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Do Women Really Want Equality?

Posted: February 20, 2012

Guest Blogger Chandni is a development professional in the field of public health with a keen interest in gender and womens’ issues. She blogs at

A lot of us interested in issues of gender and feminism know that in theory, there are various schools of thought on feminism. First wave, new age, radical, classic….you name it, we have it! However, for those looking from a distance, the word “feminism” automatically refers to “demand for equality”.

A few day ago, over a conversation with a friend, the issue of women leaving the workforce to have children came up. He was cribbing about women asking for equality on all quarters and then also demanding flexibility as being unfair. The gist of his argument being, on one hand women want to be equal to men, and on the other hand, still use the “woman” card as per convenience.

The use of words like “equality” and “unfair” in the same sentence immediately led me to think about feminism and among the varied schools of thought, the use of language, and what is it that women are asking for? What do we mean when we say we want equality?

I cannot help but think that a lot of feminist arguments are either misguided, claiming to desire equality for women in situations where we would actually prefer equity, or misunderstood as demanding equality when we are, in fact, demanding equity.

I’ll take an example of the average dinner table. Parents and children, getting exactly the same amount of food would denote equality. But is that what happens? In practical terms, they should and will get portions according to their needs, age and appetite. This is where equity comes in. Equality denotes that everyone is at the same level, gets exactly the same share while equity represents fairness or what is referred to as equality of outcomes. Equality is mostly about quantity, whereas equity is always about quality.

I remember this popular activity that is taken up in gender trainings the world over, which I have often used in my training programs in schools over the years. I would ask every participant to take off their shoes and place them in the centre. I would then mix them up and hands back any two shoes at random to the participants.  And then I would ask “Everything alright? You all have two shoes to wear?”

More often than not, you would hear the arguments that follow.

“These are wrong. They don’t fit!” or “This isn’t what I need. This doesn’t work for me.” Or “These are too big/small for me.” etc

But I am trying to be fair to everyone, right? I am dividing shoes equally so no one should complain. Where am I going wrong?

And more often than not, they would tell me, I don’t care if it is equal or not, it has to be fair.

So logically, we aren’t asking to be treated exactly like men, right? And why would we want to be treated as men in the first place? We are not men. Ignoring that would be ignoring plain facts and well, biology. Demanding recognition as mothers or homemakers, for instance, comes with a fundamental expectation of not being treated exactly the same way as a man would. However, we demand equity in how the world treats us, asking to be given the same rights as men have as human beings. And let me hasten to add, asking to look at our needs as women should not automatically mean being treated as less serious or less important.

And so I ask you to think about it. Especially in the Indian context, the way our society is structured and functions, what really are we, as women demanding? We are taking on more and more responsibility with passing years, and asking for respect for doing multiple jobs and doing them well. We are asking for what is fair and what is justified. It is equity that is desirable, not sameness.

In the end, it isn’t about having equal number of shoes, one each for the left and right foot. It is about having shoes that fit.

Your thoughts?

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  1. Chandni, Totally with you on this one.

    Equity is what we are asking for. Women absolutely need maternity leaves and if asking for equality means not having maternity leaves because men don’t need it then there is a problem.
    In France they call it parenting leaves and both men and women get them. they found an equal solution.

    But anyway regarding the equity-equality question you are so on the mark about this.
    Have you read ‘The Second Sex’ -Simone de Beauvoir?
    She has an amazing take on this equity vs equality question.
    Lovely post!

  2. This is a very valid question. Having a life with a right to choose (that can be a result of many years of conditioning in initial periods, I accept) for my own self is what I demand as an Indian woman. Loved the examples. This is a topic of immense thought and debate. This will be a topic of work for generations of Indian women to come.

  3. I’ve been saying for years that what most women want — including me — is equivalence. I don’t want everything the men have, I just want those freedoms translated into women’s terms, keeping in mind women’s needs.

    Something I wish every working man would understand is that no dedicated working woman really likes taking time off to attend to domestic needs, nobody appreciates those inroads into their work times. It’s just that somebody has to and menfolks have an even harder time taking those breaks in our current workplaces (mostly).

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  5. Hi Chandni, definitely thought provoking. I have heard of the equity versus equality argument before and yes, as you said it is about finding solutions that suit a person’s needs rather a one size fit all answer.
    However I feel that in today’s world, especially the professional space there are occasions where equality counts too, for instance for a potential employer who runs a call centre, it is important that his employees, be they male or female, put in the same amount of hours. In a job which involves a lot of travel, again it is important that the employee, irrespective of gender be equally free to travel and so on. . Sometimes to be fair you have to be equal. (In these scenarios I strongly feel a woman needs support in her personal ecosystem to be on par with her colleagues)
    Am I missing the point?

  6. To make people more equal different needs and claims of people have to be taken into account when framing policies. Workplaces have been designed around men. They are male oriented as traditionally men alone were the norm. To quote apu from apu’s world here “Workplaces have never been built taking into account the fact of women’s bodies or their lives.” Everything that suits men is seen as normal and whenever a policy has been framed to make a certain place more inclusive of women by taking into account their needs, it is seen as according a special treatment or some kind of aberration. Equality in workplace means that the needs of both men and women are taken equally into consideration when rules or policies by which things are supposed work are being framed.
    Discrimination against women on the grounds of maternity exist both in relation to termination of employment and access to employment. Maternity leave is not a perk; it is recognition of the fact that women become pregnant and in a way safeguard against such discrimination. Maternity is a condition which requires differential treatment to achieve genuine equality. Such a leave enables women to fulfil their maternal role or at least allows them to take some time off to recuperate after giving birth without being marginalized in the labor market.
    But I also see a dark side to maternity leave, I have observed how sometimes employers avoid hiring women even though they are very talented. It is only because they happen to be of a child bearing age.
    I can see maternity leave as discriminatory only on the grounds that it refuses to see fathers as care givers and relegates them to a secondary status when it comes to parenting. Only providing benefits to the mother also reinforces the traditional idea that women bring up children, instead of both parents taking an equal responsibility for childcare. Thus I’d argue that delivering equality for women in the workplace actually means giving men parallel rights as parents. True equality would be reached when we give women equal rights at work — and men equal rights at home.
    So I think the best solution is to make maternity leave parental leave (a completely gender neutral policy) or at least introduce a paternity leave to show that it’s just not about mothers, instead it’s about “families”.

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  10. Interesting post, Chandni. But if we don’t go into the semantics, I think what women want foremost is freedom – to live, to think, to be. And women see that men get that freedom without asking, whereas women have to put up a case for it. Which is when the whole equality discussion comes in – that at least bring us to the equal level of men first and we will talk about everything else later. Quoting your brilliant shoe distribution example here: women want that they be given an equal chance (freedom) to pick the shoes they want just like men are given. That is all. They may pick the shoes that are smaller than (and hence not equal in size to) those of men, but they will pick what they want.

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