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Will Gender Equality Be Achieved?

A Survey of Young Adult Perspectives

Over the past several decades, women have made strides toward equality in the secular world as well as the church. While some claim these changes have happened too quickly and mourn what they see as the loss of tradition, others believe they have been too long in coming and lament that we still have so far to go. While studying certain aspects of the debate, we—this article’s authors—began to craft a research project: Cameron posed a question while a student in Susan’s Gender Studies course, a question which has focused our attention on a related but unexplored aspect of the gender equality struggle. Here is what happened.

Susan had asked students to submit two questions for the opposite sex—anything they had always wanted to know but had never asked—which they would like answered by their peers in class. Susan read each question aloud (without the questioner’s name) and had the men answer the women’s questions and the women answer the men’s, as they felt comfortable doing so. The usual questions and answers Susan had seen in past semesters emerged:

Women: Do you guys ever cry?

Men: Sometimes, but hardly ever in public.

Men: Do you want guys to hold the door open for you?

Women: Yeah, but I don’t get mad if he doesn’t.

However, the question Cameron submitted was one she had not seen before: “Do you believe women will ever reach equality with men?” Without any encouragement each woman in unison shook her head and said “no.” While most of the women in class said they wanted equality, none of them could see it happening, at least not in their lifetime.

Over the next several months, we kept returning to this question and the unanimous response it elicited. We also thought of follow-up questions that, if asked, might have provided a more complete understanding of the students’ positions on this topic. For instance, Why did they not consider equality attainable? Did they foresee it happening in any areas of life? What did they mean by the term “equality”?

Therefore, in an attempt to explore the unasked and unanswered questions from this experience, we designed and implemented the present study. In this article, we explore what young adults in general believe about the realization of gender equality, including where they believe it exists and what they see as obstacles to its realization. In exploring the perspective of college students, we get a glimpse of the mindset of this primarily Christian sample as they begin their adult lives as men and women in today’s world.

Method

Participants

Participants were current and former students of Campbellsville University (a small university with a Baptist heritage, located in rural Kentucky) who volunteered at the request of the two researchers. Students from General Psychology classes (45%), current Gender Studies students (25%), and those who had taken Gender Studies at some point within the past twenty years (30%) made up the sample of seventy-three participants. Ages ranged from eighteen to fifty-five with the majority (86%) being traditional college age and in their first or second year of study (52%). The sample was comprised of more females (69%) than males (31%) and was predominantly Caucasian (84%). While a variety of academic disciplines were represented, students majoring in one of the social sciences (e.g., psychology, sociology) comprised 49% of this sample with a sizeable number coming from the natural sciences (22%). Most students (77%) claimed being at least somewhat active in their religious group, while 48% identified themselves as Baptist.

Instrument and Procedure

Participants were asked to complete a questionnaire which was created for the present study. After eliciting demographic information, the questionnaire asked, “Do you believe that gender equality will be achieved?” Depending on answers to this question (Yes, No, or I believe we have gender equality now), participants were given one of three different question sets to help them elaborate on their position. (See Table 1 for the three sets of questions.) In addition, several students were asked for interviews to elaborate on their responses.

Results

Each secondary questionnaire began with the prompt: “What do you mean by the term gender equality?” This open-ended question allowed participants to provide as many definitions of the term as they wished. Participants primarily defined it as equality in treatment (47%), opportunities (26%), expectations (21%), equality in the work place (16%), and being valued and respected equally (10%). Only women responded that equality meant to have equal value and respect. Those who had taken a Gender Studies course more often expressed equal expectations for each gender as a component of their definition.1 No differences in definitions were found between those who did or did not expect equality to be achieved.

To determine whether participants understood the meaning of “feminism” and “egalitarianism,” they were asked for descriptions of the terms which we then categorized as accurate or inaccurate. We counted as accurate any definition of feminism that alluded to the advocacy of equal rights for women and men. Definitions of egalitarianism were counted accurate if they defined it similarly or broadened the definition to include equal treatment across racial, political, or economic lines. They were also asked their feelings about each, which we categorized as positive, negative, or neutral.

Of the 73 participants, 49% provided an accurate definition of feminism, with 40% providing an accurate definition of egalitarianism. A chi square test revealed that upper division students and graduates were more accurate in their definitions of feminism and egalitarianism.2 Those who had taken, or were presently taking, Gender Studies were more accurate in their descriptions of these terms.3 Students from the social sciences were more aware of the meaning of feminism and egalitarianism than those from other disciplines.4

Positive feelings were held toward feminism by 34% of the sample; 16% held negative feelings; 18%, neutral. A sizeable number of participants (32%) did not indicate an emotional response to the term. Feelings toward egalitarianism were positive for 32% of the sample, with 8% and 15% being negative or neutral respectively. Forty-five percent of participants did not indicate having an emotional response to the term. Social science students had more positive feelings about feminism and egalitarianism than did students in other disciplines.5 Those who had taken Gender Studies had more positive feelings toward feminism as well as egalitarianism.6

Forty-four percent of the total sample reported that they did indeed expect for gender equality to be achieved. Of those 32 participants, 30% predicted that it would happen within the next 5–10 years; 33%, over the next several decades. In answer to why they believed it would be achieved, progress that has already been made (38%) and education (19%) were the most prevalent responses. While they did not see equality thus far in work and pay (53%), politics and government (31%), sports (25%), or religion (16%), they maintained that equality would eventually come about through effort (34%) and education (28%). A sizeable minority (19%), however, seemed to believe it would happen spontaneously.

Of those who believed equality would be achieved, 25% identified sports as an area in which it had not yet happened,7 all of whom were first year students, 18–20 years of age, and primarily majoring in the natural sciences. Those who had taken Gender Studies at some point were more hopeful that education would be instrumental in bringing about equality.8 Of those who believed some type of effort would be required, more were female than male.9

Forty-six percent of the total sample reported that they did not expect gender equality to become a reality. Those 34 participants reported the following obstacles: gendered expectations (44%), the lack of education or awareness (26%), the need to think differently (26%), attitude (24%), and the belief some have of male superiority (21%). Those majoring in one of the social sciences or the humanities were more likely to identify the need to think differently as an obstacle.10 Those who had or were currently taking Gender Studies were more likely to report gendered expectations as an obstacle11 but less likely to identify the belief some have in male superiority as a hindrance.12

A few participants (7 total; 10% of the total sample) responded that equality has already been achieved. Due to the small number, meaningful correlations were not found for this subsample.

Discussion

This study was conducted to explore college students’ beliefs about gender equality. Specifically, we wanted to know how they define gender equality, if they believe it would ever be achieved, where they see it already happening, and what they see as obstacles to its achievement.

Definitions for equality centered on men and women being treated equally, enjoying the same opportunities, and being held to the same expectations. The fact that Gender Studies students and former students were more inclined to identify equal expectations in their definitions was likely due to the course’s extensive coverage of the many subtle expectations we hold of which we are often unaware. The fact that only women mentioned equal value and respect in their definitions might indicate that women are sensing an underlying attitude in society that is going unnoticed among men. Regardless of the overt expectations, treatment, and opportunities, a basic lack of valuing and respect contributes to feelings of inequality.

The terms “feminism” and “egalitarianism” were misunderstood among the first year participants in this sample. Upper-division students and those who had graduated had more accurate and positive feelings about these terms, many of whom had taken Gender Studies. In fact, one of the first Gender Studies class sessions is devoted to correcting student assumptions regarding these terms. Feminism as “man-hating” or “the belief in women ruling men” is a common misperception prior to students reading an assigned article and participating in a class discussion on the topic. After reading and discussion, even the more traditional students comment on having held an inaccurate understanding of the term “feminism.” They often go on to agree that feminism at its core is reasonable and can be embraced by Christians without the “man-hating” baggage often associated with the term. Similarly, the term egalitarian is generally not in the vocabulary of these students until they take Gender Studies and read the assigned CBE literature, which presents it in an accurate and positive light.

Overall this sample was evenly divided on whether they saw gender equality as a future reality. The fact that those expecting equality to happen within the next 5–10 years were first year students majoring in the natural sciences who had not taken Gender Studies suggests that very young adults who have yet to become educated on issues of gender hold great optimism regarding the ease with which it will happen. Education on gender issues increases awareness of the pervasiveness and complicated nature of gender injustice and the difficulty in finding solutions. Even with hope that equality would happen, participants in this subsample were not blind to several areas of inequality which still exist. They readily cited the workforce, government and military, sports, and religion as arenas still perpetuating gender inequality. The fact that only first year students identified sports as a continuing area of inequality might indicate that this is one area where they themselves have experienced discrimination, as opposed to, for instance, the workforce or parenting. If so, this highlights the power of personal experience in increasing our awareness of social problems.

Yet these participants cited progress that has already taken place (e.g., decrease in racial injustice, women running for office) as one reason for their hope that equality will eventually come to pass. They also identified education as important in effecting the change needed. Those who had taken Gender Studies were especially inclined to cite education as one component of the solution, likely because education had effectively prompted a change in their own beliefs. Beyond education, students saw other efforts as important contributors: raising children with healthier gender norms, the involvement of strong minded people and prominent female role models, the enactment of laws, and the promotion of healthier media representation. The fact that women were more likely than men to identify the effort required is understandable given the more personal nature of the struggle for women.

While many looked toward education and effort as solutions, a sizeable minority seemed to expect change to happen without anything in particular being done. Responses such as “society will just change over time” or “sexist people will have to change their ways” indicate that some of these students are expecting change to come about almost magically without realizing the struggle and sacrifices required for change to occur.

Among those not expecting equality to become a reality, obstacles cited were gendered expectations, a lack of education or awareness, the need to think differently, attitude, and the belief by some in male superiority. Social science majors more often identified the need to think differently as an obstacle, which is likely due to the emphasis in these disciplines on social interaction, the value of diversity, and the importance of critical thinking in correcting social injustice. The fact that those from a Gender Studies background were more likely to see gendered expectations as posing an obstacle likely stems from the course’s emphasis on rethinking expectations we hold for men and women and the pervasive and insidious nature of those expectations. Likewise, the fact that they were less likely to identify the belief of some in male superiority as an obstacle might stem from the emphasis in Gender Studies on moving beyond a simplistic idea of men oppressing women toward a broader conceptualization of inequality as a product of society.

While this study provides a solid first step in exploring the views of these students, several limitations exist. In an effort not to unduly influence participant responses, questions on the survey were open-ended. While this elicited their most immediate thoughts, a more structured questionnaire would provide a more thorough assessment of student opinions. For instance, a listing of factors (e.g., media, religion) which they do or do not consider obstacles to equality might draw out opinions that would not come to mind otherwise. Therefore, future research might benefit from the use of a more thorough questionnaire. A larger more diverse sample would be of value as well. While participants in this study represented a variety of racial and religious backgrounds, the homogeneity found in a small Baptist university limits the degree to which these results can be generalized.

Conclusion

For those of us who are working toward gender equality, findings from this study offer several points of encouragement.

First, education matters. The fact that those who had taken a Gender Studies course were less optimistic regarding equality happening in the near future, yet were hopeful that education would make a difference, attests to the value of education. I (Susan) am gratified that my students are aware of the magnitude of the task before us and that they see education as key to changing the mindset of our society. However, in addition to having taken a course, they also have been exposed to a substantial amount of CBE material such as Mutuality, Priscilla Papers, and Arise, CBE’s weekly e-newsletter, which seems to have opened their eyes to injustice and the need for change. Education made a difference in their perspective.

Second, the effect of education is occurring within a relatively short amount of time. This cross-sectional study of students at different points in the academic career indicates that between their first and last years of study, they are learning a more accurate perspective from which to enter the workforce, family life, and churches as informed adults. While it takes a tremendous amount of time to change society as a whole, change can be effected in a few eager-to-learn students more quickly. A course of study and insightful reading material is evidently working in powerful ways.

And finally, personal experience is important. From the first year students who saw inequality in sports to the women who saw the effort required to make change, we see that personal experience is an effective teacher for injustice and the need for change. Finding ways to help others connect injustice to their own experience can make our efforts more effective with the students we teach, the congregations in which we lead, or the readers for whom we write.

Notes

  1. Cramer’s V (2, n=32) =.486, p
  2. Feminism: Pearson X2 (2, N=73) p
  3. Pearson X2 (2, N=73) p
  4. Feminism: Cramer’s V (5, N=68) = .631, p
  5. Feminism: Cramer’s V (15, N=68) = .376, p
  6. Feminism: Cramer’s V (6, N=73) = .376, p
  7. Cramer’s V (4, n=29) = .655, p
  8. Cramer’s V (2, n=32) = .507, p
  9. Contingency Coefficient (1, n=32) = .360, p
  10. Cramer’s V (4, n=33) = .551, p
  11. Cramer’s V (2, n=34) = .430, p
  12. Cramer’s V (2, n=34) = .433, p

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