According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and in rights – regardless of their gender. Yet no single country in the world has perfect gender equality. Whilst some reports claim that gender equality has largely improved over recent years at a global level, gender experts continue to express grave concern over the risks and dangers that women face around the world today. For example, in 2011 countries such as Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, India and Somalia were named the most dangerous countries in the world for women. The real life risks and dangers in these countries included the prolific use of rape as a weapon of war, domestic abuse, acid attacks, honour killings, trafficking, sexual slavery, female genital mutilation, female foeticide and economic discrimination. In addition, in two separate reports in 2013 and 2014, topping the list of countries that had the biggest gender gap in relation to health, education, economy and politics included Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Chad, Syria, Mali and Niger.

Anthropologists largely agree that women (as a group) have never occupied a position of higher status or greater political power than men in any society. Some individual women have occupied leadership positions but in most cases these women were mere exceptions. If we are to believe this narrative, then why is this so? What are the primary determinants of this universal phenomenon?

According to Ritter and Mellow, political science has been the most resistant to gender studies compared to any other field in the social sciences. Yet it does provide some undeniably useful tools for answering such a question.

Gender Stereotypes

Gender is by its very nature a social construct: Constituted by the roles, behaviours, attitudes and attributes considered by society to be appropriate for men and women. Within the context of international relations, the Culturalist believes that the self is a communal self, developed in interaction with others where interests, values and norms are shaped by a sociological process. Argued to be one of the primary determinants of gender inequality and the place to which it derives its staying power from are gender stereotypes. Gender is used as a primary frame for defining the ‘self’ and ‘other’ when deciding how to behave during interactions with other people.

The foundations of this cognitive process for individuals typically begin in the family: A “gender factory” seen to reproduce inequalities between men and women from the outset. As parents treat their children differently based on their sex, individuals begin to develop divergent identities and expectations base on their gender. Strengthened by tradition and the media, seemingly harmless actions collectively contribute to the universal phenomenon that is gender inequality (manifesting itself in job segregation and rape culture as just two examples). NB: We are all prone to stereotyping – and if you think you’re not – you can take this free Implicit Association Tests online developed by Mahzarin R. Banaji’s at Harvard University (I too failed miserably).

Structural factors

Building upon the Constructivist explanation, it is argued that human culture must be understood in terms of its relationship to a larger, overarching system or structure. Here, the Structuralist claims that one of the primary determinants of gender inequality are systems of control over material resources of power that embed membership in gender categories. There are several quantitative studies in political science that add weight to this line of though – pointing to the positive causal relationship between development, democracy, education and economic growth and higher levels of gender equality.

Conversely, there are some institutions that many understand to be the root cause of gender inequality in particular parts of the world such as religion. Particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, it is these harmful religious gender ideologies, institutions and interactions found practiced in some countries that are believed to be responsible for the severity of gender inequality. However, some have responded by calling for a distinction to be made between Islamic teachings and the oppressive behaviour of states that use Islamic ideology to sustain and vindicate patriarchy. On a separate note, Michael L. Ross, has argued that it is oil, not Islam that is responsible for the gender gap in the Middle East since oil production reduces the number of women in the labor force that restricts their political influence. Other factors believed to lead to a decline in gender equality includes – unsurprisingly – the prevalence of conflict and corruption and the absence of the rule of law safeguarding human rights for women.

Ending Gender Inequality

From a holistic point of view, securing an end to gender inequality entails tackling it at it’s root cause – namely: (1) Eroding negative gender, sexist and sexual stereotypes (2) Altering preferences, behaviour and structures in a shared ideational environment. Experts in the field view education and the use of governmental and intergovernmental human rights institutions as the best methods to achieving these aims. However, it is clear that there is still a long way to go until a perfect global equilibrium of gender inequality is reached with some states failing to see gender equality as a human right and others remaining skeptical of human rights in their entirety.

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Image Source:  Michael Volpicelli