Melanie Heyworth

The trouble with feminism: Equality versus equity

Approx Reading Time-11Feminism still a contentious political issue, with many not associating with the term. In our quest to be equal, have we sought to become the same?


In the last week or so, feminism has announced itself as an issue on the campaign trail. In contrast to the vigour in which Malcolm Turnbull declared himself a feminist, Anthony Albanese prevaricated over whether he would adopt the term for himself. Albanese’s response indicated a certain unease with being a man and a feminist, although he apportioned blame for that unease on his generation. But Albanese’s feminist reserve is not a new phenomenon: a few years ago, in a National Press Club address, Julie Bishop not only distanced herself from feminism but called into question the usefulness of the feminist label “these days”. Earlier this year on the ABC’s Q&A, Michaelia Cash (Minister for Employment and Women) insisted that, although she is an impassioned advocate for gender equality, she is not a feminist, and she defended her right to refrain from labelling herself as such. Mia Freedman (of Mamamia, who was also on the Q&A panel) berated Cash for this position, which she located in Cash’s reticence to be associated with the perception (rather than ideologies) of feminism.

So what is the trouble with feminism?

It seems to me that as a society we have discarded the clearly outdated perception of the stereotypical, ball-bashing, Greer-esque, bra-burning “feminist”, as witnessed by the 16-year-old male and self-professed feminist, Luc Velez, who questioned Albanese’s alliance to feminism. So, perhaps the time has come to ask ourselves whether the problem with feminism really lies in its “image problem”, or if we should look beyond the superficial to the ideology itself. By rejecting feminism are we really implying that “our work is done” (as Freedman put it), or are we engaging in a process of re-defining the parameters of that work, reinventing a progressive and socially responsible gender ideology, and trying to nuance its precepts to reflect the diverse subtleties of contemporary society?

Freedman defined the feminist mission as the “political, social, and economic equality of the sexes” on that Q&A episode. But maybe that’s the issue: in today’s world, we are beginning to understand that equality is not enough and that equity must underpin equality for the latter to be truly fair. Equality demands that everyone has the right to be treated the same; equity demands that everyone has the right to access what they need to achieve that equality. If feminism is defined as the work to ensure gender equality, what social theory works to ensure gender equity? Equality comes with connotations of sameness, of homogeneity; equity is about accepting differences, acknowledging that different people need different things to be successful, and recognising that we all start from somewhere different.

Let’s consider biology. Only women can be pregnant. Ignoring every other aspect of childrearing, we women start from a fundamentally different place from men because we alone can take responsibility for the gestation of children. Gender equality advocates women’s rights not to be discriminated against because they are pregnant (or are of childbearing age and disposition). Gender equality has resulted in maternity leave provisions, which (in theory) begin to address the financial discrimination that can occur because women alone can bear children. But gender equity requires that we acknowledge that “fairness” is not just about mimicking men’s rights (to jobs and pay). When we address the needs of pregnant women, we must be flexible and recognise that these women are different to their male counterparts, and need additional and different supports to succeed. And that’s okay. Gender equality does not necessarily ensure fairness or equal results: trying to treat everyone the same often leads to inequality because we are not all the same.

Gender equity offers us a way to address the contemporary reality that gender identity is a fluid, indefinite category and experience that can exist beyond and outside a binary biological distinction. Just as importantly, gender equity acknowledges that socioeconomic, cultural, religious and educational factors mean that not all women start from the same place, or need or want the same things. Compare, for instance, the stay-at-home mother of three who relies on her husband’s income to sustain her family, to the single mother who works full-time to support her family. Feminism says that those two women should have the same rights and opportunities as each other, and as should men. And don’t get me wrong, I wholeheartedly agree with that principle. But gender equity says that these women will need different things to access their rights, and that their demonstration of those rights may look vastly different in the practice of their day-to-day lives. Gender equity appreciates that diversity.

And perhaps it is the homogenising effect of equality that afflicts feminism. Women of my generation didn’t have to work particularly hard for the rights we are currently afforded. We are thankful for how far we have come, but (although we know that there is further to go) we are often enveloped in a malaise of apathy. Is that because we resent feminism, even if just a little? It was feminism that gave us the ostensible “gift” of the “we-can-have-it-all” phenomenon. But for some women, the “gift” of “having-it-all” has morphed into a feminist expectation. We can now have it all (or try to), but if we don’t want it all, we shoulder a generous dose of guilt: since generations of women before us have fought for our right to have it all, shouldn’t we take full advantage of that? That is, with its fervent insistence on equality – on sameness – feminism has normalised the feminine experience, has predetermined the feminine voice and has regulated feminine aspirations.

I suppose, then, that the trouble with feminism is equality. We are all equal, but we should not aspire to all be the same. I want equity between the sexes; I want equity between women from diverse cultural, religious and socio-economic backgrounds; I want to embrace heterogeneity and gender diversity. If gender equity is the mission, the goal and the aspiration of feminism, then maybe we can entice more people – men and women alike – to engage with it and to wear its cloak. And just maybe we can temper that negative perception that makes the Cashes and Bishops of this world refuse the label.


Melanie Heyworth

In a former life, Mel was a medievalist, a traveller, and an early career academic. Now, with three young neurodiverse boys to keep her busy, she is a (seemingly perpetual) student, a freelance writer, an autism advocate, and a passionate champion of equity, diversity, neurodiversity and inclusivity.

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  1. John Smith said:

    I don’t think queer theory has focused more on sexuality. I do take your other points though, I came here to say some of these things.

    To be direct, though, the above piece is gender essentialist and as such is transphobic. No, not only women can give birth and framing things in this way is unhelpful for numerous reasons.

  2. Andrew McGuiness said:

    The push for equity, as outlined in Melanie Heyworth’s article, looks like a move to make explicit the gender essentialism which is implicit in 3rd wave feminism writing. The example given is of pregnancy and child-bearing; and we could add breastfeeding, height requirements for enlistment in the military, and some other things. Apart from these physiological differences between the sexes, what differences would an emphasis on equity address, and how would it address them? The article doesn’t say but there have, for instance, been calls for additional superannuation for women to address the gender difference in returns at retirement. Attempting to engineer equity in this way would likely cement existing non-physiological gender differences, in that it would act as a financial disincentive for fathers to become the primary or equal carer while the mother became the primary or equal breadwinner.

    What I would like to see, what would strike me as being a leap forward, would be for feminism to aim at deconstructing gender more carefully, and in more detail. How is gender as a binary opposition constructed, first in childhood, then in terms of treatment of different genders as adults? How do individuals’ expectations interact with the actual behaviour of others to produce gendered perceptions, emotions, and choices? Queer theory has done some of this, but focuses rather more on sexuality (and it’s difficult to be gain acceptance as ‘heterosexual queer’).

  3. Bronte O'Brien said:

    Thanks for the article! I’m just wondering if the distinction between equality and equity is discussed in critical theory as I’ve never come across this idea before. I’m rather familiar with difference feminism, and wondering if that’s the angle you’re taking, and if so whether difference feminism has advocated for this distinction. Would love to read more about this if you have any sources I can read.

    Also wondering if the idea that everyone has always hated feminism and feminists is part of your position. From what I know people have indeed always hated feminism and feminists and it is only after a few generations that ideas about (crudely) “women shouldn’t have the vote” or “women shouldn’t wear pants” or “women shouldn’t work” disappear. I don’t think any of this reluctance to identify as a feminist is a new phenomenon, and wondering if you agree.

    🙂 Bronte

  4. Bronte O'Brien said:

    Oh Bette, you always know exactly what to say. Thank you.

  5. Bette said:

    I thoroughly agree with article, but worth noting that Mia Freedman didn’t come up with the line ‘political, social and economic equality of the sexes’ as defining feminism. It is a comment from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and was sampled in Flawless by Beyoncé. I hope Mia can refer to deeper references in the future when advocating feminism.

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