Andrew Wilson writes for the Think blog, which aims to help people engage with deep theological issues, and today posted about feminism and ‘equality’ – his quotation marks, not mine. There’s a lot that could be said in response, but I wanted to pick up on some of what he says about equality, a word that I don’t think needs any quotation marks at all. [added note: to clarify, Andrew is quoting ideas from Alistair Roberts but clearly because he agrees with them. I’ve added names to my original post to make it clearer who said what]
Alistair says that equality is an empty concept but then uses the term in a very confused and confusing way. He seems to think equality is about men and women becoming identical, and particularly that equality is about numerical parity. For example, ‘To take an extreme example, making women half of our military may serve an inclusive purpose for the women involved, but it would weaken our nation’s security and international power and wouldn’t necessarily be in the best interests of women as a class, who benefit far more from the security and power of our nation than they do from quotas or tokenism.’
In contrast, respected definitions of equality are about eliminating disadvantage, discrimination and barriers to opportunity so that everyone can flourish. Danny Dorling, for example, says that ‘Equality means being afforded the same rights, dignity and freedoms as other people. These includes rights to access resources, the dignity of being seen as able and the freedom to choose what you make of your life on an equal footing with others.’ Those who argue for equality in the military don’t argue for there to be exactly the same number of female soldiers as male soldiers. They argue for women who want to serve in the military to be given the same opportunities as men. That means those women need to reach the standards of fitness, skill and character that are deemed to be necessary for a soldier. No one is asking for an easier route in for women or for tokenism; in fact women in many areas of life have the experience of needing to perform better than men at a given task because of stereotypical assumptions and discrimination. To claim that equality in the military will mean lots of incompetent women being admitted just to make up the numbers which will weaken national security and international influence is disingenuous and only serves to undermine his argument because it’s such a ridiculous statement.
And then Alistair’s contention that ‘the entrance of women into new spheres has often led to a weakening of the social power of those spheres, as women are often more vulnerable and easily exploited and less agentic and assertive in their typical modes of behaviour than men’ is simply inaccurate, not to mention offensive and disrespectful to women. Firstly, women are not all carbon copies of each other with exactly the same traits. That analysis owes more to the Mars and Venus myth than any actual research into what women are actually like. Of course, some women are vulnerable and some are less assertive, but the same could be said of some men. There is a huge diversity among women (as there is among men), and some women have incredible leadership skills and a huge amount to contribute to their area of expertise and experience. Secondly, it is simply not true that including women in leadership always weakens a sphere. For example, Lord Davies report, Women on Boards, in February 2011 says ‘Research has shown that strong stock market growth among European companies is most likely to occur where there is a higher proportion of women in senior management teams. Companies with more women on their boards were found to outperform their rivals with a 42% higher return in sales, 66% higher return on invested capital and 53% higher return on equity.’ Diversity is good for business, as it is for most areas of life.
I could go on, but I’ll stop there. More than anything, I’m intrigued that someone in church leadership like Andrew, who you would expect to be good at relating to people and used to dealing with all kinds of people, can have such a low opinion of women and such a restricted view of what they contribute to churches, communities and the wider common good – based not on what women actually can do and are like, but based on what they ought to be like from a theoretical model. I wonder why that is.