Despite the fact that equality between men and women has been a political priority for some time in Europe, progress remains very slow. Even if women have the same rights as men, they do not have the same access to opportunities offered to men and the claims to their rights are often unsuccessful. In some areas, such as the salary gap - estimates show that it is close to 20% - a regression has even been found in some countries.
One more significant indicator in this regard is women’s access to stand for elected political office: women are eligible, but their presence, with some exceptions, is still marginal in political life. In 2003, the Council of Europe recommended that the representation of either women or men in any decision-making body in political or public life should not fall below 40%. However, a recently published report shows that the average number of women ministers is 28.6% and the average representation of women in national parliaments is not more than 21.7%. There has been some progress since 2005, when only 19.9% of ministers were women, but the situation in parliaments has not changed.
Most discriminatory laws and regulations have been reformed or abolished in the last decades and many policies have been launched. Nevertheless, women still do not always have the same opportunities due to problems such as violence, marginalisation in political and economic life, discrimination in employment and difficulties in reconciling professional and private life.
Real gender equality does not only imply equality in law, it also means that women and men have equal visibility, empowerment, responsibility and participation in all spheres of public and political life.
Equality does not necessarily imply treating people in the same way, quite the opposite. In fact, the problem of inequality between men and women should be dealt with using a policy of differentiation. Many policies have been put in place in Europe in the last years - including positive action such as quotas, programmes for supporting specific women’s needs, promoting education of women and business projects led by women. They are producing timid results but we need to evaluate their impact and to formulate new ones in case they are not efficient enough.
We need concrete actions with specific goals in order to increase women’s participation in decision-making bodies. Women need to be financially independent and governments must ensure that equality is respected in the labour market.
Gender equality measures are needed to help parents reconcile professional and family life, for instance through the development of quality services to families, the review of working and school time and the equal sharing of care-giving and household responsibilities.
We have to place gender equality at the heart of political action. Giving a gender equality dimension to all public policies, elaborating public budgets addressing the specific needs of men and women and increasing positive action are imperative steps.
It is likely that the persistence of gender roles and deep cultural factors are hindering further progress. Only by acting at the root of the problem we will be effective. A cultural change is needed, a change that is only feasible through education at school and within families, and with the full commitment of media. As long as gender stereotypes remain, discrimination will persist, because today they are - and not laws or regulations - the key obstacle for the advancement of women.
In the current economic and social crisis, there is the risk of reducing the attention to gender equality policies. This would be a mistake. These policies should not be considered a cost but an investment. They can significantly contribute to society by allowing the full use of competences, skills and creativity of women and men alike.
Fighting discrimination is a long journey, but we must cut the distance. In the future, when it will be no breaking news that a woman is elected or appointed to an important post or whenever a woman achieves something which men have been accomplishing for decades or even centuries, equality between women and men will be closer to reality.
Equality between men and women in law and in practice is an integral part of human rights and democracy. We cannot afford to let inequalities persist, because without equality democracy is incomplete.
There is no doubt that Norwegian gender research could do with a proper spring clean – as could most academic departments and subject areas almost anywhere. Under ideal circumstances such a spring clean could help us get rid of the dust and dirt and retain the valuables. However, if you hire the wrong cleaning company for such a task, the results may be disastrous.
The centre of which I am in charge recently went through an international evaluation with an outcome to be very proud of; in addition to university funding it has through competition secured funding from five other units (committees, research funding bodies including the EU); the rates of both publication and dissemination are well above the average at the University of Oslo. Still, there is great room for improvement, as the debates have certainly highlighted. They have also highlighted the desire to carry out necessary changes, but paradoxically they have probably also diminished our chances of success in this task.
What has happened instead, is that a multifaceted and multidisciplinary field has in its entirety been carried away by the storm (although not wiped out completely), which means that also much of the extremely promising, high-quality research going on will suffer for a long time to come. Worst of all, it will perhaps be more difficult in the time to come to recruit top scholars from a Norwegian context – for them it will simply not be attractive enough to be associated with the field. Luckily, there are many researchers abroad who have not been affected by the storm and who are still more than willing to study gender in Norway, one of the most interesting places to do so internationally, given the social configurations of gender here.
On the good side, the stir has shown what Norwegian gender studies have actually achieved during their 50 years of existence:
First: Even if in the heat of the debates gender studies were also accused of being politically irrelevant, more critics mentioned the political influence our field has had. Even if in my opinion our political influence is overrated, there is no doubt that Norwegian gender equality policies have been research-based to a great extent. Research results have been applied, which happens to all research that is found useful by interested parties, whether they be hospitals, surgeries or churches. Socio-scientific gender research has particularly strived to be politically relevant.
It is not unique to Norway that governments want research that they can use. The Norwegian Research Council is in this respect a benign and altruist old aunt compared to, say, the British Research Councils with which I also have considerable experience. Finally, theorists of science agree that there is no such thing as value-neutral research even if the influence of values can be eliminated from certain stages of the research process.
Second: The debates reflect that we have managed to get across to the public that we no longer study just women, but women, men, and sexuality as well as the gendered social and cultural constraints that structure our ways of being in the world.
This means that “kjønnsforskning” can no longer be written off as something of interest to women only (it never was, still it was often been ignored with a reference along these lines). “Kjønnsforskning” concerns everyone who carries “kjønn”, sex and gender. That is everyone.
But herein also lies a new problem of which I think we are seeing the contours already: each one of us is nearest to their own “kjønn”. Will we end up in a situation where people (via the media) turn to doctors and gender researchers to tell them who they truly are, since identity is probably more than ever connected to body and sexuality? I hope not, but it is partly already happening. This will also easily lead to the co-option of gender research. I have written in a previous post that critique is the “sine qua non” of gender research, and once you end up in the popular priesthood it is easy to lose the critical edge.
Third: The question: “Why don’t you do more research in biology” is excellent in that it communicates a broad ownership of "kjønnsforskning”. Gender research is considered as so interdisciplinary that it is considered strange if we show no interest in a subject. It is no less than terrific that the public demands that we live up to our own standards. But the first commandment of interdisciplinarity is mutuality ...
During the gender debates, there is no doubt that many gender researchers felt that the general public did not understand what gender studies was all about, hence much of the criticism was perceived as highly unfair.
Sometimes discussants in very heated public debates first get constrained by the terms of the debate and then get carried away into directions that no one had foreseen. In my opinion this is what happened this time.
The terms of the debate were highly ideologically charged. This resulted in some rather black-and-white accusations, statements and slogans. Many of the accusations and statements built on a misconception of what “kjønnsforskning” (see first posting) is about. The critique seems to be grounded in the idea that the task of “kjønnsforskning” is to describe what “kjønn” (sex and gender, remember!) really is, and that all gender researchers deny the influence of biology on human “kjønn”. Even if both assumptions are wrong, they still constrained the debate.
Rather than accusing the public of misunderstanding what gender studies is about, one could also probably concede that gender researchers of the post-structuralist bent (myself included) have under-communicated one important aspect of their work.
Sine qua non?
Is there an approach, truth or theory that “kjønnsforskning” cannot manage without? It has become abundantly clear that the notion that gender is “not something you are but something you do” can only be one approach among many in “kjønnsforskning” – not least since “kjønn” is a wider term than “gender.”
Further: “Kjønnsforskning” is not about trying to define what “kjønn” is – at least not for the moment. That would mean that all research on sexed human bodies in the Faculty of Medicine and Natural Sciences would have to be transferred to the Centre for gender studies – which probably will not happen any time soon. And it is not even sure it would be a good idea.
It was stated by an evolutionary biologist that the Research Council’s gender studies programme does not sponsor evolutionary psychological or biological research into what gender is, but it does in theory sponsor research that criticises prevailing psychological or biological notions of what gender is. Within the terms set by the debate this made the Research Council’s programme look very odd. This from the outset sounds very strange.
Critique and criticism is the sine qua non of “kjønnsforskning”, in my opinion. The day when gender studies can no longer offer a critical corrective to the way sex and gender is represented in natural science, social science, humanities; when it is no longer able to critique the scholarly community at large for not living up to its own standards of transparency and accountability also in the area of gender, then in my opinion dedicated university research units for gender studies have become superfluous. But also in my opinion, it is a very long way there. only ends up as a confirmation of status quo, it has lost its legitimacy. Othewise one would have to define all research into men and women as gender studies, something we do not do today, and correctly so.
Centre for Gender Research at the University of Oslo found itself in the middle of the gender debates. Not only is it located only a stone’s throw away from the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, it is also currently the largest gender research centre in the Nordic countries.
Approximately one third of the current researchers at the centre arrived there from universities overseas. To explain to the non-Norwegian speakers what all the stir was about was no easy deal.
First, I had to explain to Americans, Italians, Brits and Germans what I tried to convey in my previous posting: that the sheer volume of their respective higher education AND media sectors means that something similar could never have happened in their homelands. Secondly, I needed to convey to them the terminological root of the problem: the Scandinavian term “kjønn”/”kön”. The Anglophone world have for the last 50 years operated with the dual concept of sex and gender: Sex refers to the biological “facts”, gender refers to the socio-cultural roles and characteristics associated with the different body and sexuality types. Thus most centres of gender studies in the Anglophone world do research on gender roles, identities and cultural representations. No one expects them to include those natural scientists who do research to find out what sex “is”, although many include medical researchers and biologists who analyse critically how cultural notions of gender influence the work that natural scientists do even on biological sex and reproduction. Epistemologically, such research is important in order to remove sexist assumptions in natural science research, and hence, contribute to its even greater objectivity.
The distinction between sex and gender has been criticised by the so-called “poststructuralists” (see later posting) for the last 20 years, but even so the distinction has proved itself so useful that it has been imported into German (where now in many cases the English term “Gender Studies” has taken over from the German “Geschlechterstudien”) and into other Scandinavian languages as “genus” as opposed to the inclusive “kön”/”kjønn”. This means that centres that call themselves centres of “genus studies” would never be met with the expectation that they should perform natural scientist research to find out what is sex.
One cannot easily distinguish between sex and gender – this has been the argument both from the poststructuralist side (Judith Butler) and from later critics (Toril Moi). In a Norwegian context the inclusive term “kjønn” has therefore been perceived as more accurate in that it grasps the totality of how a human being appears in the world – hence this term rather than “genus”/”gender” has been chosen to designate our research centres. However, recent debates have provided all the arguments against retaining the term “kjønn” as the label of the research going on at our centre.
In other words: what in Norwegian context was a bold and ambitious terminological choice, has come back to haunt the next generation of scholars.