There are universal "human rights". We should not speak of "women’s rights" or "men’s rights", as if we can speak of these separately. Once we start doing that, we loose sight of our common humanity.

— Gijsbert Stoet

The purpose of gender equality

The main purpose of improving gender equality is to create a fairer society. In highly developed industrialized nations, the large majority of people and policy makers support a fairer society. All major political parties, from left to right, support gender equality initiatives.

The challenges

It is not always clear what exactly constitutes gender equality. For example, one may ask whether the underrepresentation of female engineers or male psychologists is a matter of inequality or a matter of choice. Indeed, the same can be asked about the underrepresentation of female politicians or female company board members. Some people will argue that these examples are a matter of inequality, while others will argue these are a matter of choice. In fact, it might well be a bit of both, and this issue is addressed in the girls section of this website.

Further, gender equality policies do not always have the intended effects. For example, countries with the highest level of women’s emancipation (as ranked by the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index) have the lowest percentage of young women choosing to graduate in the natural sciences and technical sector (gender equality paradox). Despite many initiatives to attract more women to STEM fields and much money spent, little has been accomplished. Whatever is going on, everyone will agree that the issue is far more complex than at first thought.

When it comes to education, the best thing we can do is to make sure that all children and adults get the best opportunities to do what they are able to and enjoy. I believe that even in modern advanced societies, too many children (including those from wealthier backgrounds) do not get those opportunities — for exampe because schools do not give children the needed information and help to make the right subject choices.

Of course, there are other gender inequalities unrelated to education. The way men and women may suffer specific disadvantages varies much between cultures; this means that gender-equality policies should be shaped differently in different countries.

Equality vs equity

You might have heard of the similar sounding words Equality and equity. They are two different concepts.

With equality, we typically mean equal right and equal opportunities.

With equity, we typically mean equal outcomes.

Equity vs Equality

In reality, equity and equality might lead to the same outcomes, but not necessarily and not always. For example, young British men and women get equal opportunities to study psychology or physics (i.e., equality), and yet gender gaps in enrollment numbers are large: we do not have equity, but we have equality of opportunities.

Some people may argue that equal opportunities are all we need for a fair society, while others may argue that the existence of unequal outcomes itself shows that opportunities are actually not as equal as they may appear. For example, some people argue that girls do not really get the same encouragement or support for subjects such as physics or computer science (or boys for subjects such as nursing). Whether that is true or not is often very difficult to objectively measure. Other people may argue that biological factors are, in part, responsible for the unequal outcomes and therefore argue that we should primarily focus on equal opportunities.

Whatever your view in this debate is, fact is that equal opportunities are a more pressing issue than equity. Whatever you do, without equal opportunities you simply cannot have a fair society, whereas without equity, you can still, in principal, have a fair society (although not guaranteed). Unequal opportunities can be beneficial to help disadvantaged children; that is, giving disavantaged children extra opportunities can help them to overcome their disadvantages. This creates problems, because there will always be some children who just miss out on the criteria to be included in such programmes, and who thus may see this as massively unfair. This is not theoretical, there are clear examples of such issues in the real world.

Another major problem is that opportunities are often given, but not under ideal circumstances. For example, when you give 13 or 14 year old children choices (to choose elective subjects in school), they do get real opportunities; but because they are cognitively not mature enough and because they lack experience, they cannot take full advantage of the opportunities given. This is possibly one of the contributors to gender imbalances in school subjects (e.g., because some children make choices based on whether they think a school subject is appropriate for their gender — this will, however, vary between cultures). In short, when children lack appropriate information and experience, they will often make poor choices.

That said, it is completely unrealistic to expect 50/50 men/women in all fields of work. There is a strong body of psychological research showing that men and women considerabally in interests. Even if you are not familiar with this research, just think of the magazines men and women read, the movies they prefer, and the hobbies they choose. Men and women are different, and we should celebrate that rather than deny.

What we must do, however, is to make sure that we give them all the support they need for making smart choices; such support is needed until the age that they are mature enough to make wise decisions. Further, being interested in learning about something alone is not sufficient accept that one gender is underrepresented in, say, certain school subjects. If a society thinks that a topic is extremely important, such as computer programming, more needs to be done to make all children more interested, whatever it takes. After all, education is generally somewhat forced on children (many would probably rather stay at home and play); we force them to learn in their own interest.

Currently, not enough is happening to make sure that boys and girls are educated optimally in all the domains that we think are important! Therefore, we should make sure that boys and girls are doing equally well in all school subjects at school-leaving age (somewhere between 16 and 18 years old), so that they have the best opportunities to choose an occuption that is right for them.

Major challenges for equality policies

There are so many different opinions about gender equality and so many different studies out there, that it is hard to know what to do. It sometimes even seems that some researchers will say one thing while others say exactly the opposite. This makes it hard for policy makers to even know whom to listen to.

In short, there appears conflicting information out there. So how can policy makers deal with this problem of conflicting information?

The best thing for policy makers is to look for research that fulfills the following criteria:

  • Representative research (e.g., are sufficient numbers of participants included?)

  • Rigorous research (e.g., does the research use the best possible methodological techniques?)

Some research has been carried out with unrepresentative samples or with controversial methodology, which is part of the reason why there can be quite different stories about what policies will lead to more gender equality.

The best way to reach equality and equity in education

  • Do not let children choose elective school subjects before they are mature enough and ready to choose.

  • Gender stereotypes are not necessarily bad, they are just what they are, mental representations created by looking at the world as it is. Children (and adults) will rely on stereotypes when they do not have good and detailed information about the questions they need to address. Therefore, the best parents/schools can do is to give children detailed information about school subjects (including how they can be used for future jobs) and help them to build their own experience. This way, children will rely far less on stereotypes and more on their own experience when making important subject choices.

  • Make sure that school experience is positive and engaging for both boys and girls. That means that physics should also include examples that relate to more typical girl interests (i.e., not just trucks and canon balls) and in literature, there should be enough books boys like.

  • Give boys and girls exactly the same opportunities. Girls' Day can be great (e.g., because there is no between-gender competition), but if you give girls this opportunity, make sure that there is also a Boys' Day that provides exactly the same opportunities. Otherwise, you are simply creating inequality! I believe that boys and girls deserve much better than that. Also, by creating inequality through things such as Girls' Day only for girls, schools will entrench the idea that gender inequality is acceptable. Which is unacceptable!

  • Make sure that children get a good sense of their own abilities through useful feedback (otherwise, they may under or overestimate their own skills and have unrealistic expectations). Girls often underestimate their abilities in STEM.

Read more about gender stereotypes by well known psychologist Lee Jussim on Psychology today. Click here to read.


You can ask Professor Stoet for a talk or a workshop to help your organisation to better understand any of these issues. If you are interested, please check the contact details via this link.