Gender equality has made some great strides. About one hundred years ago, most women in the world didn’t have the right to vote — no suffrage, to use the correct term. Right now, we have a woman inching closer than ever to the office of President of the United States, considered the most powerful “man” on earth. In the corporate scene too, we now see many women in powerful positions.
But, even the most optimistic among us wouldn’t argue that gender equality is a reality and that women have arrived. Why is that? What exactly is the difficulty in achieving this holy grail of equality?
I think that the difficulty lies in our definition, in what we mean by women’s equality. Of course, the whole equality issue is a minefield as far as political correctness is concerned. And I’m barging on to thin ice where no sane person would dream of stepping in. But a columnist is allowed to be opinionated and, let’s face it, a bit obnoxious. So here we go…
I feel that there are good and bad arguments for equality. Let’s take the case of tennis Grand Slams, where they “achieved” equality by equalizing the prize moneys. The argument was simply that women and men were equal and they deserved the same prize money.
To me, it wasn’t much of an argument at all. It was a form of condescension. It is a bit like the condescending (though, no doubt, well-meaning) encouragements offered by native speakers when you learn their tongue. Towards the end of my five year sojourn in France, I could speak pretty good French and people used to tell me, encouragingly of course, that I spoke well. To me, it always meant that I didn’t speak well enough, for if I did, they just wouldn’t notice it at all, would they? After all, they don’t go around congratulating each other on their perfect French!
Similarly, if men and women tennis players were really equal, nobody would speak of equality. There wouldn’t be “men’s” singles and “women’s” singles to begin with — there would be just singles! So this argument for equality in prize money is bad one.
There is a much better argument. Prize money is sponsored by corporate bodies bent on promoting their products. The sponsors are therefore interested in TV viewership. Given that women’s singles draws in as many viewers as men’s, the prize money should be equal. Now, that is a solid argument. We should be looking at dimensions where equality really does exist rather than trying to artificially impose it.
When such dimensions of equality encompass all aspects of our lives, we will be able to safely say that gender equality has arrived. We should not be looking for equality in testosterone-driven playing fields, which, by the way, may include higher echelons of the corporate pyramid. We should be relegating debates on equality to irrelevance by attributing enough respect and value to natural differences.
Articulated by a man, this statement of mine, of course, is a bit suspect. Aren’t I trying to shortchange women by offering them useless respect rather than real equality?
I once heard a similar exchange when someone argued that women in my native land of Kerala enjoyed higher level of gender equality because, coming from a matrilineal system, they ruled the household. The pithy rebuttal to that argument came from a Keralite woman, “Men are perfectly happy to let women rule their households as long as they get to rule the world!”
Then again, we are pretty close to letting Hillary Clinton rule the world with just two men standing in her way. So perhaps gender equality has finally arrived after all.