Home / Opinion / Columns /  Opinion | Why women are still being treated as unequal to men

According to a study published in American Psychologist, for the first time in history, 86% of US adults have admitted that men and women are equally intelligent. The researchers had tracked the responses of more than 30,000 US adults since 1946 to 2018. In 1946, only 35% of those surveyed thought both men and women are equally intelligent. It is heartening to know that there has been a huge shift in attitudes towards women. Does this mean that gender parity, an important goal of our society, is finally at striking distance?

From the days in the Savanna, when one had to hunt for food, to the days of agricultural output and the industrial economy, the superior physical abilities of man gave him an advantage over women in work efficiency. However, with the arrival of the knowledge economy, the human brain has become the most important tool for work. With this fundamental shift, women do not start at a disadvantage.

According to the World Employment And Social Outlook Trends For Women 2018 report, more women than ever before are both educated and participating in the labour market today. Even as opportunities for people without a college education shrink, men’s rates of graduation remain relatively stagnant, while women across socioeconomic classes are increasingly enrolling for and completing post-secondary degrees. In 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, 72.5% of females in the US who had recently graduated high school were enrolled in a two-year or four-year college programme, compared to 65.8% of men. However, The Global Gender Gap Report 2018 by the World Economic Forum does not provide much scope for optimism. According to this report, it will take 108 years to close the gender gap and 202 years to achieve parity in the workforce. Gender parity seems too far a goal to achieve. No doubt, we need a fresh and re-energized approach to solve the issue of gender inequality.

Many studies have shown that though many admit that women are equal to men at a conscious level, at an implicit level, many tend to harbour many biases towards women. The plague and power of bias are too consequential to let them go unacknowledged and unchecked. Merely having more awareness of a bias does not help overcome it. One needs to understand the root causes of it to mitigate its effects.

Why is it that women are still not accepted as equals although so many women are educated and entering the work force in larger numbers? What are the significant forces that hinder our progress towards gender parity?

For millions of years, except in few matriarchal societies, the man has always been considered the head of the family. The provider-role he played was always seen superior to the nurturer-role that women played in a family. The man’s decision was always the final word. Gender parity was not a norm in families across societies.

It was hoped that with the arrival of the knowledge economy and women earning better salaries, those norms would change. However, census researchers Marta Murray-Close and Misty L. Heggeness found a peculiar tendency to “manning up and womaning down" salaries. In opposite-sex marriages in which women earned more, women said that they earned 1.5 percentage points less, on average, than they actually did. Their husbands said they earned 2.9 percentage points more than they did. Even among the educated, there are deep rooted biases that prevent people from admitting that the man is no longer the provider-in-chief.

A large study by Marianne Bertrand, Jessica Pan, and Emir Kamenica, economists at the University of Chicago, using census data from 1970 to 2000, found that marriages in which the woman earned more were less likely in the first place and more likely to end in divorce. The study also found that women who out-earned their husbands were more likely to seek jobs beneath their potential and do significantly more housework and child care than their husbands, perhaps to make their husbands feel less threatened. The norms in our families act as a huge deterrent to achieving gender parity.

When it comes to the issue of gender inequality, the elephant in the room is religion, which has been an integral part of human existence for a long time. According to Neil MacGregor, the author of the book Living With The Gods: On Beliefs And

Peoples, every religion churns out stories that give shape to the beliefs we live by. According to some of those stories, male bodies are created in God’s own image and so are considered better than female bodies, which are somehow deficient and

in need of purification. All the key functions of organized religion, such as conducting religious ceremonies and heading the religious hierarchy, are reserved for men. No organized religion treats women equal to men.

The unequal treatment of women by religion has exerted a very strong influence on every society’s gender norms. Kamila Klingorova and Tomas Havlicek, in their paper titled Religion And Gender Inequality: The Status Of Women In The Societies Of World Religions, have established that countries where the majority of inhabitants have no religious affiliation display the lowest levels of gender inequality, and countries with the highest levels of gender inequality are those with high

levels of religious affiliation. We cannot achieve gender parity if religion, one of the strongest forces in most societies, continues to turn its back on women. As Lakshmi Puri, deputy executive director of UN Women, said, “The agenda of

creating a planet 50-50 cannot come true if religion, religious leaders, and faith actors remain outside the conversation."

Achieving gender parity is not about organizing awareness programmes and pasting a few posters in offices. It is all about fundamentally altering beliefs upheld by the two strongest institutions of any society: the family and religion.

Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm

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