Should gender equality be the end goal for 21st century feminism?

Art by Jay Mantri (

Here is a question most feminists have been asked before: what is it that you want, exactly? 

There is usually a follow-up question: do you want women to be superior to men? Men, in particular, seem terrified at the idea of having to endure what women have had to bear with for centuries – irony is a cruel thing. The feminist response to these questions currently seems to be: feminists want men and women to be equals. Gender equality: a reasonable and simple goal, and one that can hardly be contested publicly (and yet).

But what do we mean exactly by equality? Strictly speaking, gender equality implies that men and women have equal rights and opportunities. This can be understood in a broad way and may include:

  • the absence of discriminatory legal measures based on gender,
  • equal representation of women and men in political instances and public organisations,
  • equal pay at an individual level (same income for the same work),
  • equal earnings at a societal level (equal total earnings for women and men),
  • equal health outcomes (equal sex ratio at birth, equal life expectancy),
  • equal education outcomes (equal literacy rates, equal education levels, etc.).

These objectives are already quite an undertaking, and are valuable things to aim for. The UK, for instance, fails to meet several of these targets, including the first one.

The advantage of picking gender equality as a long-term goal for feminism is that it can be measured fairly easily. Count women. Count men. Count what they earn. How long they live. What roles they have in society. Look at the repartition: is it equal? It is difficult to argue against hard, numerical data.

This type of reasoning is what supports the Global Gender Gap Index, which is produced by the World Economic Forum. The Index is very useful to measure our progress towards gender equality. It compares men and women’s outcomes in 145 countries, over four different dimensions: economic participation and opportunity, political empowerment, educational attainment and health and survival. The wider the gap between men and women’s outcomes, the lower the score (note that the Index focuses on the catching up of women, rather than on an absolute gender gap: country scores are not affected if men are “losing” to women).

What does the Index teach us? Well, the gender gap is almost extinguished for health and education, shrinking for economic participation & opportunity, and still pretty severe for political representation – which is also the less controversial dimension of all: either you have women in your institutions or you do not. This is useful information, and its importance should not be minimized: finding common indicators to compare countries’ performance is a difficult endeavour. A global picture allows countries to identify their weak spots in comparison to others and to follow the best practices of the leaders.

global equality index 2015

Nevertheless, the results of the Index need to be understood for what they are and interpreted with caution. By focusing exclusively on the gender gap and the equality of outcomes between men and women, the Index does not take into account the biological and sociological phenomena that affect women but not men. The Index does not look directly at reproductive rights and maternal health indicators, even though these factors are likely to affect economic and educational outcomes. These are not relevant in a pure “equality” perspective, since they are not applicable for men. This is why Ireland can score number 5 in the Global Gender Gap Index and not offer full reproductive rights to women.

Other phenomena that can be obscured by focusing on gender equality include violence against women, maternal leave or childcare policies or body-shaming / slut-shaming. Some of these phenomena are all likely to influence the “equality” indicators (by limiting women’s economic opportunities or worsening their health outcomes, for instance), though this is uncertain – violence against women can significantly impact their quality of life without necessarily resulting in a lower life expectancy, and maternal leave and childcare policies do not entirely determine economic outcomes: women may just need to work twice as hard as men to reach the same results or decide to have fewer children or none at all. (These decisions are fine if they are motivated by personal reasons – not so fine if they are perceived as sacrifices.) These types of impacts would not show up in an equality index.

However, most feminists would consider violence against women or reproductive rights to be key feminist issues that should be addressed head-on. Gender equality, therefore, may be an inadequate description of what feminism is all about – in fact, this is not how all feminists would describe their own objectives. The notorious American feminist bell hooks, for instance, defines feminism as “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression“ (*). She also argues that the term “gender equality”, emphasized by reformist thinkers (as opposed to revolutionary thinkers) pits women and men against one another, and dissimulates the fact that sexism can be perpetrated by both genders.

The end of sexism, though, is much more difficult to advocate for than gender equality. Part of the problem is that people will tend to disagree about what a non-sexist society should look like, having never experienced one. When women relate their experiences of sexism, for instance, their claims are often considered to be irrelevant, and they may be accused of exaggerating or lying – this is even more likely to happen if the experience reported is directly correlated to the actions of men (e.g. street harassment or domestic violence). As a result, policies seeking to address these issues will be considered as a “special” treatment, rather than as an essential social service.

Because of this definition issue, measuring progress towards the end of sexism is a lot more complex than measuring progress towards gender equality. While specific variables can be measured, e.g. maternal health or access to contraceptives, building a global index in this regard is a lot trickier. This is another hurdle for communicating around this goal – we live in number-obsessed societies and what cannot be measured is often deemed unproven or non-serious. But as feminists and activists, should our goals be defined by how easy or difficult they are to advocate for, or by the change that we are truly trying to accomplish? Gender equality is an attractive vision for the future: simple to understand, measurable, uncontroversial. Achieving it is crucial. But it is nowhere near enough.


Cyrielle Auffray is a French-born, UK-based feminist blogger with a specific focus on gender and diversity in the media. Follow her on Twitter: @thewmind.

(*) Quoted from Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, by bell hooks. First published in 2000.