Please judge women on their merits, not their chromosomes

International Women's Day is a good moment to remember that the principle of 'equality' must be deployed carefully if we truly want to empower women

March 02, 2020 12:27

This year’s International Women’s Day campaign theme is #EachforEqual. Underlying it is the promise that together, each of us can help create a gender equal world. It is a nice message but it is worth probing what it actually means and if it is achievable.

The preoccupation for boardrooms, panels and workspaces to be gender equal - 50/50 (and even better if more female) - is now near omnipresent.

But should we count replacing privileged men with privileged women as progress? It might make us feel righteous but I have seen this issue divert much needed energy away from bottom-up policies which genuinely empower women.

Take, for example, my experience at a conference a couple of years ago. My colleagues and I were trading notes and one was positively buzzing, having just returned from an "inspiring all-female panel". He was so inspired that he wanted to approach the women at the end to commend them. 

When I pressed further as to why he didn’t, he said that the content was a bit rubbish. Surprised that he was still waxing lyrical about the event despite the poor content, it dawned on me that it was the all-women bit he liked. I asked him whether an all-male panel - a ‘manel’ - would have impressed him too.  He was horrified. That, he insisted, would have been appalling. This way, however, was fine: after centuries of being subjugated by them, it was women’s turn to stick it to men.

It left me wondering if in the doubtlessly noble pursuit for female empowerment, panellists were chosen for their gender first, with their ability to contribute to the debate being only a distant and secondary consideration. And if so, did this well-meaning approach risk perpetuating the myth that women are not as good as men?

An over-correction of this sort is as patronising as it is counterproductive. The former, because women want to be judged on their merits, not their chromosomes; the latter because it risks further embedding negative stereotypes.

The problem is that we talk about equality and diversity as if they are interchangeable. If we want diversity then we must strive for it across the piece, not just where we can gain plaudits. 

If what those advocating for this actually mean is equality and not diversity, then what is not to celebrate about ensuring everybody has equal opportunity and is not discriminated against because of their innate characteristics? Yet even here, there is a flaw. Equality of opportunity may not always produce equality of outcome. When we don’t achieve "equality", self-flagellating ensues. This is misplaced victimhood.

The truth about equality is somewhat more nuanced and contains a giant M shaped hole – that of motherhood – within it. It is fashionable to peddle the falsehood that gender is a social construct and women have a ‘choice’ if they want to procreate. Yes, not all women are mothers, want to be mothers, or can be mothers, but until men can ovulate, become pregnant, give birth and lactate, there will never be true equality between the sexes.

To deny this is to sell women a lie, making them feel as if they have failed when they have not conquered the world. To state the obvious: this does not empower women.

I have had countless conversations with women working in the community who tell me they are expected to work as if they don’t have kids and to raise kids as if they don’t work.

Will mothers feel empowered to thrive at work because 50 per cent of their board are women or will they feel empowered because they have been given the scope and freedom to find equilibrium between working and parenting? As a senior female professional in the community, I owe my progression to the latter with the former having had literally no impact.

Too often, when deciding who is best equipped to talk about an issue or is worthy of promotion, we fall victim to a prejudice we once fought hard to make irrelevant - that of a person’s gender. We need to listen to what women say they need to progress and do away with hollow tokenism.

March 02, 2020 12:27

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