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Gender Inequality 101: Meaning, Facts, and Ways to Take Action

Gender inequality is the prejudicial treatment of people based on their gender. While it affects women and girls most prominently, gender inequality is not limited to the male/female binary.   

Gender inequality is a persistent and global problem. While equality in education and employment has improved, things like COVID-19 and climate change have stalled progress in many regions. In this article, we’ll discuss the meaning of gender inequality, the most important facts about it, and how you can take action.

What’s the meaning of gender inequality?

Gender inequality occurs when people face discrimination, fewer opportunities, and increased violence because of their gender. When gender inequality exists in a society, it produces unequal outcomes that hurt not just those targeted because of their gender, but everyone else, too. Six factors can help us define gender inequality’s meaning and impact:

#1. Economic inequality

A person’s gender impacts how much money they make. According to UN Women, women make just 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. Group-specific gaps widen when you look at additional factors like a person’s ethnicity, race, age, immigration status, whether they have children, and so on. This has a huge impact on an individual’s life, but failing to close the gap impacts the global economy, too. According to a Moody’s Analytics report, the global economy could experience a $7 trillion boost if there was no gender gap. Currently, closing the gap could take as long as 132 years.

#2. Less political representation

Men have dominated the political world for centuries, while other genders lack significant representation. Based on data from January 2023, it would take another 130 years for women to achieve gender equality in the world’s highest positions of power. Only 17 countries have a female Head of State, while 19 have a female Head of Government. Several obstacles make political representation difficult, such as gender-imbalanced funding, discriminatory election rules, and gender stereotypes surrounding political ambition and power.

#3. Unequal education

Education access plays a huge role in gender inequality. When girls don’t get the same opportunities as boys, they face significant barriers for the rest of their lives. A lack of education can lead to poorly-paid and dangerous jobs, increased risks for gender-based violence, and poor health. Studies have shown links between good education and improved health not only for women, but their children, too. The gender gaps in education have been narrowing for years, but certain parts of the world still struggle. As an example, since the Taliban regained control in Afghanistan, most girls have been banned from receiving any education beyond the sixth grade.

#4. Worse healthcare 

Gender often affects a person’s access to quality healthcare. Bias is a big reason why. According to research, women are less represented in leadership, less represented in clinical studies, and less likely to have their symptoms taken seriously. Factors like race contribute to these issues. As an example, Black women in the United States are much more likely to die in childbirth compared to white women. Trans people are also affected by gender inequality in healthcare. They’re much more likely to endure discrimination and lower-quality treatments, which leads to worse health outcomes.

#5. Increased violence

Gender-based violence is one of the most persistent global problems. Based on data from the World Health Organization, at least 1 in 3 women have experienced sexual or physical violence. That includes violence perpetrated by an intimate partner or someone who isn’t their partner. Most jarringly, 1 in 4 of those women experience violence between 15-24 years old. Because many women do not report abuse because of stigma or fears of retaliation, gender-based violence is most likely more prevalent than reported. Trans people and others who do not conform to gender binaries also face increased risks of violence.

#6. Unequal household responsibilities

Gender inequality can manifest in the unequal distribution of household responsibilities. Within a single home, it may not seem significant, but globally, women perform more hours of unpaid work (childcare, cleaning, cooking, etc) than men. When combined, women perform 12.5 billion hours of work without pay. They subsidize labor that keeps families afloat, supports the economy, and fills in for social services. These responsibilities also give women less time to work for money.

What facts do you need to know about gender inequality?

Gender inequality is complex, but there are five facts everyone should know:

#1. No country has reached full parity

No country has achieved gender equality, but nine of the top 10 have closed at least 80% of their gaps. For 14 years, Iceland has been the most gender-equal country. It’s closed 91.2% of its gender gap. The healthcare and education gaps are closed entirely, and since 2018, Icelandic companies with more than 25 employees have been legally required to show they pay equal wages. Norway, Finland, and Sweden are the next most equal countries. Overall, health, education, and political empowerment improved around the world, but economic participation and the opportunity gap expanded.

#2. COVID-19 worsened gender inequality

The world was making decent progress on gender equality, but the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t just pause improvements. It reversed them. A global study published in the Lancet found that women experienced harsher social and economic impacts than men. The worst gaps were in employment and unpaid labor. Women and girls were also more likely to leave school and face more gender-based violence. Why? COVID-19 exacerbated existing issues. Women make up more of the informal economy, which was hit hard by COVID-19, and are more likely to take on unpaid labor like caring for children and elderly family members. It will take a lot of hard work to get gender equality back on track.

#3. Climate change negatively impacts gender equality 

Climate change can’t have intentional biases against women, but it affects women differently regardless. This is especially true in areas most affected by drought, floods, famines, and other climate-driven events. In these regions, women rely on natural resources and agriculture for their livelihoods. As climate change makes agricultural activities harder, girls often need to leave school to help their families. Climate change also fuels conflict, which makes girls and women more vulnerable to human trafficking, child marriage, and other violence. When fighting for gender equality, experts and organizations cannot forget about climate change.

#4. Poverty is gendered

Women and girls are more likely to live in poverty than men. According to 2022 forecasts from the UNDP and the Pardee Center for International Futures, as many as 416 million women could be living in extreme poverty in 2030 compared to 401 million men. This represents a “high damage” scenario, but even in lower estimates, women are still more likely to live on just $2.15 a day. Women in Sub-Saharan Africa are most at risk.

#5. Gender inequality has mental health consequences

Mental health is a complex combination of factors, but studies show gender inequality’s negative effect on mental health. Studies show a link between gender-based discrimination and mental health issues like chronic stress and trauma. Women are also more likely to have anxiety, panic disorders, depression, eating disorders, PTSD, and so on. It’s difficult to get a full picture of society’s mental health because of stigma and research limitations. However, if men do suffer from mental illness at the same rate as women, but are either not seeking help or not reporting it, it could still be considered an effect of gender inequality. Gendering emotions and conditions like anxiety and depression hurt everyone.

In your opinion, which root of gender inequality needs to be addressed more?

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What are ways to take action against gender inequality?

Gender inequality spreads its roots across areas like work, household responsibilities, healthcare, education, and more. Here are four ways to take action:

#1. Increase funding for education and social services

While education equality has seen significant victories, it’s still being threatened in many places. Increasing funds to areas like teacher salaries, operating expenses, and programs for girls are vital, but you can also help education access by supporting communities. Girls often leave school because their labor fills in gaps in social services, but when communities have the social services they need, girls are more likely to stay in school. School needs to be a safe place, too, so action can be taken in areas like building safety, clean water and sanitation, policies on harassment and bullying, and teacher training.

#2. Fight for reproductive rights

Reproductive rights have suffered in recent years. Every year, millions of people don’t receive quality care for menstruation, pregnancy, abortion, and other reproductive health needs. People can take action by advocating for increased healthcare access and legal protections, and by donating time or money to organizations that provide essential health supplies and services. Gender equality is closely linked to reproductive freedom, so it’s essential people have the right to have or not have children.

#3. Advocate for increased economic protections and equal pay

The link between economic inequality and gender inequality is one of the toughest to address. When people can’t participate equally in the economy because of their gender, it ignites a trail of consequences that can affect the healthcare, housing, education, and wealth of generations to come. Economic protections like inheritance reform and land rights are essential, while equal pay for equal work, flexible work arrangements, and support for unpaid work matter, too.

#4. Speak out against discriminatory policies and behavior

Gender inequality is an economic and political reality, but it has social and cultural effects, as well. People can take action by calling out discriminatory policies. Some may not mention gender, but if the outcomes contribute to historical gender inequality or harmful discrimination, they need to be addressed. Discriminatory behavior and language should be called out, as well. While jokes may seem harmless, they hurt individuals and strengthen the mindsets that help gender inequality endure.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.

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