Although gender equality is an important achievement of modern society, it should not be taken for granted, even in developed countries. Sexual discrimination is still present at many levels even in the richest and most developed societies and Slovenia is no exception. For this reason, we should strive for genuine equality before the law and equality between men and women. Meta’s list highlights some of these problems, but gender equality is not only about men and women having the same opportunities to succeed in our lives, the same pay for the same type of job and equal representation in politics, the media and other areas of social life.
Equality or rather difference between men and women also influences our lives in ways we usually do not realise because we are not even aware of them.
We all know that men are different from women. The average man is slightly taller than the average woman, weighs a bit more (because of his height and not because there are more overweight men than women, although the regulation of body weight differs between the sexes), has no breasts and will never be pregnant, to name just a few of the most well-known and obvious differences. But our differences do not stop there; our bodies function differently, not only in the reproduction processes, which are of course different. The differences in the functioning of male and female bodies can also be found in the liver, which is very important for the breakdown of medicines, as the time a medicine stays in the body and consequently its effect can differ between the sexes. The differences can be found in the functioning of the heart and many other organs/tissues, resulting in significant differences in the incidence of various diseases among men and women that are very much real. This includes differences in the incidence of psychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases, which are undoubtedly the result of differences in the structure and functioning of the brain. I will not go into detail here, although as a neuroscientist who studies brain development, I know this field very well, but that is not the purpose of this article.
We all agree that men and women are not the same, and here I need to note immediately that diversity absolutely does not mean that one sex is as a whole or in any specific characteristic better or worse than the other. Both men and women are equally good; equivalent, but different. However, without reflection, and trying to achieve greater equality, Slovenes have in recent years and decades began to conflate equality before the law and biological equality.
The English term gender equality has multiple Slovene translations, which roughly mean equality of the sexes, legal equality of the sexes and equivalence of the sexes, with the first being the most widely used. The Ministry of Labour, Family, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities uses the term meaning equality of the sexes, which has its flaws. As already briefly explained, men and women are certainly not the same, and I think we all realise this, so a more appropriate term would be equality before the law.
In the past decades, due to the desire to make men and women the same (instead of equal before the law or equivalent) many errors have emerged that have most often affected women, who have constantly fought for equality before the law.
I will not list all the examples (for more, please visit the website Gendered Innovations, which is the result of an European-American project on gender equality and differences, in which the author of this article participated), but let me mention only two very clear and obvious instances of the marginalisation of women due to the preamble on gender equality. I mentioned the first at the beginning: medicines. Even basic research is carried out using almost exclusively male laboratory animals and the results are uncritically applied to both sexes. A similar case is clinical trials, in which, until recently, sex was often overlooked, even though we know that medicines can be metabolised differently and that they can function differently in the male or the female body. This has slowly been changing and last year the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved for the first time the use of a medicine in different doses for men and women because it was found that it is excreted from the female body at a slower pace. However, most medicines on the market are still adjusted to the male body, even though male and female bodies are not the same.
Another example is car safety. Many will ask: Do car safety and sex have anything in common? They do. As we all know, the average man and woman differ in height and body weight. And who do you think the first crash test dummies were made to resemble? You have probably guessed that they did not look like the average woman, but like the average man! And yes, it has been shown that safety systems in some cars were not equally safe for men and women. This has of course changed and today male and female dummies are being used in testing, though there are still no dummies being used that would represent pregnant women and consequently car safety is not adapted to them.
Thus women and men are not the same and convincing ourselves that we are will only harm us.
We should definitely be equal in the sense expressed by the great human rights activist Martin Luther King more than 50 years ago: “All men are created equal”. So we should stop talking about the equivalence of the sexes and start emphasising the differences, as well as equality, because only in this way will men and women get the same opportunities even in trivial everyday things, such as medicines and car safety.
Author: Gregor Majdič. Researcher who studies the differences between men’s and women’s brains. He was involved in the international project Gendered Innovations, in which researchers from the US and the EU studied sex differences. The results were presented to the European Commission and the European Parliament. He is currently a member of the expert group of the Genmed project, financed by the EU, which aims to set up guidelines for the further development of studies into differences between the sexes and their application in clinical medicine.
Translated by: Tina Goropečnik.
Title Photo: Nick Sherman via Flickr.