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.

Note: If you are deeply steeped in the topic, this is probably not for you. But if you don’t spend a lot of time working in the gender space, keep going.

How We Got Here

Our society, and pretty much every society today, is built on systems that do not treat genders the same. Categories of genders – men, women, gender-nonconforming people – experience pretty much everything in society differently because of the gender label applied to them. From the pink and blue toy store to the nursing home, differences abound.

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, work hours, parliamentary norms, voting requirements, and nearly everything else, were created by men and for men.

Yet “men” is not a default for “all humans.” We know this. Following logically, the architecture of our lives – our jobs, school systems, health care, electoral processes, advertising agencies, sports leagues, art museums, dress codes, and so much more – do not necessarily meet the needs of, or work for, non-male humans. Our anatomy, lifestyles, interests, work trajectories, health care, and everything else might be, and often is, different. Everyone who is non-male is living in a system that was not created for them. (And yes, in America, our systems were built by white people for white people, creating multiple layers of exclusion for many. For the moment, however, we’re just going to focus on gender.)

What We Have Today

So today our world is gender unequal by virtually every measure. The statistics are widely available: worldwide, women own 20% of the land, hold 25% of seats in parliaments, receive only half the income, and yet provide the bulk of all unpaid labor. In the US, women’s work makes up a mere 14% of major art exhibitions. Fourteen percent! We’re half the population! I could go on, but you get the idea.

Yes, individuals and organizations devote huge amounts of time and money working to rectify these inequalities – to bring more gender equality into our world so that women and queer people can have equal opportunities.

They do this primarily by working to change these non-males to help them adapt to the pre-existing systems. Career women are clothed in suits mirroring men’s attire, politically ambitious women are schooled on the ways of male parliaments, support services are funded to help women experiencing domestic violence, queer and trans people are subtly (and not so subtly) coerced into behavior patterns which fit into corporate America.

None of these efforts change the patriarchal systems themselves. They change others – primarily 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.

What We Can Do

Systemic change for gender equality makes the assumption that non-males are pretty much fine just as they are. If the systems we live in do not provide equality, then we should work to change those systems, not change women and others to fit better into a male-organized world.

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 that 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 structural, systemic change.

Why? Why take this harder, longer approach? Why not just offer some women educational programs on assertiveness and a new time management app so they can better juggle their 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 non-men, 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?
  • 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, pay equity and transparency, childcare, health care policies, workplace norms, promotions, and so on? When companies aren’t forced to analyze and tabulate their efforts at gender mainstreaming, they can profess ignorance.

And 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?




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