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To me, equality means a world where feminism, or advocating for women's rights and sexual equality, has done its job. So as a Pakeha teenager from the South Island of Aotearoa, can I simply equal my male Pakeha counterparts in status and power?
But such simple definitions no longer cut it in a globalised world where power is contested along multiple fault lines. Different people have different desires, so what IS this thing called equality?
Not just balance, but a malleable, often intangible ideal that within the huge array of individual experiences and circumstances, everyone has equal rights to fulfil their potential and pursue their own ends.
Intersectional feminism, a term coined in 1989 by American civil rights activist Kimberley Williams Crenshaw, contributes to the herculean task of levelling the playing field. An intersectional analysis of prejudice shows, for example, that a gay black woman finds it harder to earn status than a straight white woman. Only by acknowledging these multiple layers can we solve inequality.
The media, predominantly owned by wealthy white men, fails to reflect diverse identities such as the LGBTQ+ community, the working class, and those from a non-white ethnic background. Instead of one-size-fits-all, intersectionality offers access to grassroots movements.
As American feminist Gloria Steinem writes, "Feminism has never been about getting a job for one woman. It's about making life fairer for women everywhere. It's not about a piece of the existing pie; there are too many of us for that. It's about baking a new pie.''
Take the gender pay gap, for example, a notoriously complex economic conundrum best scrutinised from an intersectional approach. In North America, unadjusted statistics for hours worked, occupations, education and job experience show that for every dollar earned by white men, white women earn 77c, African-American women 64c, and Hispanic women 56c.
But adjusted statistics show that women in the United States earn 80%-98% of the average male salary. Close enough? Not so, for why do occupations, education, and job experience result in loss of income for women and even greater deficits for women of colour?
Researchers blame expectations that women are primary caregivers. Child care can slow down careers as women take time off work, refuse promotions, work shorter hours, earn lower salaries and accrue less superannuation. Tackling the gender pay gap requires confronting restrictive stereotypes. And why do even adjusted statistics show deficits in women's salaries?
Subconscious bias also deters women from negotiating higher salaries or applying for promotion. So does sexual harassment in the workplace, for in 2003, a study found that roughly 75% of women who reported it faced retaliation. Sexual harassment has harmful psychological consequences, and hurts the prospects of women's careers.
Women of colour are especially underpaid. In 2018, actress Jessica Chastain made headlines by revealing that she earned less than her male co-stars but considerably more than her African American co-star, Octavia Spencer: "When I discovered that, I realised that I could tie her deal to mine to bring up her quote. Men should start doing this with their female co-stars.''
Spencer replied, "Fast forward to last week, we're making five times what we asked for.''
Now, "I want to go to what the men are making, but right now it feels really good just to be in that conversation.'' Governments can exacerbate rather than mend the staggering craters in the social fabric. In Northern Ireland and some American states, for instance, women can be charged with murder for seeking an abortion, even in harrowing circumstances such as the rape of an 11-year-old.
When those who make the laws are not subject to them, the idea of equality being already achieved is clearly false. Conservative American states recently introduced legislation in direct conflict with Roe v Wade, the US Supreme Court's 1973 landmark decision protecting a woman's right to choose an abortion.
In Alabama, where women make up 51% of the population but only 15% of the legislature, every lawmaker who voted for the country's most restrictive abortion Bill, even for rape, incest or extremes of age, was a white male Republican.
Given the absurdity that those who can never be pregnant are actually policing pregnancy, many call the Bill a direct assault on women's liberty. Over the last hundred years, grassroots movements have made progress towards greater equality. But intersectionality, instead of providing one-dimensional solutions to complex problems, enables responses to individual experiences.
So, what is equality? Equality may seem ephemeral, even a lost cause, but possibilities for re-definition are limitless. As Steinem says, "We need to remember across generations that there is as much to learn as there is to teach.''
Through collective action and awareness of these complex struggles, true social equality can and will be achieved.