Systemic Change for Gender Equality: The Basics

I talk a lot about systemic change for gender equality. Nine times out of ten, I watch people’s eyes glaze over at the very mention of the phrase: it’s too abstract, too academic, too wordy, too anti-male, definitely too something. This is unfortunate. So I offer the Basics.

How We Got Here

The fabric that makes up our societies was created by men. From Tokyo to Tijuana, from Copenhagen to Chicago, and from Delhi to Denver, the workplaces, stock markets, bus routes, pay rates, divorce laws, and nearly everything else, were created by men and for men. Perhaps these men meant to exclude others from decision-making, and perhaps they didn’t, but the reality is they were the only ones around those decision-making tables.

Thus the architecture of our lives – our jobs, school systems, health care, elections, and so on – does not necessarily meet the needs of people who are not male, all those people whose lives are organized differently because of biology or social norms. Everyone who is non-male is living in a system which was not created for them.*

What We Have Today

Today our world is gender unequal by virtually every measure. Those statistics are widely available: worldwide, women own only 20% of the land, hold only 25% of seats in parliaments, receive only half the income, and yet provide the bulk of all unpaid labor. In country after country, women’s rights are curtailed, their pay diminished, and their opportunities narrowed simply because of their gender. Women all over experience gender-based violence at rates dramatically exceeding that of men. I could go on at length, but you get the idea.

What are we doing about this? Many individuals and organizations do devote huge amounts of time and money working to rectify these inequalities – to bring more gender equality into our world so that women (and often the LGBTQ community) can have equal opportunities.

How? They do this primarily by working to change these women, these non-males, to help them adapt to the male systems!  Career women are clothed in suits mirroring men’s attire, politically ambitious women are schooled on the ways of male legislatures, support services are funded to help women experiencing domestic violence from their male partners, young women climbing corporate ladders are trained in ‘assertiveness,’ and so on.

None of these efforts change the patriarchal systems themselves. They change others  – women – to function in a male-organized world. They place both the burden and the responsibility of changing to fix the problem onto the already marginalized people, but keep the overall structures intact.

How’s this working out?

What We Can Do

Systemic change for gender equality says: if the systems we live in do not provide equality, then we should work to change those systems, not change women to “fit better” into a male-organized world. Systemic change makes the assumption that non-males are pretty much just fine the way they are, and that what needs changing is some of the biased architecture we live in.

This approach rejects the drumbeat of attempts to uplift, coach, mentor, and fund women so they can ‘succeed in a man’s world.’ It forces us to be honest about the root causes of problems and creative in our solutions. It forces us to fund long-term social change initiatives, initiatives which are harder to measure and take longer to yield fruit, but that are the only way to equality. It forces us to shift our priorities from service provision for individual women to long-term, structural change.

Why? Why take this harder, longer approach? Why not just offer women some coaching programs on ‘asking for a raise’, the better to help them survive male-dominated corporations? Or give mothers a new time management app so they can better juggle work and all their unpaid home responsibilities?

Because systemic change is the only way to equality. What we are doing now is not only insulting to women, it’s not working. Estimates are that at our current rate of progress (pre-COVID!) it would take somewhere between 118 and 212 years to reach parity with men.

How to create systemic change? By way of just a very few examples:

  • To reduce Gender Based Violence, how about spending less on victim support services and more on educating about patterns of male dominance and why violence is so deeply rooted in notions of masculinity and patriarchies?
  • To get more women into positions of elected office, how about permitting off-site voting and requiring on-site childcare, essential for mothers? Or how about quotas? (Yes, quotas. And they’ve been used successfully in other countries.)
  • To bring more women into management, how about working on campaigns to change our understanding of leadership? Because as long as nearly everyone’s notion of a ‘good leader’ is a verbally (and often physically) dominant, tall, loud, directive, stereotypical male-pattern human, it’s going to be very hard to have a smaller, more-collaborative, less-loud, stereotypical female-pattern human in charge.
  • And what about bringing more gender-equality to our publicly traded companies, those suppliers of jobs and drivers of the economy? Why can’t they be required to submit gender-analysis tools in which they apply a gender lens to their entire operation, taking a look at hiring and pay equity and transparency, childcare, health care policies, work-place norms, promotions, and so on? When companies aren’t forced to analyze and tabulate gender mainstreaming, they can profess ignorance.

There are many more possibilities.

I get it. This stuff will be hard. But it’s essential – it’s the only way, really. Our society is rapidly moving toward a greater recognition of gender diversity, and at the same time we need the skills and creativity of everyone. Continuing to just assume our operating social structures work for everyone is not sustainable – for anyone. Yes, men need this too.

So next time you hear about a conference or project or fund for gender equality, ask yourself: is this changing the woman or is this changing the system? Is it really addressing the root causes of gender inequality?



*And yes, in America, our systems were built by white people for white people, adding to multiple layers of exclusion for many. While this discussion focusses on gender, keep in mind the intersectionality of systemic exclusion.

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