Gender equality and violence against women

What’s the connection?
ACSSA Research Summary No. 7 – June 2014

Measuring gender equality

What is success in terms of reaching gender equality? How can a society be considered gender equal? In the gender/violence against women literature, it is broadly theorised that increased gender equality will lead to decreased violence against women (VicHealth, 2007; WHO, 2010; Pease, 2008). This is also known as the ameliorative theory and equates to a sense that greater gender equality will ameliorate the amount of violence against women (Martin, Vieraitis, & Britto, 2006; Whaley, Messner, & Veysey, 2011). Gender equality can be an imprecise concept. Generally, it could mean that the work of men and women is more equally valued, family responsibilities more shared, political and social power less divided and men having less power over women (Whaley et al., 2011). But it will have different meanings depending on the different perspectives of those considering gender equality. For example, the international Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) looks at gender equality through a prism of economic growth and thus concentrates its measures on education, employment and entrepreneurship of each gender. However, what we are investigating are actually social causes of inequality and it is important that sociological perspectives are incorporated into understanding the causes of difference in these economic measures.

The importance of social status

What to measure and how to measure it are two very clear concerns for understanding gender equality changes. For example, one challenge in measuring different aspects of gender equality is being able to analyse the interaction between the economy in terms of paid workers and the "hidden" contribution that unpaid, family care makes to this. Also potentially affecting measurement of gender equality is the possibility of "backlash", which refers to an increase in male violence against women as women's status increases and men seek to maintain their hold on power.

Gender equality and empowerment of women was goal 3 of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals and therefore has been the subject of considerable dialogue regarding measurement. The official indicators for the UN measurement of this goal are:

  • the ratio of girls to boys in primary secondary and tertiary education;
  • the share of women in waged employment in the non-agricultural sector; and
  • the proportion of seats held by women in national parliament.

These are necessarily very broad goals and can't really demonstrate the progress towards equality at other levels of the ecological social system. Individual cultures and resources will obviously have an impact on the rate of progress. The UN collates the Gender Inequality Index that rates countries according to the measures of inequality mentioned above and additionally, maternal mortality rates and adolescent fertility rates.

In Australia, there are a range of statistical measures developed by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. These are referred to as gender indicators and the measures include: economic security, education, health, work and family balance, safety and justice, and democracy, governance and citizenship.

In a paper considering methodologies for measuring gender equality, Scott (2010) observed that in order to understand gender equality thoroughly, it is necessary to understand how these inequalities are produced and reproduced over the life course and at different ecological levels. This means observation and measurement at different times periods, different levels and different cultures (Scott, 2010). The methodology used to measure and record these observations will affect the information that is produced and therefore what is understood about gender equality. This means, gender equality measures must be uniform to enable comparison, and the questions being asked about gender equality must be clearly framed in order to achieve the goals of the research (Scott, 2010). In addition, good quality indicators of gender equality that will yield the necessary information must be identified.

Women's status has been used as a measure of equality in the context of social constructions of value applied to each gender according to their roles and social arrangements within a culture (Bradley & Khor, 1993, Yodanis, 2004). Areas of measurement that are regularly understood to represent measures of equality and women's status include the spheres of education, occupation and political participation as per the United Nations Millennium Development Goal measures. In a persuasive argument for their particular conceptualisation of status as a measure, Bradley and Khor (1993) argued that status must not only be considered in terms of the dimensions of activity such as economic, political and social but rather in relation to the private and public domains which affect women's lives. The private dimension includes such measures as violence in the home, control over reproductive power, kinship and care, and social obligations. The public dimension refers to institutions and activities that are the measures most commonly used in reference to gender equality (Bradley & Khor, 1993). This is a similar conclusion to the aforementioned work of Levinson (1989) that indicated different spheres have different impacts on violence.

In terms of linking the measures of gender equality to violence against women, Yodonis (2004) pointed out that it has been very difficult to comprehensively test the theory of gender equality and gendered violence. In her study looking at societal level measures of gender inequality and rates of violence against women and women's fear relative to men's, she used data from the UN and an International Crime Victims Survey in the US. Although not a standard measure, when looking at gender equality, the fear women feel, relative to men's fear, whether justified or not, is a mechanism that can be used to indicate perceived vulnerability to men. She measured the status of women and linked it to violence by measuring the relationship between structural gender inequality, experiences of sexual and physical violence against women and levels of fear (relative to men's) among women in European and North American countries. Dimensions of measurement used were education, occupational and political status. Her findings supported the theory that the status of women was related to the prevalence of violence against women, and more strongly with sexual violence than physical violence. The overall prevalence of sexual violence was also linked to a higher rate of women's fear relative to men's. Yodonis also proposed the possibility of using women in legal and criminal justice systems as further measures of the status of women.

As noted earlier, Ridgeway (2014) makes the observation that despite changes in structural inequality in society, which have improved women's socio-economic and public sphere status or absolute status, their position as inferior in terms of social status has remained constant. This is an important observation. Her theory is that social status beliefs are a motivator of human behaviour. Group connections, information exchange, affection and beliefs about competence are perpetuated throughout social encounters and organisations that distribute power and resources, intrinsically directing higher status groups towards privileges. This type of thinking emphasises the importance of community attitude information being incorporated into measures of equality as much as socio-economic, political and other "hard" measurement data. Ridgeway and Correll (2004) concluded that although changing women's economic disadvantage and making changes at the personal and community levels do modify cultural beliefs about gender, the core hierarchy of these beliefs is more difficult to break down and needs to be persistently challenged at all levels.