussions of women’s societal status in popular discourse and corporate culture alike. From banners at Women’s Marches around the globe to the United Nations’ chief priorities, ‘gender equality’ appears to be the common objective. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal Number 5, Gender Equality, speaks of this concept as “not only a fundamental human right but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world.”[2] I join the cadre of experts that concur with the UN’s analysis that the unequal representation of women- specifically in national and international security- presents a serious security risk for all of humanity. As Ambassador Jonathan Cohen noted in his remarks at the 2018 UN Security Council Open Debate on Women, Peace, and Security last week, “if we hope to prevent conflicts and build lasting peace, promote better governance, and advance sustainable economic growth, we must empower women as full and equal partners at every step.”[3]

However, appeals to equality between men and women often erase critical experiential gendered distinctions. I wonder, what do researchers and policymakers actually mean by ‘equality’ in such instances? Where does ‘equity’ come into consideration in these discussions, if at all? According to Merriam-Webster, equality is “The quality or state of being equal; the quality or state of having the same rights, social status, etc.” Equity, on the other hand, is “Justice according to natural law or right, specifically: freedom from bias or favoritism.”[4] The following analogy demonstrates the applied difference between these terms.

Let’s suppose that Expert A started a position with her government’s cybersecurity team three months ago, and Expert B started the same job three years ago. Come quarterly evaluations, these employees’ boss considers Expert A’s comparative disadvantage as a less experienced team member than Expert B when reviewing their performances. Such consideration of experience demonstrates equitable treatment. If these employees’ boss had not taken their comparative work experience into consideration when evaluating performance, the boss would have demonstrated equal treatment of Expert A and Expert B’s work. In order for these experts to eventually reach the same performance level, we can adjust support and evaluation metrics according to the advantages, identities, and circumstances they bring to the table. While many would object to such weighted treatment in environments like an office team, a classroom, or a sports game, this argument bears considerable merit when applied to classes of people, institutions, and systems.

Let’s consider the following systemic example of equity. Affirmative action policies at US colleges once favored women’s applications over men’s due to adverse academic and social pressures that women faced throughout their lives. Today, many college policies exhibit a pendulum shift from this initial dynamic, favoring male applicants over female applicants in pursuit of gender equality across their entering classes. Many maintain that gender equality on college campuses is a good thing, and something we should uphold. Yet such formal equality often requires engineering behind the scenes, a dynamic set of considerations and adjustments that change with the world around us.

In other environments, gender balance like that which we find on college campuses is a long way off. Such is the case in the field of international security. In this field, some question the lengths to which we should go in pursuit of gender equality. Is gender equality required to create sound policy? What if there just happen to be more men who are interested in cybersecurity or nuclear nonproliferation than there are women?

The goal of gender equality goes beyond a balanced representation of male and female bodies. Rather, elevating women and gendered perspectives within a group can transform existing measures of power and performance from the inside out. On issues of national and international security, the inclusion of female actors and gendered perspectives can radically reconstruct global power relations. In The Second Sex, feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir lays the philosophical groundwork for such radical reconstruction by arguing that the concept of equality does not mean uniformity. Rather, equal treatment across genders necessitates affirmation and attention to phenomenological differences. Such attention to gendered perspectives yields a new outcome, an outcome that is advantageous for all. By rejecting “the either/or frame of the woman question (either women and men are equal or they are different),” de Beauvoir encourages us to evaluate gendered differences in perspective with equal status respect.[5]

Women do experience the world through a different lens than men and thus contribute different concerns and advantages. However, gendered perspectives do not have to come from just women. Men can and should strive to consider the role that gender plays in all of their research endeavors and political dealings. Only when both genders take seriously women’s perspectives can we reach equality in practice and policy. Until then, we need equitable treatment of women and the gendered perspectives that they offer in order to create effective, comprehensive, and democratic policies on matters of peace and security.

The WIIS mission, broader Women, Peace, and Security Agenda, and overarching project of feminism are transformative, radical mechanisms for achieving gender equality. It is critical to remember that equality is not a fixed state of social progress. Rather, it is a malleable metric of comparison that is necessarily sensitive to dynamic, complex, and systemic circumstances. By equitably considering the role of women and gendered perspectives in national and international security, we can transform the status quo upon which relative notions of equality are premised and further advance peace and human rights for all.

[1] By gender, I am referring to “a social construction… a product of processes of socialization, structured agency, performances and/or discursive practices.” Thomas G. Weiss; Rorden Wilkinson. International Organizations and Global Governance (Kindle Location 5965). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

[2] United Nations. “Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment.” United Nations, United Nations, 2018, www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/gender-equality/.

[3] Cohen, Jonathan. “Remarks at a UN Security Council Open Debate on Women, Peace, and Security.” U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State, 25 Oct. 2018, usun.state.gov/remarks/8684.

[4] Equity feminists, a branch of classical-liberal/libertarian feminists, employ this legal definition of equity to argue that “in societies like the United States, the only morally significant source of oppression of women is the state.” Liberal feminists, on the other hand, posit that “the exercise of personal autonomy depends on certain enabling conditions that are insufficiently present in women’s lives, or that social arrangements often fail to respect women’s personal autonomy and other elements of women’s flourishing.” Perhaps paradoxically, a liberal feminist perspective aligns more closely with the argument that I’m offering in this post than an equity feminist perspective. Baehr, Amy R. “Liberal Feminism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 30 Sept. 2013, plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-liberal/#EquFem.

[5]Bergoffen, Debra, “Simone de Beauvoir”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2018/entries/beauvoir/>.

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